Julia Gillard has got to go.
From 44.5% of the primary vote in 2007 to 27% today, from 53.5% of the two-party-preferred vote in 2007 to 41% this morning, from 83 seats in 2007 to 71 this week, she has been an unmitigated disaster. The press gallery has written her off, her colleagues no longer trust her judgment and the public are itchy to not just remove her with prejudice but to do the same to any MP or party tone-deaf enough to insist on her unwavering virtue despite all the evidence. She is trashing the careers of good men and women, forced to support her, and looking foolish.
Gillard has got to go.
As a staffer, campaigner and long-time member of the Labor Party, I know only too well what saying this publicly will probably mean — the cry of “burn the heretic” will soon be up, and accusations of treachery will fill the air. But if the Labor movement occasionally requires a human sacrifice, then Molech must be appeased; and if succeeding in Labor means reacting to it’s disintegration with self-interested silence, then it’s not worth succeeding in.
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Not only must Gillard be removed, but it has to be accompanied by a change in policy on the carbon tax. If the leadership is seen as purely cosmetic surgery, it’ll be greeted with even more contempt. Yet if the new leader were to scrap the carbon tax and move directly to an ETS, it would drop the price from $23 a tonne to about $8, thereby acknowledging the kitchen table concerns of ordinary Australians.
This move would immediately acknowledge the No.1 concern of suburban Australia — the cost of living. Exit polling showed 69% of all voters in Queensland considered it “very important” when casting their vote. The WA Premier, Colin Barnett, is facing a protest vote next year on the issue. Labor cannot claim the mantle of working families while it ignores their primary concern and implements a carbon tax it’s never bothered to explain in their language; by the same token, reducing the price-per-tonne sends a clear signal that the message has fallen on open ears.
The second benefit of such a move would be the alienation of the Greens Party from Labor. The “deal” with Bob Brown and Co, done by Gillard to only gain what Labor would have received anyway (some negotiator!) has done more than any other single thing to trash the ALP brand outside the inner cities — and nothing for it in them. If under a new leader Labor could plausibly claim to have listened to the public, accommodated cost-of-living concerns and jettisoned the Greens Party, it could be back in the game within several months.
Which brings up again the question of who the new leader should be. It cannot be Rudd again, no matter his ambitions — the nuclear decimation of his prime ministerial stewardship last March put paid to that. He is untenable as leader. With him, the Liberal ads have already been written, by Swan and Marles and a good many other Labor frontbenchers. And his return would ensure the whole thing was seen through a purely personal prism of Julia versus Kevin, and any policy implications would be even more ignored than they already are.
Which leaves the rest of the frontbench. You can rule out all the women, unfortunately — it will look far too much like Gillard 2.0. Burke and Combet are capable, sure, but also both unready and too close to the Gillard ascendancy. Bill Shorten is too big a talent to waste on a salvage job; his time is next time. A move to Bob Carr, unluckily, would seem too clever by half. Albanese looks much like a hectoring prefect, no matter his undeniable ability in the House. Simon Crean was a disaster from 2001 to 2003, and Martin Ferguson is the candidate all Liberals dream of facing.
There is only one answer — Stephen Smith.
Smith is good-looking and married; appealing, I’m reliably informed, to a good many women. He might be dull, but it’s a reassuring, family, wife-and-kids kind of dull. He’s held serious portfolios in Foreign Affairs and Defence, embarrassing no one and passing the “meet the Queen” test. He comes from a conservative mining state — exactly the terrain Labor needs to do well in to survive. He’s not seen by the public as ambitious beyond the normal remit of politicians, and must know that should Labor lose in 2013 he will never again be a senior minister, let alone PM. There is, then, a certain freedom in doing what needs to be done, without fear of blotting a future chance at the Lodge.
Even this course of events will only save the furniture. Labor can’t hope for more than 60 seats on a good day, but it can make sure it’s not reduced to a rump. The question is whether the federal Labor caucus still believes in Labor values enough to risk the spoils of office … the answer is anyone’s guess.
Finally, Labor needs to examine it’s own direction with brutal frankness. Pandering to inner-city concerns, signing deals with Greens and generally making the party unacceptable to social conservatives has been an unmitigated disaster for Labor. Historically the ALP has been neither predominantly conservative nor predominantly progressive, but instead been a workers’ party. The clue is in the title — Labor — and yet now the party seems incapable of designing or explaining policy in terms that benefit or appeal to the average working Australian. This failure to understand the innate conservatism of the outer suburbs, this fixation on the language of individualism, is costing Labor dearly.
If the Australian Labor Party, this last, best hope of social democracy for the nation, is to survive, we must stop telling the public they are wrong. We might start admitting that maybe we are the problem, not the voters. We might stop treating the Labor Party as nothing more than a corporate career path, and start fighting about what our values are and what we would die for politically rather than expediently jettison.
Should Gillard not resign — and all indications are that the only guiding principle she considers worthy of defending in the face of electoral defeat is her own continued prime ministership — then the caucus must remove her. It’s why we put them there. It’s hard to say, but the present situation is even harder to see.
Gillard has got to go.