The bonfire of Labor's vanities

Should Kevin Rudd return, the challenge of a maintaining a lasting support base would be formidable. Either way, voters have made up their minds about Julia Gillard.

Crikey

Snap quiz: how would the government be different if Kevin Rudd became prime minister? Quick, the clock is ticking...

Well, we know Julia Gillard is better at negotiating bills through parliament than Rudd is. But those skills have all been used to implement the Rudd agenda. In policy terms, the Gillard has been Rudder than Rudd.

The "year of decision and delivery" delivered the carbon pricing package – an improved version of the CPRS; a watered-down version of the mining tax; a watered-down version of health reform, and the continuation of financial advice reforms that were kicked off by Chris Bowen under Rudd. Oh, and there’s the commitment to a surplus next financial year. That started life in the 2010 budget, under Rudd.

Gillard did "lurch to the right", as Rudd predicted, on asylum seekers, but failed. The only other significant departure from the Rudd era has been a gradual shift towards more industry support. But then again, Rudd was the one who said he wanted to be prime minister of a country that makes things.

This year’s agenda is supposed to be focused on economic management, with Labor trying to reinforce its credentials and get across to everyone outside Canberra what everyone inside Canberra knows – that the Coalition have utterly lost the plot on the economy. But that’s Rudd, again – Labor’s inability to communicate effectively on the economy began under him and has continued under Julia Gillard.

If Rudd returns to the prime ministership, Gillard’s period as leader won’t even look like an interregnum, more like an extended period of her as acting-prime minister in his absence, as if Kevin 747 had gone for a particularly extended overseas visit. Which, given his prolific travel as foreign minister, isn’t that wide off the mark.

But therein lies the wrecking of Gillard's prime ministership. On November 10 in 2010, Gillard spoke to the Rotary Club in Adelaide, and said:

"Australians are really asking me three related questions: What drives me, personally, in politics – why do I do it, what gets me out of bed every day? What's the government's vision for Australia – what do we want Australia to look like in five years, 10 years? And what's the government actually doing? What are the goals that make that vision real?"

They were three questions she never managed to answer, despite fitful attempts, including that miserable speech a few months later in which she looked with a "jaundiced eye" at socialites.

Gillard thus remained, for voters, an unknown quantity. And when people don’t know you, they don’t extend to you the benefit of the doubt. The carbon pricing decision, revealed in February, which appeared to contradict her own commitments during the election, was a killer for her trustworthiness. It was a tipping point for Gillard’s reputation with voters, until then seesawing between concern at the circumstances in which she had been elevated, and willingness to give her a go.

Meantime, her own misjudgments were cruelling her. Remember the furious reaction to Gillard’s abysmal climate change package, announced at the end of the first week of the election campaign (which Labor effortlessly dominated) right before the first of the leaks? It set the theme for the Gillard prime ministership. Any steps forward would, sooner or later but almost invariably sooner, be negated by a stuff-up. The end of 2011 and the start 2012 were only a continuation of that theme. Shore up Labor’s numbers in parliament, then get everyone talking about the poor conference performance and a dud reshuffle. Get a key piece of legislation – um, another one from the Rudd era – through parliament while everyone’s talking about Australia Day and Four Corners and a snubbed Andrew Wilkie fumes on the crossbench.

And we forget that similar problems plagued Rudd. He was the first to wreck voters’ trust in him when he abandoned the CPRS – every bit as big a disaster for his reputation as Gillard's carbon pricing call was for her. And his political misjudgments – the worst of all being the failure to call a double dissolution election for February 2010 – were none too shabby either. Including the one that prompted several of the world’s largest companies to orchestrate a coup to remove him: the mining tax.

So how different will Rudd really be?

Well, he’d start with a level of popularity and voter trust that Gillard can now only dream of. In fact, he ended with levels of voter support that Gillard has only matched or bettered for a few weeks of her entire stint in the top job. This is Essential Research's ALP voting intention since May 31, 2010:


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The great failure of Rudd's prime ministership was his failure to convert high levels of support for him and his program into a durable support base. Should he return, he would face the same challenge all over again, only with less time and a more formidable opponent than Nelson and Turnbull. It would be more akin to the challenge Gillard faced between June and August 2010.

For the anyone-but-Rudd and Gillard camps, the only way out is for Gillard to resign in favour of a cleanskin successor – a Crean, a Smith, a Shorten, anyone but Kevin. But she’s not the resigning kind, and no one else but Rudd would at least kick off with a level of community support. Labor also needs a fair dinkum contest, with the victor bloodied but legitimate at least in the eyes of their colleagues, and with the faceless men – the Arbibs and Farrells – kept out of sight. Indeed, the more the next prime minister is seen as hostile to the party apparatus, Peter Beattie-style that installed Gillard, the better off they’ll be.

There are no other alternatives. Gillard can call and even win a leadership spill next week. That may or may not see off Rudd. But the voters have made their judgment about her. And they’ll see her off the moment they get the chance.

This story first appeared on www.crikey.com.au on February 20. Republished with permission.