Resilience... Julia Gillard will need it, not least of all to combat the negativity from within her own party. Photo: Harrison Saragossi
Labor insiders say Julia Gillard is the most resilient politician they’ve seen, one who never appears to be bothered by chaos or slowed by the prospect of defeat.
The PM’s positive character trait will be needed by the bucketload to cheer up the continually pessimistic backbenchers who reckon the government is done for.
Monday's caucus meeting will have a bizarre atmosphere - in the room will be the Labor backbenchers and (most) ministers who were kept in the dark about the election date.
The long, long campaign has begun with a scandal. It’s a huge setback. The decision to hold an unprecedented eight month long campaign was supposed to put pressure on Tony Abbott to put up costed policies, not hand him an opportunity to give indignant speeches about the PM’s links to Craig Thomson.
Nonetheless, Labor MPs are expecting her to stride into the first caucus meeting of the year, on Monday, full of charm and wit and the drive to push the government through the storm created by the charges of fraud against one of their former colleagues.
The Government has been catching up in some national polls, giving Labor a flicker of hope that it might get across the line, aided and abetted by the couple of per cent of votes that are said to traditionally flow from incumbency.
That mindset was shattered with the release last Monday of a poll indicating an average two-party-preferred swing of 4.8 per cent against Labor since the last election in the nation’s 54 most marginal seats.
If such a swing were uniform at the September 14 election, Labor would lose 18 seats and hand government to the Abbott-led Coalition. The best case for Labor, based on the poll’s detailed breakdown of each state, is a net loss of seven seats, still enough for a change in government. The situation is worst for the Gillard Government in NSW, with the poll indicating an average 12.2 per cent swing against Labor in the state’s 16 marginal seats since the last election.
Monday’s caucus meeting will have a bizarre atmosphere - in the room will be the Labor backbenchers and (most) ministers who were kept in the dark about the election date. They could not be trusted with the information and found out at the same time as the rest of Australia. More significantly, the independents were told the day before and the Greens just before the announcement.
In the world of minority government, Gillard snubbed her team to call those players with whom she had signed agreements to go full term. Only a handful of senior colleagues knew.
Even the speech distributed to the working press at the National Press Club did not have the salient information. Journalists turning the pages to follow the PM’s speech came to the putative end - but she kept reading and talking, and stunned the nation. But she can’t control the agenda, as the re-emergence of the Thomson affair shows.
Gillard said the decision for a long game would actually free her up to start governing. ‘‘I do so not to start the nation’s longest election campaign - quite the opposite,’’ she said. ‘‘It should be clear to all which are the days of governing and which are the days of campaigning.’’
Good luck with that. Is she intending to hold a ‘‘I’m governing now’’ flag on some days?
Setting the date so far out concedes the incumbent government’s advantage. In 2010 the Coalition was caught by surprise at Gillard’s decision to hold an early election to endorse her mandate.
Now the Liberal and National Parties have the luxury of planning in great detail the path Abbott will take around Australia to campaign in marginal electorates. As well, those essential $100-a-plate fund raisers can be organised now and seats filled with months to spare.
So what does the Prime Minister gain out of this risky gamble?
For a start she wants to be seen as bold and decisive, a risk taker and also, possibly, fair by taking the guessing out of the date. John Howard presided over a shambles in 2007 as he smugly dismissed calls to name the election date. He put on his best Cheshire cat expression as he fobbed off reporters’ questions.
Yet when you look at the calendar, there are very few dates in Spring on which a federal election can be held without offending football fans or snubbing world leaders at international conferences.
The Gillard strategy is eerily close to Howard’s when he was being challenged by Mark Latham. Howard knew he was on the nose for social policies and voters weren’t appreciating the strength of the economy or the repeated tax cuts.
So he put the focus on his opponent with ads that suggested Latham was a bizarre character. The strategy came together with Latham’s own goal - the forceful handshake - just when voters were paying attention, in the final days of the campaign.
Similarly, Gillard knows she is widely disliked but Labor strategists hope voters will go with the devil they know after they take a closer look at her opponent.
But now she will need all her steely resolve to calm the troops on Monday, because Tuesday will be a shocker. The planned triumphal return to Parliament will be dominated by scandal.
It doesn’t get much worse for the government when a former Labor MP is accused of fraud relating to the alleged misuse of entitlements when he was a union leader.
The scandal is huge and ugly because that union has some of the lowest paid workers in the country, mostly female, and the charges laid against Thomson relate to allegations that he improperly used Health Services Union funds to spend on prostitutes, entertainment and cash withdrawals of more than $100,000.
And the nightmare deepens because the Opposition will throw back at Gillard all the quotes in which she supposedly defended Thomson before she very belatedly threw him out of the Labor caucus.
At the time she was defending the presumption of innocence, but then she dumped that principle by giving him the boot.
Which leaves Abbott rising to the full height of indignation to claim the entire sordid affair is a failure of the PM’s character and judgment. That is, a re-run of all the speeches he gave last year but this time supported by the full horror of the 150 charges.
The charges against Thomson put Abbott into exactly the environment that suits an Opposition Leader best - attacking the integrity of the Prime Minister and not having to put forward policies.
Again, and forcefully, he will ramp up pressure for Gillard to abandon Thomson’s "tainted" vote. This totally disregards Thomson’s right to continue sitting in parliament unless and until he is convicted. And it trashes the notion of an independent MP being able to exercise his or her right to vote in Parliament as he or her sees fit.
Labor will reply by claiming Abbott relied on the vote of Mary Jo Fisher while the Senator was facing charges of alleged shoplifting and alleged assault.
The key issue that Labor must examine are dodgy preselection processes. That should be a very high priority for angry rank and file members whether the government wins or loses.
What they now know is that the scandal Gillard was trying to put behind her in her strategy to put the heat on Abbott has re-emerged, stronger than last year.
It is engulfing the Labor Party as Parliament returns and obliterating the key messages Gillard hopes to promote in her desperate race to polling day.