Seductive rumours of Abbott's demise

Constant leadership speculation, warranted or not, will spoil the chance of any serious policy development from either side of politics before next year's election. There is only one solution: we must send the press gallery far, far away.

Is there any chance of sending the entire Canberra press pack to a remote island for 18 months? I will happily go too. It's what we must do to safeguard Australia's good governance.

It will be like that tragic conversation in the film Indochine between Catherine Deneuve's character and the red-blooded navy lieutenant whom her beautiful daughter Camille is in love with. He must be sent away, she explains, because "You will not be able to resist her".

And what is it that political reporters won't be able to resist? No, not a beautiful girl. Something far less attractive – leadership speculation.

Since suggesting on Monday that Julia Gillard is now a real threat to Tony Abbott due to the strong support she received in Monday's leadership ballot, my conversations with MPs, staffers and the rank and file highlight the two 'Camilles' the press gallery won't be able to resist.

The first is that the Rudd challenge is far from dead. Liberal backbencher Russell Broadbent put the case to me yesterday, and has been backed up on the Labor side by comments from people such as Doug Cameron and former ALP national secretary Bob Hogg.

Rudd will challenge again in three to four months' time, says Broadbent, because the overall recovery in Labor's primary vote tends to obscure the seat-by-seat electoral map that Labor strategists focus on. It's the majority of seats that keeps them awake at night, not the majority of votes.

And though Rudd has ruled out a second challenge, history is full of political leaders who go back on their word and bashfully step forward for another tilt when their colleagues beg them to do so. And that's exactly what Labor MPs will be doing, says Broadbent – the nervous nellies of Labor who backed Rudd at Monday's spill won't see a change in their fortunes, and the 22 MPs who would have to break ranks with Gillard to hand Rudd the reins will also know, in time, that they don't stand a chance. Ergo, Gillard is finished.

The second 'Camille' is the possibility of a challenge to Abbott if Gillard (in the absence of a Rudd challenge) continues to make ground in the polls – and there are rumours of tensions rising within the Coalition over the disjointed nature of the Coalition's policy platform.

Chief among the problem policies is the Coalition's expensive paid parental leave scheme, which Broadbent himself argued strongly against in this week's joint-party room meeting. The scheme will cost around $2.7 billion a year – roughly ten times Labor's already-legislated scheme – and is clearly at odds with the Coalition's budget-slashing strategy to deal with what it calls Labor's 'debt-and-deficit' problem. Oh yes, and it is paid for by a nasty levy on around 3000 companies.

That policy was developed on the fly during the 2010 election campaign – reminiscent of the common charge against Labor that the NBN was designed on the back of a beer coaster – and was not subject to the Coalition's usual policy-making processes. As one of their big ticket items, that's a real problem.

But is it leading to real divisions within the party – you know, the kind that end with a leadership spill?

Broadbent, having stirred the pot, is now cautious to argue the opposite – he says he's never seen a more unified backbench on the Coalition side since he entered politics in 1990 and that all the big policy differences are being thrashed out by the frontbench. No revolt here; nothing to see.

Which brings me back to the irresistible urges of political journalists. Fault lines in both the Labor and Coalition governments are far more exciting than policy analysis – a collapse of either the Gillard or Abbott leadership will sell many more papers than the daily slog of watching the two armies trade blows over their respective policy platforms. And serious policymaking will go to hell.

Australia's good governance will be best served by the existing teams honing their policy offerings and arguing them day after day until the next poll. And perhaps the biggest obstacle to that outcome is the breathless 'backgrounding' of journalists (including this one) over apparent seismic activity on the backbenches.

Which is why we should be sent away. An island off the coast of what was once called Indochine would do nicely.

Follow @_Rob_Burgess on Twitter


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