Date: May 07 2012
Federal Parliament resumes tomorrow with the handing down of the budget for the year ahead. For many, however, interest in the budget, and broader details of the government's plans, will be seen primarily through the prism of Labor leadership and whether Prime Minister Julia Gillard and the government are likely to see out the term.
This is much as it has been all year. Nothing fundamental has changed. Peter Slipper, the Speaker, has stood aside, and Craig Thomson, the Labor MP under a deep cloud because of allegations of rorting his trade union, has been stripped of his Labor tag and sent to the cross-benches, but, assuming that the government maintains the general confidence of the Greens member and two independents, it has the numbers, at least so far as supply is concerned.
Nor has there been any material change in the opinion polls. Indeed, that is the primary reason for the continued morbid focus on leadership. The polls go up and down a bit, but they show no general improvement in popular approval of the government, or of its leader - least of all after her routing of a challenge, earlier this year, from her predecessor, Kevin Rudd. Before that challenge, there was some tendency to suggest that her continuing poor poll figures were because of destabilisation of Mr Rudd and his supporters; now she has no such excuse, but seems to have made no headway at all.
This is in spite of considerable doubts in the public's mind about the character, potential and qualities of Tony Abbott as alternative prime minister. Many are reluctant to embrace him. But it is more than clear that they have, at least for the moment, definitely decided that they do not want Ms Gillard or Labor, and that they are ready, indeed anxious, for the election of a Coalition government. Just as disturbing for the government is the feeling that the public has made up its mind, has stopped listening, and that the position cannot be retrieved by reason, a mere focus on improved communications, a deluge of advertising and spin, or even, a realisation, down the line by voters that they had been conned by Mr Abbott about the awfulness of a carbon tax and the government's general management.
Some erstwhile Gillard supporters are in despair about her political misjudgments (most recently in failing to recognise the damage that an image of tolerating ''sleaze'' was doing to the government) and inability to cut through with voters. Patience is wearing out. But, it is said, some want to wait until they can assess how the budget has gone down with voters, and, perhaps, to see whether there is any bounce to be had for Labor from tax cuts in July. Experience suggests that it is unlikely that budget or tax measures will make much difference to the government's standing. No doubt some hope or expect that the Coalition, and Mr Abbott in particular, can be made uncomfortable about how it would achieve better surpluses, and deliver bigger tax cuts through specified cuts to government spending and services.
There is little doubt that the Coalition is a mass of contradiction on such matters, with real tension between experienced senior frontbenchers, who are focused on bottom lines, and others - including Mr Abbott - who are more populist in their talk but nervous in identifying cuts they would make. Yet Labor has proven ineffective in exploiting this tension in the past; it is of the essence of Mr Abbott's political success that he has succeeded in making the competence and ability of Labor the issue, rather than the virtues of the team he leads.
There is also the want of an obvious successor. Even now, polls suggest that a wounded Mr Rudd would be preferred by voters to Ms Gillard, but, given the damage Labor inflicted on him, and itself, in the leadership struggle, it is difficult to imagine a restoration, even by a drafting. Some of those with future ambitions, such as Greg Combet and Bill Shorten, may well judge, as Mr Rudd should, that the position of Labor is so terminal that taking on the leadership would be a poisoned chalice. Some older hands - a Simon Crean, a Stephen Smith, a Wayne Swan or perhaps even a Bob Carr - might imagine themselves required by duty to offer to take transitional reins, but it is doubtful that the nation is looking for a lame-duck leader, or that Ms Gillard would readily let power go.
Many will insist that Labor and its leader have made solid policy, program and economic achievements even in spite of the polls. It is true that good policy is, as Paul Keating put it, good politics. But this is a government that has never seemed able to get the politics, and the message, right. That's why Labor seems in its death throes, hardly able to pretend that all is well. Its final agonies may well be more than a year off, but it seems only a miracle can save it.
This material is subject to copyright and any unauthorised use, copying or mirroring is prohibited.
[ Canberra Times | Text-only index]