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Labor on the critical list

Julia Gillard looks concerned during a recent press conference. <i>Andrew Meares</i>

Julia Gillard looks concerned during a recent press conference. Andrew Meares

READERS are heartily sick of the Labor leadership talk and want us to write about policy.

Believe me, there is nothing I would like more. We are all bone weary with this discussion: like a trap from which no one escapes.

The current talk isn't about another thrill-kill, for the hell of it — a bit more gratuitous violence. 

Trouble is, federal Labor keeps circling back to this point.

Bill Shorten ... the default next generation candidate.

Bill Shorten ... the default next generation candidate.

The poor poll trend can't be ignored.

Tony Abbott could take control of both houses of Parliament at the next election, and Labor's legacy is gone.

Carbon tax gone. Mining tax gone. Prospect of history judging this Labor government and this turbulent period in national affairs more kindly than the shouty, superficial, shallow present verdict — gone.

Kevin Rudd ... remains an incredibly divisive figure internally

Kevin Rudd ... remains an incredibly divisive figure internally Photo: Paul Harris

But let's be clear on what's happening now.

This is a different transaction than the discussion inside the party late last year and early this year.

First point. There is no counting or canvassing.

Night-watchman ... Stephen Smith.

Night-watchman ... Stephen Smith. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

Labor MPs thought they had locked in behind Julia Gillard months ago, and the Prime Minister was, as a consequence, sufficiently supported to begin a recovery.

Not a resurrection. That was overly ambitious. But a recovery.

More collaboration and consultation would lead to better decision-making. More esprit de corps. This was the hope.

But right now, that hope is fading. The Prime Minister has rattled that confidence (or perhaps not confidence, but hope).

There is, in fact, very limited appetite for further bloodshed in Labor's ranks.

Many who orchestrated the leadership coup against Kevin Rudd, or went along for the ride, remain scarred by a transaction they now concede was ill-judged — and had consequences they did not expect.

The current talk isn't about another thrill-kill, for the hell of it — a bit more gratuitous violence. It is deep thinking about whether Labor's furniture can be saved at the next election — and the best means of saving it.

Pure and simple. Not personal. Not rancorous. Not about egos or score settling. Just, "what the hell do we do?"

Should Julia Gillard remain where she is, because the alternative creates more problems than it solves? (Perhaps the only remaining option is to let this cycle play out to the bitter end — let the voters cast their judgment on this period.)

Could the Prime Minister be persuaded to step aside in the second half of this year for the good of the party? The stepping aside option is inherently more favourable. It creates the possibility of a clean break, and the opportunity to draw a line over what's gone before.

Julia Gillard's colleagues are firmly of the belief that she would not tap the mat for Kevin Rudd: she would fight. Rudd remains an incredibly divisive figure internally.

Bill Shorten, the default next-generation candidate, is also very divisive internally. There are people inside Labor who would resist Shorten's installation in the leadership as fiercely as they would resist Rudd.

Some Labor people are of the view that Rudd and Shorten effective cancel each other out — neither can be ignored, but unless there is a sea change in the internal attitude to both men, neither can be leader cleanly, without collateral damage.

Perhaps a way to resolve the conundrum is a unity ticket between the two: Rudd as leader, Shorten as treasurer.

But a clean-break alternative some are pondering right now is the third man. A night-watchman, the person who can take Labor to a likely defeat but claw back the scale of the disaster.

Stephen Smith leads the current talk, but he's not the only option the Labor Party has. Some doubt Smith buys Labor anything much apart from the fact that he is demonstrably not Julia Gillard.

What Labor needs in order to put a floor under the primary vote is someone who can be an effective counterpoint to Tony Abbott; who can talk credibly to Labor's base; who is steady under intolerable pressure; and who can cut through in the media.

Talk of factional bosses calling the shots behind the scenes and delivering ultimatums misses an essential point: Labor's factions these days are more about personal fiefdoms than about Right-Left numbers.

Factional bosses delivering ultimatums in newspapers may in fact be more concerned about preserving their own mythology than about actually directing traffic.

Various people will be influential in resolving this problem.

It is my judgment that Wayne Swan's attitude will be critical, and he's very close to the Prime Minister.
Julia Gillard is obviously critical.

Rudd's posture is critical. Shorten, who controls a significant bloc of caucus votes, is critical.

The preparedness of any night-watchman to take on the job is obviously critical, as are the attitude of the labour movement and the unfolding of events.

There is a way to go with this story yet.

Katharine Murphy is The Age's national affairs correspondent.

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531 comments

  • No Katherine, some of the more discerning readers have had a gutful of the media successfully making something out of nothing and illegitimately influencing the political process for no real gain. Shame on you all.

    Commenter
    J
    Date and time
    May 01, 2012, 12:33PM
    • Dear Katherine Murphy.. in the poll set up below the article I would request you to put up a new option - NONE OF THE ABOVE or WE DO NOT WANT A LABOUR GOVT.
      Lets see where we end up after 2 days when the internet poll ends on this website.

      Commenter
      Avengers
      Location
      Parra
      Date and time
      May 01, 2012, 12:43PM
    • and just watch how many weeks of stories the media will squeeze out of this. They just write the same story and serve it up for us idiots - can't help themselves. Meanwhile, real people bleed and real policies are ignored.

      Commenter
      please
      Date and time
      May 01, 2012, 12:44PM
    • I disagree with you completely. I am very discerning and actually wrote a letter to each member from Labor holding a federal seat in parliament months ago letting them know this eventuality would be the case. Lets hope they wake up now.

      Commenter
      JB
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      May 01, 2012, 12:45PM
    • How about the alp gives the people of Australia the election they want?

      Then labor can regroup and maybe find some faults with lnp policy and maybe even win back some of the annoyed former unionists who feel so betrayed by their labor party.

      *Let democracy decide who runs the country instead of desperately holding onto power like this.*

      Commenter
      Alex
      Location
      Finley
      Date and time
      May 01, 2012, 12:47PM
    • I'm with you J. Apparently "Trouble is, federal Labor keeps circling back to this point." yet there's not a single quote to back this up. Shame on you Katharine, and journalistic integrity.

      Commenter
      Phil123
      Date and time
      May 01, 2012, 12:48PM
    • Go the avengers and yes, that would be a alternative - none of the above nitwits or possible rejects from unions, retired ex Labor pollies etc etc. I say "get out and stay out"!

      Commenter
      Bullfrog
      Location
      Australia
      Date and time
      May 01, 2012, 12:51PM
    • How can anyone blame the media for the Labor fiasco? Anyone who genuinely cares about there being a viable alternative to Abbott and his ilk has to hope that whatever happens to Labor, it will be a disaster so huge, so crippling, that the ALP will finally understand it has to become responsible and honest in order to win government. It would be a huge, fundamental change - which is exactly what they need.

      Commenter
      Col in
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      May 01, 2012, 12:52PM
    • "Trouble is, federal Labor keeps circling back to this point."

      No THE MEDIA keep circling back to this point. If you want to write about policy then do it - no-one is stopping you (other than the editors).

      Commenter
      Think Big
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      May 01, 2012, 12:52PM
    • LOVE IT!!!!

      The ALP in crisis - Julia Gillard - the gift that keeps on giving.

      The coalition couldn't have scripted it better, these clowns in the ALP are their own worst enemies and have taken the ability to self destruct to new highs.

      I can't wait for the day that we see them sent into political oblivion.

      Election NOW!!! - Bring it on.

      Commenter
      Mickle
      Date and time
      May 01, 2012, 12:56PM

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