Federal Politics

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As the light on the hill dims, history favours Gillard

The Prime Minister may be heartened by Labor's past, up to a point.

WITH the latest Newspoll continuing to show a dire result for the Labor Party, it is no surprise that the idea of replacing Julia Gillard as prime minister is causing political ripples once again. And the idea certainly needs to be considered by her parliamentary colleagues and party officials.

After all, preparing the party for the next election is something that properly occupies the minds of Labor MPs and organisers. Whatever their personal loyalties, it is their job to consider who would be best placed to give Labor the greatest chance of victory or, perhaps more importantly, the best chance of avoiding a total wipeout.

That wipeout may be unavoidable. Far from being the whole cause of Labor's present position, it is clear that Julia Gillard is nonetheless a large part of it. She has had numerous chances to lift her approval rating, and that of the party, and has proved unable to take advantage of any opportunity. She and the party are stuck in nowhere land. And they may remain there.

Although commentators might call for a quick changeover to Kevin Rudd, the mechanics of doing so are considerable. For one thing, a quick changeover engineered by the so-called ''numbers men'' is likely to cause the same sort of public resentment towards a successor that has dogged Julia Gillard since she and her backers did precisely that to Kevin Rudd.

Moreover, Julia Gillard has fortified her position and will be difficult to dislodge. By getting a bevy of senior ministers to support her with unequivocal public statements during the challenge that Kevin Rudd mounted in February, she locked their political fate to hers.

It was reminiscent of John Howard seeing off Peter Costello, with Julia Gillard convincing her supporters to put her political survival as prime minister above that of the party's survival at the election. Whether the rest of the caucus is equally prepared to commit political harakiri remains to be seen.


There has already been some shift of caucus sentiment since February, as nervous MPs face the prospect of political oblivion. But they face an uphill battle, if history is any guide. The Labor Party is usually loath to depose its leaders. Although, as Kevin Rudd well knows, there have been exceptions.

In 1915, another Queensland prime minister, Andrew Fisher, was effectively deposed by Billy Hughes. Fisher had won a resounding victory for Labor in 1914, but was nonetheless pressured for nearly a year by Hughes to hand over power. Fisher's ill-health and the attraction of a lucrative job in London changed his mind without any blood-letting.

In 1945, prime minister John Curtin was allowed to see out his dying days in the Lodge, rather than being encouraged to resign after having a serious heart attack in 1944. Although the business of government was hampered, nobody was prepared to tap Curtin on the shoulder for the good of the party and the nation. Perhaps more importantly, Curtin apparently never thought to hand over power to his frustrated treasurer, Ben Chifley.

Ironically, Chifley then held tenaciously onto the Labor leadership after he had his own heart attack in 1950. Although losing the 1949 election, he retained the overwhelming approval of Australians as Labor leader. Despite his medical condition, Chifley fought the 1951 election and was re-elected unanimously as opposition leader, only to die from another heart attack just days later.

Gough Whitlam was also allowed to remain as Labor leader in a vain attempt to redeem himself in the eyes of voters after his dismissal and subsequent electoral thrashing in 1975. He was challenged for the leadership in 1977 by Bill Hayden, only to have caucus give him a narrow victory. The weakened leader then led the party to another humiliating electoral loss later that year.

The caucus was not so forgiving of Hayden, who was forced by his colleagues to resign as Labor leader in favour of the more popular Bob Hawke in 1983. Although Hayden would complain that a drover's dog could have won the 1983 election, the numbers men had made an astute choice with Hawke, who proved a good leader.

Caucus repaid Hawke's political success with sufficient loyalty to ensure that the first challenge to his leadership from Paul Keating was defeated. However, with Keating on the backbenches acting as a lightning rod for disaffection and threatening the survival of the government, Hawke could not count on sufficient loyalty to see off a second challenge.

Labor history, and the relative security of her position, will give some encouragement to Julia Gillard as she tries to retain the trappings of power. However, although the caucus has often been hesitant about moving against its leader, regardless of their poor polling or indifferent health, she should not be complacent. As Fisher, Hayden and Hawke discovered to their cost, political loyalty can quickly disappear. After all, nobody likes to be a passenger on a train that is heading over a cliff.

David Day is an Honorary Associate in the History Program at La Trobe University and the biographer of Andrew Fisher, John Curtin and Ben Chifley.

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