Labor’s future could depend on how it selects its leader

Prime Minister Julia Gillard hanging tough during question time at Parliament House.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard hanging tough during question time at Parliament House. Photo: Andrew Meares

If Julia Gillard’s leadership is terminal, should she go quietly or put up a fight?

THEY say a good transition is a smooth transition. At least, that’s the theory. So the beleaguered leader is visited by a trusted party elder. They are told they would not win a vote of MPs. Even if they could win, another challenge would come. Best to go quietly. Avert a ballot ”in the interests of party unity” and give the successor a clear run.

A version of that worked so well for Labor last time, don’t you think?

The superficial logic of a managed succession is seductive. It delivers certainty (ballots can surprise), avoids a messy period of looking headless (a fair point), and is less likely to break the hearts of grassroots members over a respected leader (a compelling argument when John Howard’s cabinet briefly contemplated regicide in late 2007).

But at least one of Labor’s myriad problems can be traced to avoiding a ballot when it disposed of Kevin Rudd. One afternoon he was prime minister. The next morning, he wasn’t. No vote. No move to bring the public along. Just a swift political hit.

Rudd squibbed the fight when the size of his looming defeat became apparent. But the lack of a ballot set Gillard up with a legitimacy problem from the start. Voters seemed miffed that Rudd had not been afforded due process – even if they had soured on him. Gillard was also unable to demonstrate publicly the crushing size of the majority she commanded in the caucus.

Contrast that to when Rudd and Gillard knocked off Kim Beazley in 2006. Or Malcolm Turnbull defeating Brendan Nelson in 2008. Or Tony Abbott seeing off Turnbull and Joe Hockey in 2009. A contest and a vote gave them legitimacy.

Admittedly, all of those transitions occurred in opposition. There is more public tolerance for leadership shifts out of government – voters still get to decide whether to choose the new leader at an election. Contested transitions in office are trickier.

But the idea that there would – or should – be a smooth transition from Gillard back to Rudd should be pondered carefully. After all, given the presidential style of governments these days, if there is anything to have a real contest over in politics, it is who leads you.

There is now an expectation of a Rudd resurrection even among MPs who do not celebrate the prospect. Many say privately that Labor cannot win with Gillard, the public dislike her too much. But there are still strong forces keeping her in place – the many who fear reprisals under Rudd, the antipathy towards him, and the argument that it makes sense to let Gillard square away the carbon laws and the mining tax before making any switch.

Yet the consistent poll trend points to change. Voters strongly back Rudd over Gillard – although the Galaxy Poll in the Daily Telegraph on Friday should give pause. He beats her by four to one among Coalition voters, yet 60 per cent said a change of leadership would not shift their vote.

Some Rudd backers entertain the idea that, at some point, Gillard will concede she is unable to resurrect the government’s fortunes and go quietly.

I’m not convinced. In part, that’s because some of her allies are so truculently against a Rudd return. They would demand that she stand her ground. Even more, though, because it is not in her nature to walk away from a fight. Unlike many women, she relishes the bloodsport of politics (at least she did before feeling its lash so punishingly as Prime Minister). This is what made her the woman most likely to crack that glass ceiling in the first place. She was almost unique in her appetite for a fight. For her, the indignity of a loss would be compounded by a meek surrender.

The other question is whether such an exit would be good for the party. I think not. If Labor is to escape the values-junking, spin-obsessed death spiral it is in, where better to start than with a real leadership contest?


You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

Leave a Reply

Powered by WordPress | Designed by: Premium WordPress Themes | Thanks to Themes Gallery, Bromoney and Wordpress Themes