Federal Politics


The ALP must try to stay on the front foot

So, five weeks after pushing up power prices by 10 per cent with the carbon tax, Julia Gillard declares unacceptably high electricity prices have become ''a threat to fairness in our society''.

How does that work?

''Power bills have become the new petrol prices,'' she says, in a new twist to the cost-of-living debate that has badly hurt her government.

The PM has told the conservative states to follow the ACT's lead to rein in the soaring cost of electricity and she is threatening the ''big stick of regulation'' if they don't co-operate.

Labor MPs are pleased to see their leader going on the front foot, for once. Some in her team despair that the electorate appears to have switched off.

Labor's support in the national opinion polls was stuck at very poor levels for months as voters remained ungrateful for the billions of dollars handed out to them as compensation for the impact of the carbon tax.


This scenario means Gillard is entering an important phase of her leadership. Caucus meets on Monday ahead of Parliament resuming the next day for the spring session. Ministers will be given vital feedback from far-flung electorates. What is the feeling on the ground? What can be done about disconnected punters? Do they really hate the PM?

Once again, the elephant in the room is leadership and, once again, another ''deadline'' is being constructed for the issue to be resolved. This time it's Christmas Day. The voluntary handover would have to occur by then to give Kevin Rudd a chance of winning, or losing less badly. So the theory goes.

''There's a point at which Kevin will not agree to do it, that's for sure,'' a Rudd backer says. ''After that [Christmas] I think it would be too late, I don't think he would take it.''

However, Rudd's detractors think he is so ambitious that he would take the leadership any time, even much closer to the election - but only if it is handed to him on a plate.

That's a big call because Gillard is not a quitter. She doesn't strike me as the sort of person who would voluntarily ride off into the sunset.

Rudd has promised not to challenge again. For a change to occur, he would only accept being drafted, with no ballot.

Another change in federal leadership would be starkly reminiscent of the revolving-door style displayed by NSW Labor during its disastrous attempt at governing, and could consign federal Labor to the same electoral wilderness if, that is, that outcome has not already been set in stone.

This far out from an election, the polls say nothing about the outcome but they are important at all times for their impact on a party's psyche. When the party's support is down, the leader is blamed.

The coup against Rudd occurred when his ratings took a sharp dive. It was a quick execution. He wasn't given a chance to recover.

It's useful to recall that event whenever we hear a political leader say they ''take no notice'' of the polls.

At Monday's caucus meeting, Gillard will be applauded for taking on the conservative states over electricity prices. She will be congratulated for calling the bluff of the two largest states, both Liberal-controlled, on the national disability insurance scheme.

Labor MPs feel good about this progress and say this is the type of issue that Labor must pursue. One reason for that is obvious.

Labor must highlight traditional ''Labor values'' if it wants to claw supporters back from the Greens.

One way to do that would to be focus on jobs and job security via the prism of Campbell Newman's sack and burn approach in Queensland.

According to a senior Labor MP, the government should be sharply focused on relentlessly predicting what life would be like for the average worker under an Abbott government. Labor must divert the anger from itself over the carbon tax and turn it onto the conservative state governments that swept Labor out of power in Queensland, NSW and Victoria.

''We need to tell them that Howard promised more of the same but then he ravaged programs, and sacked thousands of public servants, which impacted the private sector,'' the MP says.

''We should be pointing to Queensland where Campbell Newman is taking a wrecking ball to the place, sacking thousands of public servants. We should be saying to people, take a look in the mirror, it would be your job at risk under a federal Coalition.

''The theme should be job insecurity, that your job's not safe under Tony Abbott. We should not be on about Bruce Springsteen, if I can be so bold as to say that.''

Another Labor MP says an intense focus on job security should be obvious. ''Part of the problem is that everything has been carbon tax and asylum seekers. We've got to get off that and get onto the main game - 'It's the economy, stupid'.''

Returning to Canberra, Labor MPs will breathe slightly easier knowing that the government rose five percentage points in the latest Newspoll. But is that result credible, given the margin of error in all polls? More importantly, why did the hike occur and can it be sustained? Sure, there has been no leadership speculation for a few weeks but the joke line is that the PM should go on holidays more often - or have the Olympics staged just before the federal election.

''Part of the benefit of course [of the rise in support] is perceptions, perceptions are everything,'' a Labor backbencher says. ''It's good from the perceptions point of view but from the substantive point of view, it's not worth two bob unless it's repeated on a regular basis, these things have to be trends that are sustainable.''

Three good polls for Labor would be a trend. ''At the moment we have gone from diabolical to just dire,'' another Labor backbencher says. ''So the next few months are going to be critical.''

There is a widespread feeling in Labor that the National Broadband Network is a sleeper issue that could make a difference at the election.

As Parliament resumes, MPs are discovering the roll-out is going to be slower than hoped. Fewer than 100,000 Australian homes and businesses are likely to be connected by the time of the next election, well below the previous forecast of half a million. Gungahlin will not be affected by the slowdown, according to Stephen Conroy, because that work had been allocated and is already under way. The lower forecast of subscribers could make it easier for a Coalition government to abandon the national roll-out.

The NBN should be a winner for Labor. According to the polls, Australians like the idea of this bold project. Labor should be pressing home its argument that the NBN represents the philosophical divide between the government and the Coalition.

The former believes it is the government's role to ensure Australians have access to high-speed broadband while the Opposition wants to wind back the project and ask the private sector to deliver a scaled-down service at a lower cost. Labor's brains trust should be looking to escalate its sales pitch on the NBN as it looks for ways to stay on the front foot.

Ross Peake is Political Editor

Twitter: @rosspeakeCT