As Labor MPs gather in Canberra for the new parliamentary year, with the election date set and the ministry reshuffled, they are unsettled and uncertain.
Julia Gillard’s challenge is to put some hope into her caucus that she knows what she is doing. Some of her followers are perplexed, others are cynical and negative.
The Rudd forces lack the numbers – or at least that is the consensus – but remain on the watch for opportunity. Gillard is at the mercy of the polls.
Today’s Newspoll shows a big drop in the primary vote, which will further unnerve caucus members who are jittery about the messy start to the election year.
Speaking before the latest poll, ALP national secretary George Wright on Sunday pointed out that the primary vote had improved six points in recent months and said: ''We have to believe in ourselves''.
But it is hard for a party that is internally at war, and where many have given up all hope of victory, to have much faith.
Gillard does have a strategy, of which announcing the election date is part – designed to clear a way one distraction and increase the pressure on the opposition – but mistakes and circumstances have derailed it.
Her decision to leave the reshuffle until after the election announcement, rather than doing it late last year, was clearly an unforced error.
The problem of having the future of the Senate leadership in limbo over the break would have been a minor one, especially as the likely recipient of the post (Stephen Conroy, at present deputy Senate leader) would not have been in serious doubt.
Critics point out that if the West Australian Senate vacancy created by Chris Evans’ retirement had been revealed earlier, Gillard could have pressed for an indigenous candidate in that state, rather than cause such a fracas by her insistence on Nova Peris in the Northern Territory.
On the other hand, if her critics were less anxious to find fault, they probably would not be making so much of the problems caused by the reshuffle. Party disunity and a fevered news cycle mean that almost anything the PM does is as likely to burn her as help her.
Meanwhile, local eyes are on the coming preselection for Nicola Roxon’s prize seat of Gellibrand, with some saying that former premier Steve Bracks would be a great candidate. And a brave man, one would think, if he thought of taking that on.
The federal Labor scene after the election might not be pretty.