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Parliament's air of uncertainty as nerves are rattled


After naming the election date, Julia Gillard finds things are far from settled.

'She can't afford to let a circling Rudd drive her into misjudgments; she has made enough on her own.'

'She can't afford to let a circling Rudd drive her into misjudgments; she has made enough on her own.' Photo: Glen McCurtayne

A peculiar atmosphere of limbo has hung over this first parliamentary week. After Julia Gillard said she was putting certainty into the election timing by announcing the date months ahead of time, an odd feeling of uncertainty has descended.

It's as if everyone is waiting for something. But what? More polls? A leadership blow-up? Even a big opposition policy? We are in the ellipsis of a political sentence.

No one can have missed that Gillard has had a bad start to the year. Some things she could have done much better, while others, notably the arrest and court appearance of Craig Thomson and the NSW corruption hearings, with their shocking revelations, have landed on her.

Parliament began with a repeat of 2012; Kevin Rudd facing questions about leadership when he attended the pre-sitting church service. Now, as then, he had a sort of who, me? reaction. Twelve months ago the Gillard forces neatly manoeuvred him into a premature challenge in which he was battered to near political death. He's pledged he won't challenge again, but he wants his job back as much as he ever did.

He doesn't have the numbers. But his followers are running a classic destabilisation campaign, with constant criticism of Gillard. She can only plough on, but they have got under her skin. At Monday's caucus she was defensive, with a long explanation of her decision to name the election date and a bitch about colleagues who leak. Journalists had told her, she said, that when they returned from holidays there were messages from Labor MPs wanting to say negative things about the government.

Gillard's nerve never breaks, but her lecture was a sign of a hairline crack. It is not as though she could think her critics will stop bagging her, however much she upbraids them; her lecture made her appear rattled. She can't afford to let a circling Rudd drive her into misjudgments; she has made enough of those on her own.

As some of the Rudd people stir wherever they can, a new line of Labor chatter has also emerged, saying Rudd is an asset whose popularity should be mobilised in a supportive role to help Gillard and the government. True in theory of course, but remember when the two got together for the sake of the party in the 2010 campaign. The pictures were poisonous (and in those weeks, the Rudd camp's leaks did immeasurable harm to the government).

Monday's Newspoll, with a six-point drop in Labor's primary vote, worse personal ratings for Gillard and improved ones for Tony Abbott, has added to a feeling of things being unsettled for Labor. At a meeting last weekend, ALP national secretary George Wright urged candidates in marginal seats (both ALP and Coalition-held) not to let the polls make them feel it was all too hard. But the polls shape political perception, and many if not most Labor MPs feel it is too hard. In particular, they know Labor is politically burning in the key area of western Sydney.

Abbott opened the year promising to be Mr Positive, and the opposition has kept the heat turned down in question time. Even apart from the Mr Positive push, why wouldn't it, when government MPs are privately sniping, and Craig Thomson and the Sydney corruption hearings are providing plenty of TV footage that is devastating for Labor.

Mr Positive didn't produce any new detailed policy, but one leak did put out some bold ideas. The Daily Telegraph report of a discussion paper on developing northern Australia carried the unfortunate (but clever) headline ''TONY GOES TROPPO''. The plan, Vision 2030, aimed at boosting the north's population, would include the use of tax incentives, immigration policy, and the relocation of sections of federal departments and defence facilities. A lump of foreign aid money would be redirected to build a tropical medicine centre.

The draft - still a long way from a policy - had been circulated by shadow finance minister Andrew Robb to relevant state and territory leaders and business people, but the leak was embarrassing.

The government, desperate for anything to use against the Coalition in battler-land, is saying the policy would increase taxes on people in western Sydney to finance white elephants in the north. But if the rough edges of the discussion paper are rubbed off such a policy has the potential to appeal in some regional seats.

The first big ticket opposition policy of the year is expected to be the broadband blueprint. Selling this policy will be a challenge for shadow communications minister Malcolm Turnbull. The Coalition's alternative must incorporate what an Abbott government would inherit (not to do so would be wasteful) while setting out a future scheme that is credible without so much government involvement. We could see the policy unveiled in April.

With the election date set, the opposition can plan its policy agenda quite precisely. Well, that's assuming the numbers stay with Gillard. Like government MPs, the opposition's attention is focused on Rudd. Julie Bishop predicted this week that Rudd had one more tilt in him. Independent Tony Windsor said if Rudd returned, the election would probably be earlier. ''No one can guarantee the September 14 date anyway; that's a preferred option in a sense. Those things can change quite dramatically.'' That's limbo land for you.

This is Michelle Grattan's final column as The Age's political editor.

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  • Another McTernan master plan jumps the tracks is the best way describe the start
    to the endless election campaign. By the time it drags itself into a winter of discontent
    any ideas of how brilliant a move it was will have long faded away.

    Date and time
    February 08, 2013, 6:34AM
    • Any sane Australian who votes to extend this farce on September 14 needs medical help.

      big kev
      Date and time
      February 08, 2013, 9:12AM
    • No Peta Credlin plan yesterday no ... no ... yesterday we had the Gina Rhinehart / Joh Bjelke-Peterson plan.

      Sunk about six foot under.

      J. Fraser
      Date and time
      February 08, 2013, 9:38AM
    • SteveH.6.34am: 'Jumps the tracks' is putting it mildly, Steve. And her team/fellow coup conspirators have the hide to complain about 'leaks'. What a joke. You've tortured the whole country since you grabbed power. Take it on the chin, you lollies.

      St Lucia
      Date and time
      February 08, 2013, 10:02AM
    • McTernan's fingerprints are all over this Labor debacle. Watch how quickly he'll slip out of the country back to the UK as soon as Gillard is either replaced by her own party or Labor is annihilated under Gillard's leadership at the election.

      Tim of Altona
      Date and time
      February 08, 2013, 10:12AM
    • An idea for developing N. Australia, aimed at boosting the north's population by 2030, would include the use of tax incentives, immigration policy & the relocation of sections of federal depts & defence facilities.

      This sounds like a great idea. We can't keep craming more & more people into the existing city centres forever. Having more defence facilites in the right location is also paramount, after all, not one from Tasmania way is going to attack us.

      It's only a "bad idea" because it came from the Liberals. Even if there was the best idea ever put forward by the Libs, I reckon the Labor party would cry "FOUL". And that's why they find themselves in such a sad shape. They don't care about what's good for our country, they only care about scoring hits against Tony Abbott.

      Date and time
      February 08, 2013, 10:15AM
    • Oh the self flagellation of the Peta Credlin camp is sickening.
      Any question of whether this was a good or bad tactic was answered by the bumbling way the "Northern Exposure" strategy, (sorry draft strategy, sorry draft paper, sorry sorry sorry) was handled yesterday.
      Are we ever going to see a policy? Or a way Libs propose to pay for anything?
      Or are we just going to run the old sleaze and mud campaign for another 8 months.

      Date and time
      February 08, 2013, 10:18AM
    • Tim, yes, probably back to being the 'English' correspondent for The Scotsman I dare say, actually one most interesting aspects of McTernan's career as a professional spinner
      is that the political fortunes of his previous Labour 'clients' all basically went down the tubes
      during his tenure. Possibly Julia should have kept in mind Napoleon's adage when
      considering promoting someone to a crucial position; 'is he lucky'.

      So far for McTernan the answer seems to be no.

      Date and time
      February 08, 2013, 10:46AM
    • I'm so sick of all these Labor losers & all their "grand plans" for another term in Parliament. They've already made us nuts with all their empty promises & all their waste. Even we dumb voting sheep aren't that gullible that we'd make ourselves go through another such Labor farce ever again.

      Date and time
      February 08, 2013, 10:46AM
    • J Fraser, I wonder if Australia had only two cities, and someone wanted to build up what is Brisbane now, would you say no? We are lucky the early pioneers had a different mindset.

      Peter Schmidt
      Date and time
      February 08, 2013, 10:48AM

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