The Gillard government has been, in policy terms, a good one. It’s not up there with the Hawke-Keating or early Howard governments, but its economic management has been better than both of those courtesy of the steady hand of Wayne Swan, Treasury and the independent RBA, and it has accumulated a substantial reform agenda in its limited period. Prime Minister Julia Gillard has also delivered where Kevin Rudd only talked.
But the political judgment of the Prime Minister has always been profoundly flawed. Yesterday’s events look like the desperate measures of a desperate government.
Nothing materially had changed about the HSU situation or Craig Thomson’s circumstances that would justify the government jettisoning him to the crossbenches (or reaching mutual agreement with him to do so). Nothing has changed from the point when Julia Gillard was declaring full confidence in him. Now, he’s out, joining the ever growing ranks of independents on the crossbenches.
Ditto Peter Slipper. It’s only a day or two since Gillard declared Slipper should be back in the Speakership once the issue of his Cabcharge usage was resolved. Now he’s out “for a further period of time” — the sort of bizarre usage that we’ve grown used to from this government since 2007. That turned out to mean “until further notice”.
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Gillard’s justification for her reversals is that she wasn’t aware of how much voters were concerned about the standing of Parliament until she returned to Australia from her Anzac Day travels. This is a kind of weird twist on Bob Hawke’s unilateral rule that he didn’t comment on domestic issues while he was overseas. On returning to our fair shores she realised, she said, “a line had been crossed” — words that have already entered the rogue’s gallery of Gillard pat phrases. Defining what the actual line was — a task that instantly precoccupied the press gallery, to the extent that you half-expected Hawk-eye to be deployed — proved somewhat challenging.
The only line that has been crossed has been within the PMO, where a beleaguered Prime Minister and her staff have reflected on Labor’s dire polling, the Prime Minister’s even worse personal polling, and the growing feeling of sleaze around the government and Parliament.
The government’s backflip on Slipper was a result of feeling compelled to stand by him in the first place, because by turning its back on Andrew Wilkie, a man with whom the Prime Minister negotiated and agreed a deal, the government had left itself hostage to Slipper’s reputation. It wasn’t the elevation of Slipper to the Speakership that was the problem, but the fact that the Prime Minister promptly used that to renege on her deal with Wilkie. If you’re going to swap your votes in Parliament, best to make sure the one you’re getting is more reliable than the one you’re rejecting.
As for Thomson, that is a problem wholly of Labor, and the labour movement’s, making, and one that Labor has allowed to drift for years, particularly after it was sent into minority government.
Yet again, whether true or not, Gillard is left looking like a politician who will do anything to preserve her position, regardless of consistency, regardless of whatever agreements she has made, regardless of the cost. Much of that has been driven by the compromises and deal making necessary to minority government, rather than reflecting on Gillard’s political personality. But when coupled with the circumstances in which she came to the prime ministership, the way she treated Wilkie, and her inability to fulfil her commitment to address the issue of asylum seekers, it is profoundly political damaging for Gillard and her government.
The stench of death increasingly pervades this government. MPs know it. Many are appalled by yesterday, and particularly Gillard’s abysmal press conference. The government may limp all the way to August 2013 — Thomson, after all, apparently intends to continue supporting it in Parliament. But voters have made up their minds, at least about the Prime Minister. And there’s no evidence whatsoever that she has the political judgment to turn that around, if that was even possible.
Michelle Grattan came out hard this morning, calling for Gillard to step down. That won’t surprise too many in the government — some have been complaining about what they call Grattan’s barracking for Kevin Rudd. But there’s no Rudd to blame for this — to the extent that the Gillard camp story that Rudd was behind all their problems ever had a shred of credibility.
Indeed, did the party, even as it handed Gillard a strong mandate in the February leadership spill, really think the flaws in their leader’s judgment would vanish overnight?
So now we’ll kick off the leadership issue again, because if Labor wants to survive as a major party it can’t be led into the election by Julia Gillard.
As for Tony Abbott, he emerged yesterday to demand that the government “disown the vote” of Thomson, a man who is yet to be charged with anything. Abbott didn’t disown the vote of Senator Mary Jo Fisher during her prosecution last year, which led to her being found guilty of assault, nor has he disowned the vote of Senator Sean Edwards, currently involved in litigation over claims of misleading and deceptive conduct. Just another example of how Abbott has long since gone beyond the boundaries of ordinary hypocrisy and into a postmodern zone where neither reality nor consistency matter a damn to him.
Nor does it have to. At the current rate he’s on course to inflict a truly monstrous defeat of Labor.
We get the governments we deserve. But quite what crime we communally committed to deserve two leaders like Gillard and Abbott isn’t clear.