Tuesday, 1 May 2012
Here we go again. Except this time it’s different.
Labor’s problem is not sleaze, but a lack of political authority. Gillard’s weekend move has just made that worse.
On their own, both the Thomson and the Slipper affair should have been relatively easy to handle. Thomson wasn’t a Minister so there would have been no great back-down from slapping him a bit, making a big song and dance about taking him off any committee, and even talking about the seriousness of the charges and the need to clean up the unions (without actually doing anything about it). The threat would have been that Thomson resigned his seat and caused a by-election, but then someone with the threat of criminal charges from activities in an organisation Labor still has some influence over, might not have been in a strong position to negotiate.
Slipper should have been even easier. First, because standing him aside would not have fundamentally changed the government’s position. Secondly, because his alleged misdemeanours occurred while he was a Liberal and thirdly, because of that, was much more widely seen as a problem with “all politicians” rather than just the government that appointed him to the Speakership. Labor could have easily done as Shorten actually did, talk up the seriousness of the sexual harassment charge while leaving everything to the investigation.
But this is not really about Thomson and Slipper, or even Labor’s tactics for handling them. Both cases have simply become another touchstone for what the problem has been all along, the chronic loss of political authority from a party that remains organised on a basis that has little social meaning. By coming back to “take control” of the situation, Gillard merely made the issue all about herself again.
When Gillard said a line had been crossed in perceptions of Parliament, it was a line that even most of the Canberra Press Gallery, normally most sensitive to such things, could not even see. Rather it was the line around her own leadership that was being crossed. Grattan, in a sharp piece that alluded to former glory, put her finger on it by showing how Shorten did a nice undermining of the PM by fully backing her (even if it made him look like a joke to anyone else) but without actually arguing for her position – indeed actually contradicting it.
What is happening now is historic because it is the first round of Gillard leadership speculation that even Barrie Cassidy can’t blame on Rudd. But inevitably talk turns to the possibility of Rudd’s return. Yet in speculating on it there is some obliviousness in the Press Gallery to what has changed in the dynamic since February.
This is a dynamic that can be little explained by electoral realities. This is about an internal power struggle in the party for which since June 2010 (indeed even for some months before) the electorate has come an increasingly poor second to the needs of ALP power brokers to hang on. The result of the attacks on Rudd in February was not only to flush him out, and force a premature challenge before he could build momentum, but to do whatever possible to prevent another one.
This was why we had the bizarre parade of Ministers, as well as Gillard herself, launching vitriolic attacks on not only Rudd personally, but also on his time in office, so as to warn of the dangers of another go. It didn’t matter that it meant trashing Labor’s biggest asset, its handling of the GFC. The Coalition made some inroads attacking the periphery of the government’s program around pink batts etc. But even they didn’t go as far as Gillard did in her Adelaide press conference on the 23 February when she made clear that the dysfunctionality went to the very heart of the government at the time.
The most damaging aspect of the Ministry’s attacks was not so much what it did for Rudd, but to suggest that his return would now mean half the Cabinet walking out. In effect, the government strapped explosives around its waist and threatened to blow itself up were Rudd to come back. There was always going to be damage to Labor’s credibility if they turned back to someone they had previously dumped. What the government did in February was to make the damage explicit – and personal.
In doing so, the government has reduced any electoral benefits from a Rudd return and, combined with the even deeper disillusionment of the electorate since then, has made an electorally successful second Rudd term even less likely this side of the election and so raises the question why he would bother.
This suggests two things. First, having made such a stand, it seems even more likely that the party will turn to someone else before Rudd on grounds that will make little electoral sense. Secondly, a Rudd return would require an even greater gutting out of the party’s structure as outlined in a piece by Hawker last week. With the first looking more likely, it looks increasingly as though the electorate will have its own “gutting out” of the party, before the likes of Hawker can dress it up as “party reform”.
Posted by The Piping Shrike on Tuesday, 1 May 2012.Filed under State of the parties