Closing the book on Gillard's endurance

It seems Julia Gillard was right that the carbon tax would never fell Labor as a competitive force at the next election. Maxine McKew’s book will do little to change this.

Timing is everything. Had Maxine McKew’s book Tales from the Political Trenches been released just four months ago when the government’s primary vote was around 30 per cent in the opinion polls and there was a consensus amongst the leaders of the Canberra press gallery that Julia Gillard was inevitably leading Labor to a wipeout at the next election, the book’s impact would have been significant.

Indeed, had the book been released ahead of Rudd’s challenge to Gillard back in February, chances are that it would have delivered Rudd a much better result – if not a victory – in the Caucus ballot.

This is because of her view of Gillard as a disloyal deputy to Rudd who basically lied about her involvement with the plotters who organised Rudd’s prime ministerial demise. This would have played into Tony Abbott’s relentless attack on Gillard as an untrustworthy and lying politician prepared to do anything to win power and maintain it.

That line of attack by Abbott is no longer as potent as it once was for several reasons. There’s Gillard’s resilience and ability to hold her nerve in the darkest of political times and most importantly, as time passed, Abbott’s line that this was somehow an illegitimate government and an illegitimate prime minister became wearisome.

At some point, it became clear to most people – but not, it seems, Tony Abbott – that this minority government would not collapse – Craig Thomson and Peter Slipper notwithstanding – and would most likely go a full term. What’s more, it was hard to argue Gillard’s illegitimacy when the Caucus overwhelmingly endorsed her leadership in February.

Then there’s the issue of Gillard’s 'big lie’, the one on which Abbott mounted the argument that Gillard could not be trusted to lie straight in bed; her commitment during the 2010 campaign not to introduce a carbon tax.

Put bluntly, it seems Gillard was right: once the tax was introduced and the sky didn’t fall in as Abbott claimed it would, the government would start to recover in the polls and Abbott would be exposed as a political Chicken Little. And her 'lie’ about the carbon tax in 2010 would become less and less an issue in the minds of many Australians.

The fact is that virtually the whole Canberra press gallery thought Gillard, at best, was indulging in wishful thinking. In the gallery’s collective view, there was no way, with her leadership, that the government could become even competitive in time for the next election. Some gallery veterans, including the usually restrained Michelle Grattan suggested it was time for Gillard to go.

Tony Abbott is now confronted with the challenges of an opposition leader who has been the alternative prime minister for more than three years, a long time in Australian politics. In the lead-up year to the election, Abbott needs more than just the mantra of 'stop the boats, repeal the carbon tax and get rid of this shameful government and lying prime minister'. He might yet win government with this mantra – and that is likely – but he is not the certainty he was six months ago.

Just as Gillard’s longevity in the job enhances the government’s chances of being re-elected, Abbott’s long stretch as opposition leader diminishes his chances of leading the Coalition to the next election unless he reinvents himself as a politician of substance and vision.

What about Kevin Rudd, who almost as much as Julia Gillard – and Tony Abbott – has been able to determine the standing of the government? In living memory, there has never been a political figure quite like Kevin Rudd. He is a former prime minister who was deposed in the government’s first term. He lost his job without a vote in Caucus; he would have mustered only a handful of votes.

He stayed on in parliament and played a significant role in the 2010 election campaign. Some would argue that he cost Labor an outright election victory. He stayed on, serving in the Gillard cabinet as foreign minister. Rudd resigned as foreign minister to challenge Gillard for the leadership in February. He garnered support from only a third of the Caucus.

He stayed on. And now, even as his chances of winning back the prime ministership – which surely must be his fiercest, most self-defining dream – recede, Kevin Rudd, in the wake of McKew’s book, wants an honest accounting about what happened in June 2010.

Presumably that accounting would involve Gillard admitting that she was a disloyal deputy who was involved in the plotting to depose him. He reckons such an accounting would allow the government to move on to the big policy challenges of the future.

It is a rhetorical question to ask whether Rudd really believes this stuff. Perhaps Maxine McKew believes it. She certainly argues that Rudd, despite everything that has happened in the past two years, should be returned to a major role in the government, presumably in the Cabinet, at Gillard’s side, with them working together for the re-election of the government. Really.

Maxine McKew was an outstanding journalist, admired and respected, a role model for many young journalists and not just young women. Her political career should not diminish her achievements in journalism, just as Peter Garrett’s political career should not diminish his work with Midnight Oil and as a leader of the environmental movement.

We must hope so. The highpoint of McKew’s political career was her defeat of John Howard in the seat of Bennelong in the 2007 election. She then disappeared more or less without trace. That is until the Gillard challenge to Rudd, when striding towards the Caucus room in parliament on that June day in 2010, there was McKew at the doomed prime minister’s side, an apparently comforting and loyal presence.

Her book is unlikely to have any real impact on Gillard’s future – or Rudd’s for that matter.

No doubt some time in the future, McKew’s book will be picked over by historians writing this chapter in Australian history in which Kevin Rudd will be a major figure, his rise and fall will be perhaps be seen as a sort of Greek tragedy, a man of many talents brought down by narcissism.

Then again, in Greek tragedy, the fallen hero does not rise again. Rudd has stayed on and is staying on. Perhaps the Kevin Rudd chapter of history will not be a tragedy at all.