Gillard's crumbling chess game

The Prime Minister's action on Craig Thomson and Peter Slipper was crucial, but despite the decisive move, she still faces a long, cold winter of rotting polls and insider attacks.

Finally, Julia Gillard has acted to try and halt the crumbling edifice.

She made a big call on Craig Thomson and Peter Slipper yesterday – but, politically, it was the only choice.

Thomson is banned from the ALP caucus and will sit as an independent MP. Slipper will not return to his high post in the House until all – that is, civil and criminal – matters are dealt with.

Gillard made the phone calls and took the decision alone, as prime minister. There was no cabinet or consultation with ministers. There was no inkling from the nation’s media.

For months the excruciating Thomson saga has hung like an albatross around Gillard’s neck. It dominated the media and dogged the government’s every step. It had no clear air to sell any public policy.

Then along came the salacious allegations about Slipper. Right or wrong, the issue for Gillard and the government was the standing of the governing party’s toxic brand.

Yes, Slipper and Thomson are supposed to be presumed innocent. But that’s not the way modern politics works.

The baying and shrieking from the press gallery, shock jocks, and opposition politicians (just doing their jobs) left a huge and moving picture of scandal, chaos and a dysfunctional meek government.

Gillard said yesterday she believed "a line had been crossed” about the reputation of the parliament, and despite the message it may send about "innocence” she had made the judgement call.

All this comes at a precarious time for the Gillard government.

It is under constant attack. Public policy takes a distant second or third place to scandal, vitriol, petty name calling and raw politics. The shrinking polls reflect public response.

Gillard’s leadership has been questioned from within and outside her party. Embittered and relevance-deprived ex-politicians are even openly talking about time frames for the next leadership challenge.

The 2012 surplus budget was supposed to be the big circuit breaker. In the environment of the past few weeks that was a forlorn dream.

Tony Abbott had laid out the groundwork, neatly. The real issue, voters, is the stench surrounding this incompetent, disgraceful scandal-mired, bungling, inept and wasteful government. The prime minister no longer has the trust of the Australian people – and must call an election now.

Even an American media mogul was on the act – tweeting a few days ago that Australia desperately needs a fresh start and an election.

Where to from here?

I’ve long thought that Gillard would soldier on and that the ALP would be crazy to contemplate change. But political parties of any hue regularly face the 'whatever it takes' decision to win or avoid catastrophe. In fact, that’s why Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott are in their current jobs – it was a decision made in the back rooms for the back rooms.

Because of events and happenstance, that hour of decision – despite the prime minister's hard-nosed intervention – is again coalescing around the battered party that runs our nation’s government.

Of course, no-one is certain how all this stuff will play out. Thomson will support the government in any motion against it. He remains "a Labor man” and again declares his innocence, and hopes to return. Slipper will not vote.

What we do know is that the political temperature is set to rise further as the crumbling polls set in for a long cold winter, and those strident and shouted and almost breathless shrieks from the pundits and insiders will intensify.

There will be fevered debate about numbers, 'no confidence' motions and rumours. It’s simply the way the game is played nowadays.

It would be a fair call to say that even the flint-edged cold case crew from the BBC’s Waking the Dead drama would be troubled to resurrect the quivering body. Gillard has taken a step – but where it leads: stand by.

Alister Drysdale is a Business Spectator commentator and a former senior advisor to Malcolm Fraser and Jeff Kennett.


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