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Wednesday, November 28, 2012
Julia Gillard facing rebellion in the ranks over foreign policy and media reforms
JULIA Gillard's grip on her ministry and the backbench has slipped after the Prime Minister faced a cabinet rebellion and successful caucus revolt over foreign policy on Israel and Palestine, as well as a debilitating failure to make a decision on media reforms.
During an 18-hour period from the "vigorous" cabinet meeting on Monday afternoon through to a rebellious parliamentary Labor Party meeting yesterday morning, the Prime Minister had to invoke her authority to demand cabinet agree to oppose UN observer status for Palestine, had to reverse her personal position because of backbench opposition and was unable to win support for the media plans of Communications Minister Stephen Conroy.
While facing a continuing Coalition campaign about her legal advice to her former boyfriend, AWU official Bruce Wilson, to set up what she later described as a "slush find" in the 1990s, Ms Gillard faced outright opposition and serious threats to authority from within all levels of the Labor Party.
Cabinet sources told The Australian yesterday that at least nine ministers spoke against Ms Gillard's "personal decision" to have Australia vote against the resolution to give Palestine observer status at the UN.
The torrid meeting was described as "vigorous" and "willing" with only one minister, Senator Conroy, prepared to speak on Ms Gillard's side and only one other Minister, another Victorian, Bill Shorten, prepared to vote with the Prime Minister.
Ms Gillard told cabinet she had made her "own decision" for Australia to vote against the UN motion and "expected cabinet solidarity". Last night, Foreign Minister Bob Carr told Sky News: "Cabinet voted to back the judgment of the Prime Minister. That was the decision of cabinet.
"The Prime Minister was open to discussions with all her colleagues - and her colleagues represent the gamut of opinion on this subject. It was a great tribute to her."
Cabinet ministers were surprised when it became clear Ms Gillard had changed her mind because she couldn't get the support of a majority of her caucus colleagues and conceded a compromise of Australia "abstaining" in the UN vote.
The opposition to Ms Gillard's decision to vote "no" came from across the factions, state boundaries, her own supporters, supporters of Kevin Rudd and from the backbench and ministry.
One Labor MP said last night: "By the time she got to the caucus, her foot soldiers were telling her that she possibly did not have the numbers. So rather than risk the embarrassment of being defeated on the floor of the caucus, she capitulated.
"But it was a very, very tense 12 hours, I can tell you. She came perilously close to losing the leadership this morning."
Cabinet also fractured over media reform on Monday night as Senator Conroy failed to gain an agreement on a package of changes including government oversight of the press.
Senator Conroy refused to split the package in order to fast-track a licence fee cut for three big commercial networks, as ministers resisted his separate proposals for a public interest test on media ownership and a new regime for news and current affairs that would give Canberra a say in the industry's self-regulation.
While media reform was not on the official cabinet agenda, The Australian was told that an informal discussion was held, but it could not produce a consensus, despite Ms Gillard's attempts in recent months to reach a compromise on proposals recommended to government in February.
Asked in caucus when the media package would be ready, the Prime Minister told Labor MPs yesterday that the changes needed more time.
On the Palestinian UN vote, Ms Gillard and Senator Carr issued a joint statement last night saying that Australia would abstain if the vote was put to the UN.
Cabinet ministers who opposed the Prime Minister's initial decision to oppose the move to give Palestine observer status included Senator Carr and his portfolio partner and strong supporter of Ms Gillard, Trade Minister Craig Emerson, as well as Climate Change Minister Greg Combet and influential NSW right winger and Water Minister Tony Burke.
Ministers argued that the decision needed to take into account Australia's upcoming position on the UN Security Council and would not be seen as being anti-US or anti-Israel. Senator Carr said there had been no adverse reaction from the US, which will oppose the motion, after Australia announced its position.
Greens leader Christine Milne said that Australia, "as a newly elected member of the UN Security Council and a country which ostensibly supported a peaceful two-state solution, should vote for recognition of Palestine as a non-member state observer at the UN this week, rather than abstaining".
"Recognising Palestine as a non-member state observer at the UN would be an important peaceful step towards a peaceful, two-state solution in the Middle East, an aim the government says they support," Senator Milne said.
"Now that we have been elected to the Security Council, it is important that Australia stands up with an independent foreign policy, but this first major decision since our elevation does not bode well."