Thursday, February 7, 2013

Caucus won't dance to the PM's tune: Where no monkeys

Eric Lobbecke

THERE is only one way Julia Gillard can silence her many internal critics, and it will not be through lectures or intimidation.
All she did by effectively telling them on Tuesday to stop leaking against her was put up in lights their loss of faith in her and her distrust of them.
They will shut up when she stops making mistakes and shows she has learned from the ones she has made. Sadly, that seems unlikely so, given the perilous position many Labor MPs face, staying quiet and pretending everything is hunky-dory won't happen. It wouldn't fix the problems anyway.
What unsettled the Labor critics so much and what has confounded the public is the stunning mismatch of words and deeds, and the promise of stability coupled with acts of shock and awe. Only an exceptional leader could conquer these contradictions; then again, an exceptional leader would not create them.
Disagreements within the highest echelons of the government surfaced over Gillard's wisdom in declaring the election date so far out. Those who thought it was a good idea were soon in furious agreement, with the emphasis on furious, on the resignation of two senior cabinet ministers at the weekend. It was greeted near universally behind the scenes as an unmitigated disaster.
One frustrated minister said the problem was not just that it would be seen as a sign the government was unravelling; he feared it was actually unravelling. No matter what gloss or spin accompanied their departure or the quality of their successors, it should not have been allowed to happen, particularly after Gillard's central reason for naming September 14 as election day was to provide stability and certainty.
Another minister described it as madness and the Prime Minister herself as mad, and for many reasons, including that the Senate vacancy left by Chris Evans in Western Australia easily could have been filled by an indigenous Australian from that state, thus preventing Northern Territory Labor ripping itself apart over Nova Peris.
A lower level of irritation for Gillard's cringing colleagues was the decision to showcase her partner Tim Mathieson. Clearly wanting to help and to show he is as much an asset as any other modern political family, Mathieson appeared prominently in shot, holding the pet dog in his arms and stroking him, as Gillard made a speech for Australia Day award nominees. A gauche performance replete with alleged joke followed soon after at the drinks for the PM's XI.
While the two ministers are united in their assessment of their survival prospects, they remain divided about the solution, which says it all about where the government finds itself.
One still hopes of a Rudd return to save the government, saying nothing should be ruled out; the other discounts suggestions Kevin Rudd is closer and remains glued to Gillard even if it means losing with her, as he confidently expects he will.
Gillard's failure to discuss in even the broadest terms her election plans with her cabinet, the timing of the two resignations, and her remarks to caucus reveal the profound dysfunction now at the heart of government. At the cabinet meeting the night before Gillard's speech to the National Press Club, there was a political discussion as per usual after the formal deliberations. Sources say Gillard gave her usual spiel about the need to keep the pressure and the focus on Tony Abbott. She now refrains from mentioning the Opposition Leader's name, but she wants everyone else to keep talking about him.
Inside the cabinet room she did not raise the election, not even in general terms, nor did anyone else, even though she had separately consulted some ministers, then warned Tony Windsor, Rob Oakeshott and Christine Milne, obviously all more trustworthy than those supposedly on her side.
Gillard did consult Northern Territory MP Warren Snowdon days before booting long-term senator Trish Crossin for Peris. He objected, was ignored, then stayed quiet rather than tell his colleagues so they could help scuttle it. Now he is worried about losing his seat, especially as Labor insiders fear more damaging stories will emerge about Peris and predict it will end, as it began for her, in tears.
The most benign construction that could be put on the timing of Nicola Roxon's and Evans's resignation was that they were a circuit-breaker to correct yet another circuit-breaker that had short-circuited, thus diverting attention from the Craig Thomson saga, which had undercut the election announcement. This theory was instantly dismissed by experienced operators from both sides, who appreciate that in politics, as in comedy, timing is everything.
It didn't pass the sniff test. Nor did the story that the timing was designed to keep Rudd at bay. All that did was foster the belief that everything Gillard does is designed to ensure her own survival. Roxon and Evans didn't sound like rats, but they certainly looked like them and smelled like them, and that was the only sniff test that counted. And if that's offensive, sorry, but I am not sorry.
If it is true, as the Prime Minister said, that both had signalled their intentions a year ago, they should have gone then. Or they should have left before Christmas or any time before her announcement of the election date.
If they resisted, the Prime Minister, knowing what she knew, including her own intention to nominate the election date, should have insisted.
Continuing in their jobs after they had decided not to hang around was selfish and indulgent. It was definitely not in the best interests of Gillard or the government. And they are supposed to be her friends.
Labor MPs were struggling to remember other high-profile departures after the leader had called the election and could not.
Not unless you count Bill Hayden's involuntary departure from the opposition leadership on the day Malcolm Fraser called the election that enabled the installation of Bob Hawke. Which brings us right back to Rudd and the kind of scenario that gives Gillard, half the Labor Party and all the Liberals nightmares.
After trying to turn him into mincemeat last year, Labor ministers now want him to help them win the election by playing monkey to Gillard's organ grinder. As he said when he revived other unpleasant memories of his leadership by engaging with media outside a church, give us a break.
Many more things will go wrong between now and September 14, not all of them for Gillard. Apart from the obvious advantages knowing the date provides the opposition, it leaves no room for errors by Abbott and his team, not on candidate selection, or on logistics or costings.
They will have no excuse for any mistakes, which Gillard is counting on to save herself.
However, Abbott's tonier performance, especially yesterday in parliament on closing the gap, if repeated consistently until the election, shows what he can do when he puts his heart and mind into it. That too is the stuff of nightmares for Labor.


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