Labor must now look to second prize

If Julia Gillard prevails on Monday, Labor will have the chance to become the kind of Opposition Australia deserves. The alternative injury may be too severe for the party to survive.

Any talk of Labor winning the next election must, at this point, be suspended. There is a very valuable second prize that Labor MPs must now fix their eyes upon – the preservation of their party's position within Australia's rather dull two-party-dominated political structure.

It's a wonderful kind of 'dull' that's at stake. The current success of the Greens notwithstanding, it's the kind of boringly predictable political system that Greece hasn't had in the modern era and that has lead that nation to the brink of collapse.

Labor's second prize is pivotal to the kinds of governments Australia will get from here on in.

While it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that Prime Minister Gillard could go on to rebuild Labor's fortunes if she wins Monday's caucus ballot, it's a possibility too slight to be the foundation of a future political strategy.

Rudd, though almost certain to lose Monday's vote, could in theory win a 2013 poll – that is the conclusion many will draw following new Newspoll Nielsen and Galaxy opinion polls published in today's papers, showing overwhelming support for Rudd amongst voters.

However, if Rudd did romp home, his victory would be quintessentially pyhrric. Indeed, there are spooky parallels to be found in the story of the original King Pyhrrus, when, according to historian Plutarch, "...he had lost a great part of the forces he brought with him, and almost all his particular friends and principal commanders".

If Rudd won the ballot and even the next general election, his 'particular friends and principal commanders' would be lost to him - either relegated to the backbench by a vengeful PM, or choosing to stay off his front bench out of personal animosity and mistrust.

The anti-Rudd tirades this week from some of Labor's biggest hitters – Craig Emerson, Tony Burke, Stephen Conroy, Nicola Roxon and Simon Crean – show the level of dysfunction that would exist in a Rudd government.

As I wrote on Friday, Rudd's grasp of the reality of the situation is verging on the delusional (Rudd's democratic pitch valiant but desperate, February 24). Whether he really believes the sentiments expressed in his Friday press conference is a moot point, but his words suggest a megalomaniacal belief in his right to connect directly with 'the Australian people', completely circumventing the principles and structures of representative democracy.

For the good of the nation, Gillard must prevail on Monday. If she does, the second-prize on offer is this: she has the opportunity to go on to lose the 2013 election without a full-scale rout of Labor seats. She, or her successor after the poll, would have a chance to be the kind of Opposition Australia deserves – and hold Tony Abbott's still-wobbly policy platform "ferociously to account", as Abbott himself might put it.

If that sounds like a prize not worth having, consider the alternatives.

While all opinion polls suggest Rudd is much more popular with voters than Gillard, there is a grave danger of Labor tearing itself to shreds under Rudd before a 2013 poll. As other commentators have pointed out, the litany of crimes read out by Labor front benchers this week gives Tony Abbott a ready made campaign against Rudd that could, aided by Labor's continued in-fighting, lead to a genuine wipeout at the next election.

To understand what that would mean for the party, it's important to remember that for every marginal MP that loses his or her seat, there is an immediate staff of, say, five people – more in the top echelons – plus fundraising and campaigning networks that would unravel after a true electoral rout. A giant network of salaried Labor faithful, and the unpaid networks they service, would just cease to exist. A generation of Labor operatives would have to find different careers. Party elders worry that is too severe an injury for the ALP to survive.

Yes, it could go the other way under Rudd – at least long enough to hold government in 2013 -- but it is the catastrophic downside that caucus should be weighing up alongside the modest upside of clinging to power. 

Not only would Rudd see all his ghosts come back to haunt him during the election campaign, but the temptation to tinker with Labor's hard won policy achievements -- the carbon tax, the mining tax, the NBN and health reform -- would likely prove too great.

So the catastrophic downside is both a Labor rout and a disintegration of Labor's thus-far coherent policy platform.

With Gillard as leader, things look very different. She would exit power with a robust legacy -- all those hard won policies would remain in place for Abbott to 'tear up' and replace with his own versions – the carbon tax/ETS with Direct Action; the all-fibre NBN with a copper/fibre mix; no mining tax at all; a substantial rewrite of the Fair Work Act; and who knows what for health funding and the cutting of other services to bring the budget back to surplus without carbon and mining-tax revenue.

That is not to say Abbott would necessarily end Australia's current run of good fortune and prosperity -- only that he should not be allowed to begin the tearing-up process without a strong Opposition to watch his every move. Gillard would provide that; Rudd would not.

The still-faithful elements of Gillard's front bench would be a formidable team, give or take a Chris Bowen or Martin Ferguson.

That's the second prize for Julia Gillard. And it would give all Australians, not least the business community, the best chance of avoiding the severe economic damage that this political crisis is likely to leave as its legacy.

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