Parliament is up for a week, before its final fortnight session of the term. Labor MPs are dreading those last two weeks. If they are anything like the past few days, they’ll be disastrous.
“Febrile” and “crazy” are descriptions caucus members are giving of the atmosphere this week, with some colleagues “unhinged”. “Thank god we don’t carry weapons in this country,” quipped one member. If Kevin Rudd’s ABC 7.30 interview last night is any guide, there is ample evidence the madness will continue.
Take your pick on what best symbolised this surreal week.
Mark Bishop, Labor’s chairman of the Senate economics legislation committee, went absolutely berserk, shouting and banging the table, over nothing more than a set-to between a couple of senators. The video is a must watch.
Less spectacular, but sending an obvious message, two recontesting backbenchers, Daryl Melham and Alan Griffin, were packing up their offices. Griffin is on a margin of 7.7 per cent. (He insisted last night he’d packed before and won.)
Struggling through a horrible present to an even nastier future, Julia Gillard’s personal resilience is remarkable, whatever one thinks of her political nous. She looks worn out, and hit a shrill note in question time yesterday. She can’t convince but she doesn’t flinch under the pressure, which is now coming from her own side as much as from the opposition.
She’s doggedly trying to make some issues work for her. Legislation for the Gonski schools funding was introduced this week – it provides for states and territories that join up and those that don’t.
But she still has got only New South Wales and ACT on board (though it is assumed the Labor states will sign). Victoria and Queensland remain crucial. She desperately needs Victoria at least, and desirably both states, before the June 30 deadline. The coming week will see a lot of federal effort on education.
Legislation to toughen the 457 visa regime was also brought to parliament, reinforcing the government’s pitch that it is putting Aussie workers first.
But these moves were overshadowed by Gillard’s troops losing all discipline. Backbenchers attacked the government’s official “talking points” and the PM’s spin merchants, and told her to be a better saleswoman.
The media, and a handful of Rudd loyalists, continue to toy with the possibility of another leadership tilt, although other Ruddites dismiss it as too late and too hard.
Rudd himself haunted the parliament building, highly visible – at the "doors" where MPs make morning comments (his message was that it was time people pulled their heads in) and at Aussies Cafe.
He was like a ghost of what might have been, if he and his supporters had not stuffed up two leadership bids, in one of which he didn’t even stand.
On the ABC last night he referred back to his 2012 line that he wouldn’t challenge Gillard again but didn’t repeat his March statement, when he declared there were no circumstances under which he would return to the leadership.
What to make of this? Maybe hope really is springing eternal. Or perhaps it is a psychological payback. It was late June three years ago when parliament was sitting that Gillard and her cronies struck him down (the coup was June 23; Gillard was elected, uncontested after Rudd pulled out, the following day). This parliament’s last week starts June 24.
There is a blame game already underway that will burst out after the election. Rudd said last night that people shouldn’t be “constructing alibis for defeat”. His followers are very sensitive to allegations from the Gillard quarter that he and they have significant responsibility for the government’s bad ratings.
The Rudd forces are their own, now isolated, faction. Former ministers Martin Ferguson and Robert McClelland are seeing out the now 99 days until they depart. Chris Bowen is fighting for his political life in western Sydney.
The PM’s loyalists press on in this world of mania, powerless to control the situation, never sure where the next body blow will come from or what form it will take.
Craig Emerson, Gillard’s one-time partner, does much of the heavy lifting for her in the media.
Immigration Minister Brendan O'Connor, one of her close friends, struggled at the centre of this week’s row over the Egyptian jihadist convicted on terrorist offences who had been detained in a low security facility (behind a “pool fence” as the opposition kept saying, as though he was in someone’s backyard). Due to bungling that will be investigated by an inquiry, the man escaped proper attention (and high security detention) for a long while.
The revelations about the asylum seeker (which in political timing conveniently dovetailed with recent claims about the Chinese allegedly stealing ASIO floor plans) have been gold for the opposition’s 'stop the boats' campaign.
When Labor is in deep despair, headed for what is expected to be a catastrophic loss, what is to be done?
If you are ALP national secretary George Wright you grit your teeth and send out an appeal for money.
In Thursday’s email to those on the party’s mailing list, Wright was blunt. “With 100 days to do until the election, Tony Abbott and the Coalition are peddling a lot of crap," he wrote.
“So we need your help to set the record straight. Every dollar you give right now will go into a rapid response advertising blitz on social media to counter their lies with truth.”
He rammed home the point with a postscript: “We must step up our campaign every way possible in the final 100 days, and we’re counting on you to make it possible.”
(He didn’t add that the party wasn’t getting those taxpayer dollars coming its way until the nasty people in the opposition went back on the deal last week.)
Good luck George. Those giving to Labor right now are either altruistic or thinking very long term.
Michelle Grattan is a professorial fellow at University of Canberra. She 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.