Federal Politics

Liberals can walk policy tightrope while Labor circus is in town

As a follower of Irish politics, the Liberal Party's federal director, Brian Loughnane, is a fan of the acronym GUBU.

Wheeled out in Ireland on occasions of scandal and disrepute, GUBU stands for ''grotesque, unbelievable, bizarre, unprecedented''.

Last Monday night, after Julia Gillard saw off Kevin Rudd in the leadership ballot and then Mark Arbib quit the Senate, Loughnane thought GUBU an apt term to apply to the state of the Labor government. And that was before events turned really strange on Tuesday, when the Herald online exposed the attempt to lure Bob Carr to Canberra as foreign affairs minister and silliness ensued before Gillard salvaged the situation on Thursday.

It will be days, if not weeks, before the impact of the events of the past fortnight filters through in the opinion polls. Despite a few brainless attempts to impute otherwise, Rudd had nothing to do with the on-again,off-again, on-again Carr saga. Consequently, his followers felt smug vindication as it dogged the government. More SNAFU than GUBU, they reasoned. And while, superficially, the Carr coup looks a winner, it and the whole cabinet reshuffle have caused internal consternation.

To her credit, Gillard strove to minimise discontent. Of the five ministers who backed Rudd, only one, Robert McClelland, was given the heave-ho.

As well, she had wanted to punt Kim Carr from the junior ministry. Colleagues on both sides of the leadership war pleaded that she spare him. After all, he was a good minister and, as one MP drily noted, ''we only have about three people in the Senate who can read and write, and he is one of them''.

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The NSW MP Joel Fitzgibbon had been earmarked for a return to a ministry after standing down in 2009 amid allegations of misconduct. Fitzgibbon missed out on Friday. It is now known Gillard offered him a job as parliamentary secretary, a lesser job than his current role as chief government Whip.

Fitzgibbon, a player in the NSW Right who has been riding shotgun for Gillard since she became leader, was so unhappy at the offer that he rejected it.

He probably missed out because Bob Carr and David Bradbury, another to be promoted on Friday, are both from the NSW Right and there was no room for another. But such is the level of mistrust in the ALP that some in NSW blame the Victorians for Fitzgibbon missing out, believing they advised Gillard his return would expose her to more claims of flawed judgment.

To what level others are aggrieved - such as Stephen Smith, who seems to be the biggest loser from the Bob Carr coup - remains to be seen.

As this column stated in December, reshuffles are dangerous because they only ever create enemies; those promoted never give thanks.

This is why Tony Abbott will not shake up his frontbench, even though he should.

Should Labor ever get its act together and rally behind Gillard, the Coalition could as easily implode.

Gillard's December reshuffle was one of the pivotal events that led to the leadership challenge just over two months later because of the enemies it made, especially Kim Carr. Now she has been forced into another - and, again, people are irate.

Those in the opposition are watching with a mixture of glee and caution. Should Labor ever get its act together and rally behind Gillard, the Coalition could as easily implode.

''Never underestimate our ability to turn on ourselves,'' a senior Liberal MP said. Another said, ''We are getting away with murder'', in relation to some of the policies already in the mix.

There are stoushes brewing between the economic Dries and the protectionists inside the Coalition over policy proposals to regulate the market power of the supermarket giants Coles and Woolworths, and to place stricter controls over foreign investment in agriculture.

Last week's party-room skirmish over Abbott's $3.3-billion-a-year paid parental leave scheme highlighted a policy that has little support in either Coalition camp for a variety of reasons.

The Nationals dislike it because their traditional constituency includes stay-at-home mothers who will not benefit from the scheme. Traditional Liberals dislike it because it will be funded by a tax increase on business and with a top-up from a deficit-ridden federal budget.

Political pragmatists feel Labor's taxpayer-funded scheme is proving adequate and has taken the political heat out of the issue.

Abbott has made this policy his own - and to roll it would be to roll him - but that won't stop people griping about it.

But so long as the circus is in town, who is going to notice?

Phillip Coorey is the Sydney Morning Herald chief political correspondent.

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