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Gillard has defied doomsayers

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Labor has survived against the odds, writes John Warhurst.

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Photo: Sam Bennett

Anything could still happen next week during the final session of Federal Parliament for the year. Julia Gillard could be deposed at 24 hours' notice, just as she deposed Kevin Rudd, given the Australian way of doing things. Prime ministers are extraordinarily vulnerable to challenge from within their own party in our system.

But that looks unlikely and whatever happens now we will not have an election this year. There will be no election until March 2013 at the very earliest given the reluctance of Australians to suffer a political campaign during January and February over the summer break.

This means the Gillard Labor government has effectively gone almost full term. Even a mid-March election would mean that the government has run for more than 2½ of its three years, which is about par for the course in Australian political history.

Gillard herself has survived more than two years since the last election on August 21, 2010 despite constant pressure from Rudd, one unsuccessful challenge and regular speculation about his intentions.

Her minority government has survived against the odds (at least the short odds to fail offered by the media). No one has fallen under the proverbial bus, meaning that there have been no byelections to change the parliamentary numbers; and no one has deserted the Labor government on the floor of the house in a way that would bring about a change of government.

We have had 2½ years of speculation about the fate of Labor backbencher Craig Thomson over his alleged misuse of Heath Services Union funds. He is now sitting on the crossbench rather than with Labor.

We have had 2½ years of extreme personal pressure on the rural independents, Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott, including campaigns run against them in their own electorates. This pressure has been exacerbated by public opinion polls, specially commissioned by media outlets, which have predicted their defeat at the next election. Their downfall has been declared certain.

All this has been waged against two individuals with no political party to support them and who must rely on a small circle of friends and colleagues. Windsor has now had high-profile state independent Richard Torbay preselected by the Nationals to run against him.

We have had 12 months of concentration on the Coalition deserter, Peter Slipper, who was offered the speakership and then, after a few effective months in the office, was forced to resign after sexual abuse allegations.

We have had independent Andrew Wilkie's rupture with Labor over the government's failure to proceed with his plans for regulation of poker machines. His personal relationship with Gillard has broken down but he has not forced the government out.

All of these controversies have made for a remarkably turbulent period in Australian politics but the minority government has survived.

Academics, looking at this as outside observers, have been quite cautious about the likely fall of either Gillard or her government before a full term.

But often insiders, spurred on by the media looking for stories and briefed by either Tony Abbott or the backers of Rudd, have predicted imminent catastrophe.

I have lost count of the number of times that I have read or been told confidently that there would either be a change of government, an election or a successful leadership challenge. Yet I have always thought that the best educated guess was that Gillard and her government would go the full term. It seemed to me that the determination of the government and the PM to survive, the self-interest of those MPs backing her and the terms of their arrangement with Gillard, made a full term the likely outcome.

The best chance for Labor and its four parliamentary supporters to survive was always to go full term so that some progress could be made on policy implementation, time could bring some community healing and some sting could be taken out of opposition criticisms.

Furthermore, it seemed to me that there has been a surprising ignorance of how slow the wheels of the parliamentary, legal and police processes turn. Things were always going to move more slowly than many who assumed the government or Gillard was likely to fall were predicting.

It appears that the Gillard Labor government is relatively stable and that the next federal election has become a competitive contest. An accumulation of public opinion poll results over the past three months suggests that the government has a chance. The same polls say Gillard has got the best of the Opposition Leader for the time being.

The newly called royal commission into child abuse, popular with voters, not only distracts attention from government failings but diverts the Opposition Leader, too, from his regular attacks. Pressure seems now to be on the opposition for the first time.

But stability is never guaranteed. Leaders and governments can disappear at short notice. Gillard herself is now the focus of renewed opposition attack over her professional dealings before entering Parliament. There is always the chance that she will call an election for March or April as the budgetary situation worsens.

Survival has come at a cost for the government, however. It bears the damaging scars of all these battles. To survive is no guarantee of emerging victorious in the end. The government is still the outsider to win the next election. Some commentators say that its comeback has now levelled out.

Nevertheless, history will now record that Gillard and her government have survived much longer than the doomsayers thought would be the case.

>> John Warhurst is an emeritus professor of political science at the Australian National University.  

>> John.Warhurst@anu.edu.au

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