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Unspeakable dilemma for a stumbling Labor

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Chief Political Correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald

View more articles from Lenore Taylor

A farmer in western NSW told me last week he was a Nationals voter and his daughter ''used to'' vote Labor. ''I don't know what she's going to do now,'' he said. I asked him what he meant. ''Well, the Labor Party's finished,'' he said. To him it was self-evident that the ALP was not an electable prospect. And that was before the latest allegations against Peter Slipper.

What was clear to the farmer in his fields 280 kilometres from Canberra has taken longer to dawn on the members of the federal ALP, preoccupied as they have been with managing minority government, actually governing and dealing with a succession of crises.

There is a sense of frustration that the government's policy achievements are not getting credit, and a deep sense of anger about all that has gone wrong. 

Federally, Labor has appeared to be sleepwalking to oblivion, concentrating on putting one foot ahead of the other without doing anything to change the fact that the path it is on is heading off a cliff.

As its members trudge along, they have been reassuring themselves that the next election was still a long way away, and that things would get better at some point - when the carbon tax legislation passed, or when the Rudd ''destabilisation'' was dealt with and the former leader's ambitions quashed for all time, or when the carbon price came in later this year and was not as disastrous as Tony Abbott has claimed, or when Abbott came finally came under some pressure (insert rant against the media) or when Halley's Comet returned, or something.

There is a sense of frustration that the government's policy achievements are not getting credit, and a deep sense of anger about all that has gone wrong.

But none of that fixes the problem - Labor's primary vote is about 28 per cent and whatever the outcome of the Slipper case, the allegations against him mean that already disastrous vote may well slip even further.

Many are sleepwalking no longer. ''Doing what we have been doing is not working and will not work,'' a senior Labor figure said this week. ''We cannot continue to be seen to be clinging to power just for the sake of it.''

Some Labor sources see the solution as taking a tougher line in Parliament, even if that means accepting a greater level of risk that some legislation may not be passed if independents such as Andrew Wilkie start making new demands.

Astonishingly, just two months after the bloodiest leadership battle in political memory, some are once again musing about the top job. In the case of some of the 31 who voted for Kevin Rudd, this is more to make the point that they never thought things could get better under Julia Gillard.

But after the public mauling in February, they know it would be entirely counter-productive to do anything to push for change, and they are not.

For Rudd to rise from what was supposed to be his political grave, the party would have to turn to the man who was described as an erratic, disdainful, dithering egomaniac presiding over a paralysed government by many who served on his frontbench.

But then again, despite his colleagues' best efforts at interment, Rudd is still preferred by 31 per cent of voters, compared with only 16 per cent who prefer Gillard, according to this week's Essential poll.

Some key figures who backed Gillard in that ballot are now also having doubts. In particular, some in the NSW Right are moving away from her.

They say the Prime Minister is running out of time. If the budget is overshadowed, if the government gets no credit for returning it to surplus, despite all the pain that will cause, they will have to reconsider their February decision.

Some mention Stephen Smith and Bill Shorten as possible contenders, but in the same Essential poll Shorten rated just 6 per cent, and Smith's name wasn't even tested.

In the immediate sense the divisions are being played out in tactical decisions about how to handle the Slipper affair.

The Prime Minister's stated judgment, based on an interpretation of the letter of the law, appears to be that the government can return Slipper to the Speaker's chair if James Ashby's specific claims about Slipper's use of Cabcharges are found to be untrue, even if Ashby's other claims of sexual harassment are still outstanding.

It may be based on the hope that other aspects of Ashby's claim could come under question. It may be designed to leave room for Slipper himself to take the decision that he needs to stand aside for the duration.

But in the end it is also based on a cost-benefit analysis of the most brutal kind. ''Sticking with him is bad but cutting him loose could be worse,'' one Labor MP said.

This judgment stems from the fact that if Slipper is stood aside he cannot vote, and then the government is back to a one-vote majority and will have to negotiate with Wilkie again.

One of the main reasons for taking the risk of the Slipper deal last year was to get out of the deal with Wilkie to implement poker machine reforms. Wilkie is not missing the sweet irony that the government may need him once more.

But some of the party's most senior strategists question this cost-benefit analysis for two reasons. First, it is still quite likely that Slipper will be forced to stand aside from the speakership for the duration of all investigations by a vote in Parliament. And second, fairly or unfairly, the court of public opinion is passing judgment on Slipper for reasons much broader than Ashby's specific claims.

While it is seen to be protecting him, the government is being judged alongside him, and this is reinforcing the perception that it would stoop to anything.

In fact, while it is technically true that civil claims have not usually required a minister to stand aside, the impression created by the government's distinction is that it is not as worried about a sexual harassment claim as about someone filling out a cab form.

By yesterday, Labor was clearly preparing for the contingency that it would have to do without Slipper's vote for some time, insisting it could still pass its budget and get supply. But that is another ''one foot after another'' strategy. It doesn't put Labor on any kind of path to electability.

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