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Rudd resurrection no miracle cure for Labor


'Labor Leadership' by Chris JohnstonSpeculation is in the air again that Julia Gillard's leadership is under immediate threat. It has been fuelled, if the roaring blaze needs any more fuel, by the Malaysian asylum seeker processing controversy, yet another disastrous opinion poll (Nielsen in The Age and the SMH), a revitalised Kevin Rudd, and perhaps by the satirical ABC TV program At Home with Julia.

Now I didn't predict Kevin Rudd's demise last 24 June but I did say the next morning in the Canberra Times (and later in Eureka Street) that Rudd might still have won the next election and that the consequences of the change were unpredictable. That has turned out to be the case in spades.

In recent times I have argued consistently, including in Eureka Street, that Labor now should stick with Gillard for better or worse and hope that the next election is not for another two years. Labor will most likely lose that election, but my view has been that no other potential Labor leader will do better. The failure of multiple changes in NSW to improve Labor's situation is one piece of supporting evidence.

Even if Gillard was to be replaced it should only be after being given a decent shot at the job; therefore, no earlier than mid-2012.

Gillard's position now can most likely not be revived. But where there is life there is hope and she seems determined to stay the course. Her spirited performance in parliament last week in support of the carbon tax legislation shows that.

I don't see At Home with Julia as causing her more damage, and it may even evoke sympathy. It is certainly disrespectful of the office of PM but, while there has been no previous direct equivalent, other prime ministers, including John Howard, have copped plenty of disrespect too. 'Look-alikes are the craze both here and in the USA.

However never before has an Australian leader's spouse been lampooned like Tim Mathieson. He has to endure a lot to sexism, but will rise above his portrayal as a goofy house husband-type figure.

The Nielsen Poll is especially stark evidence of the weakness of Gillard's position. What was new about the poll was that it sharpened the choice for anyone considering a leadership switch. Rudd really is the only alternative offering much hope of a Labor revival. The others like Stephen Smith, Simon Crean, Bill Shorten and Greg Combet do not have the necessary popular appeal.

Rudd, remarkably given the devastating public criticism of his personal characteristics only 18 months ago, does have more public appeal than Gillard. In fact, the poll suggests that led by him Labor might be favoured (by 52:48 after preferences) to defeat the Coalition if an election were to be held now. That has led to further speculation about a snap election if Rudd became leader once again.

Labor MPs facing annihilation would only be human if tempted by such a promising scenario. So anything could happen, but Labor would be making another mistake if it happened right now.

There are uncertainties galore for Labor in the Rudd-led revival option. They are about much more than eating humble pie by admitting a mistake, although there would have to be a lot of that.

Aren't Labor's problems of Rudd's making anyway and wouldn't that be the legitimate thrust of the Coalition's response? This applies to asylum seekers, the mining tax and the carbon tax. If Rudd takes over and quickly shows he is not the answer, isn't Labor in even bigger strife, if that is possible? Being a martyr can only take Rudd so far.

Can't the same things be said again about Rudd as have been said about Gillard; that is, that he doesn't have a mandate and has been installed undemocratically by cronies outside of an election? Admittedly there would be a new twist, but there has been an election since he was deposed.

Wouldn't this be a breach of faith with the Independents and the Green that support the minority government? They might go along for the ride anyway, but there would need to be some healing.

Rudd as PM would be a refurbished broom but not a new one. If he was to be re-installed then John Howard's Lazarus impersonation and Robert Menzies' return to office in 1949 would have been outdone by perhaps the most remarkable twist ever in Australian politics. Only insiders know whether it is a chance of happening. Only Australian voters know whether it might work.

John WarhurstJohn Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University and a columnist with The Canberra Times.

Topic tags: John Warhurst, Julia Gillard, Kevin Rudd, Labor Leadership



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Existing comments

This is exactly what we've been saying ... and getting paid a lot less to say it.

mal Lappin | 19 September 2011  

Another problem with changing mid-leaders mid-stream is it confirms the focus on "branding" and personality polling rather than policy, which explains the crudity of much mass-media coverage of important issues and why politicians sound so superficial. Besides, I can't see restoring Kevin Rudd would be a remedy to bad policy: despite his pre-axing caution against "moving to the right", wasn't it he who lurched the asylum seeking policy back towards a harsher regime in the first place? Anyone wanting to replace Julia Gillard with a radical mover would be disappointed surely. Kevin Rudd rode high on easier symbolic gestures but when it became too hard he folded: no democratic socialist or idealist he! His political persona did not convey the impression of someone who had articulated any discernibly consistent philosophy that would drive a policy stream we could all get a handle on. For bad or worse, the Labor party has long abandoned the path of promoting reform based on equalisation and wedded itself to the various forms of meritocracries defined by its opponents. The right of the Labor party will have itself to blame principally for any return to conservative government.

Stephen Kellett | 19 September 2011  

I'm a little surprised that a Professor of Political Science seems to assume that Australia has a Presidential style system of elections. I vote for my local member, who may or may not be a member of a particular party. If that party achieves a majority in Parliament, it chooses a leader. I do not ever directly vote for a PM therefore no PM will ever have a mandate. It is the particular party with the majority that has the mandate to pursue its policies.

In the current Parliament, neither party has a mandate as such, but Labor's coalition with the Greens and the Independents gives it a majority and hence the right to choose a PM.

ErikH | 19 September 2011  

Last week I was polled regarding contemporary Australian politics.
Who would make the best (sic) Prime Minister?
Julia Gillard or Tony Abbott.

But wait a minute, I said to myself, Abbott's nevere been PM.
Gillard is a least in the position. She's carried some baggage to the chair but when she walks into a room or a press conference she doesn't swagger in like a gangland hitman looking for his boss's rival.
Does that count for anything when being assessed as a good PM?
I don't know.
When poll results are announced I'd like to see:
1. the exact wording of the questions
2. the exact numbers of the respondents
3. their specific breakdowns eg. age, gender location, education.
4. the numbers of those who refused to be polled or to answer certain questions.
Rather than speculating on poll results as a renowned political scientist Prof Warhurst would do the Australian public (and democracy) a big favour if he (or a group of ANU polisci students) would write a critique of political opinion polls various media use for the foundation of titillating "news" stories.

Uncle Pat | 19 September 2011  

Erick h is technically correct - we don't vote directly for a PM (or President), but practically that's the way the major parties campaign and that's what many people think - witness the populist protest that 'we voted for Kevin, not Julia' or the shock-jocks' calls for an election to resolve the 'problem' of minority government.

In my opinion, Gillard has handled the minority situation better than any other player on either side of the House could have, and that includes the prosecution of the NBN and carbon tax legislation. It's a pity that she has chosen the wrong and probably un-winnable approach to asylum-seekers at a time when there are indications that public opinion is turning away from the aggressive approaches pedalled by Howard and Gillard's sundry predecessors.

Rudd got rid of Howard and his government; that's his legacy, and we should be thankful for that, but he is not the person to lead us or the ALP into the 2010s.

Ginger Meggs | 19 September 2011  

A leader's spouse has been lampooned before Tim Mathieson. The Naked Vicar Show in the 1970s included sketches entitled "The Lodge" and Tammy Fraser was impersonated as a lovable scatterbrain by Noeline Brown.

Anne | 19 September 2011  

Kevin is a loquacious charlatan.Julia is from central-casting at Emily's List.
Sadly,the once great "Labor" Party is now a flaccid franchise.

Gray Lindsay | 19 September 2011  

The most remarkable thing about a return to the PM-ship by Kevin Rudd is the grim determination of the powerbrokers in the Labor Party that it won't happen.

But they've got it wrong. Again.

They are far too determined not to listen to what the Labor voters or the polls are trying to tell them. The people who vote for Labor appear resolutely to want Kevin. Again.

Have Shorten, Arbib, Combet, Gillard, Swan, Roxon, Beatty, et al ever heard of the saying, 'Cutting off your nose to spite your face"?

Bring back Rudd. God knows, we need him.

Anna Hewes | 23 September 2011  

Me too Anna. Bring Rudd back. Without him as leader, I don't think Labor has any chance at the next election. With him they certainly would. Rudd is a very bright man. He would have learned much from his (alleged) failings that brought him undone when he was PM. And he's had the experience. We need him at the helm, again.

LouW | 23 September 2011  

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