Ridicule can be politically deadly, as former chief government whip Joel Fitzgibbon knows full well. His morning TV “joke” yesterday was another spectacular sign of how discipline within Labor has collapsed.
Responding to a question about the latest poll disaster – Newspoll has Labor on 30 per cent primary and 42 per cent two party-preferred and the prime minister trailing Tony Abbott by eight points as better PM – Fitzgibbon sent up the 'talking points' the government issues to MPs to try to have everyone stick to the day’s script.
“Hang on Kochie, I just brought the manual with me”, he said, holding up his papers. “I’ll see what it says. It says I should say, ‘polls come and go, but the only poll that matters is on election day’."
Bullseye. The TV news ran his barb together with a grab from a Labor colleague on the parliamentary 'doors' faithfully parroting the official line.
Many caucus members are rejecting the 'spin' the government pitches even at its own, albeit less spectacularly than Fitzgibbon, who’s a Rudd loyalist.
Senator Doug Cameron (another Rudd man) said caucus had been told there would be “a J-curve” after every major issue. “That J-curve hasn’t come. So we have to be realistic. This is a huge challenge for the Labor Party. It’s a huge challenge for individual members in their seats,” he told reporters.
If Newspoll’s 8 per cent swing was repeated uniformly at an election, Labor would lose some 35 seats, among them those of ministers Wayne Swan and Craig Emerson in Queensland, Stephen Smith and Gary Gray In Western Australia, and Peter Garrett and David Bradbury in NSW.
A separate poll in the Herald Sun yesterday suggested Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus, on more than 10 per cent in the Victorian seat of Isaacs, would lose – the swing was above 15 per cent. Just to add to the misery, Fairfax Media said a Labor internal analysis (based on very limited polling in Swan’s seat of Lilley) pointed to a dire scenario in Queensland.
Most caucus members are not bothering to pretend – they know they are facing disaster.
In parliament Gillard had to deny a report that Foreign Minister Bob Carr had asked her to quit her job for the good of the party.
(She said it was “entirely untrue”.)
The Rudd forces, their opportunity lost, are sulky and bolshie. The leadership battle is over, but it still infuses everything, with people on both sides of the divide also having an eye to how things will be seen in the post-election war over the party’s future.
Caught in a maze from which it can find no escape, Labor now finds itself struggling with problems even in the core policies on which it has been relying.
Rounding up the states for the Gonski school funding, on which legislation was introduced yesterday, is proving a nightmare. The asbestos controversy has hit the NBN, Labor’s centrepiece infrastructure project.
There is also sniping about policy. With Immigration Minister Brendan O'Connor trying to flog the 457 visa issue, former minister Simon Crean said this week that the unions should produce evidence of the rorts being claimed, only to get a backhander from Cameron for allegedly ignoring the unions' problems of getting access to information.
At yesterday's caucus Kevin Rudd and Martin Ferguson (who stood down from the ministry after the leadership fiasco and will leave parliament at the election) both asked for facts and figures relating to 457s.
Also in caucus Laurie Ferguson, one of Gillard’s loyalists, exhorted her to get out and defend the government’s performance on the boats issue, warning if more wasn’t done Labor was “dead” in western Sydney.
Ferguson said that the voters concerned about this issue were not the stereotype of a 70-year-old racist. People across ethnic groups raised it. Labor was vacating the field. “This is very, very central to our prospects in western Sydney.” He then went out and made his points in several interviews.
Even the PM’s pitch on “misogyny” is being undermined, thanks to the preselection contest for Martin Ferguson’s seat of Batman.
Senior female cabinet ministers Jenny Macklin and Penny Wong, supporting woman candidate Mary-Anne Thomas, are at odds with Gillard. She’s backing David Feeney, who wants the seat because he wouldn’t survive in third place on the Senate ticket.
Feeney just happens to be one of the factional blokes who organised Gillard’s 2010 coup.
And so the compromised start of Gillard’s prime ministership is compromising the end of it.
Michelle Grattan is a professorial fellow at University of Canberra.
Michelle Grattan does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.