This should have been a wonderful week for the Prime Minister. She should have been tripping merrily through a field of political daisies, as difficult an image as that might be to conjure of our workaholic Prime Minister. On Monday, she announced the imminent delivery of the landmark National Disability Insurance Scheme – which has achieved rare bipartisan support in this most fractious of Parliaments. And then on Tuesday, the Reserve Bank dropped interest rates, exactly as she and Wayne Swan had hoped it would – and by 50 basis points, double what most experts predicted.
Some economists may question the government’s insistence on bringing the budget back into surplus, but politicians know that a reduction in mortgage repayments matters far more to the average voter than the country’s abstract macroeconomic health. Besides, if the budget isn’t brought back into surplus, Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey and Wayne Swan will say mean things about Julia Gillard, Wayne Swan and black holes. So by her own metaphor, the PM is not only full-forward for the Western Bulldogs, but kicking a clutch of sweet, sweet goals.
But Julia Gillard isn’t having a wonderful week. She’s playing more like the actual Western Bulldogs, in fact, who are 2-3 for the season. (Although unlike her, the Dogs managed to win over Western Sydney.) Unfortunately, there’s that vexing little problem of the electorate. This is the week of Labor’s second-worst Newspoll performance ever – a yawning 59-41 gap on a two-party preferred basis, which means she’s polling about the same as Anna Bligh was before Labor was reduced to single figures in Queensland. Clive Palmer may be willing to build the Titanic II, but on those figures, Julia Gillard should be the skipper.
So the media is once again full of speculation about a leadership challenge. Despite senior government ministers having attempt earlier this year to not only bury Kevin Rudd but stomp on his grave, pour salt on the surrounding earth and erect those new warning signs designed to tell future generations not to excavate a site for thousands of years, he is the only viable option if Labor is willing to risk another change of leader. Any other move would be a fresh backstabbing, not a restoration, and simply remind voters how angry they are with Labor over Rudd.
For months now, the PM and her Deputy have been arguing that their strong performance will ultimately turn things around. Swan has talked of a political dividend as voters belatedly realise just how cracker a job the government is doing. It’s Field of Dreams logic: if we build it, they will come. But even Swanny must be beginning to have his doubts now. The only person who’s definitely coming for him is an angry billionaire.
With an election just over a year away and another Queensland or NSW-scale defeat looming, only without the justification of the party having been in power for over a decade, almost every Labor MP now must be panicking. Even some of those, you’d have to imagine, who voted for Julia Gillard in the spill. Because the choice on the table no longer seems like one between a Prime Minister who’s effective and one who’s difficult. It’s the choice between being an MP and finding another job.
(Although it seems the HSU may soon be hiring.)
And that’s what makes a change increasingly inevitable, as even John Howard has pointed out. “In the end,” he said, “the instinct for political survival is very strong”. And he, the famous “Lazarus with a triple bypass”, would know. He has also seen that sometimes the voters just don’t change their mind before election day, no matter what you do. And he’s well aware just how much the Australian electorate likes Kevin Rudd.
Julia Gillard has a unique capacity to simultaneously chalk up policy victories and public relations disasters. It’s as though her everyday world, in which legislation is carefully tweaked until it somehow appeals to both the ornery Independents and the Greens, exists in another dimension from the one inhabited by the general public and the media.
(I think hers is called “Canberra”.)
In this other dimension, the PM’s currently tainted by the twin disasters of Peter Slipper and Craig Thomson, both beleaguered by allegations of both financial and sexual impropriety and both of whom she has doggedly defended, and then, without a change in circumstances in either case, abruptly cut loose because “a line was crossed”.
Furthermore, in the dimension outside Canberra, where opinion polls are conducted, she’s still imposing a carbon tax that most people hate and still hasn’t been forgiven for knifing the Prime Minister that most people liked.
If her performance had the capacity to save Gillard, it should have done so already. She’s already passed a raft of landmark legislation. What else can she do from here? With other Prime Ministers, there was an initial base of election-night euphoria and enthusiasm to recapture, as John Howard successfully managed to do despite being behind in the polls to both Kim Beazley and Mark Latham. But Julia Gillard has never won a Federal election in her own right. And any poll can tell you that it’s now overwhelmingly likely that she never will.
Sometimes, the writing is on the wall and it’s just a question of reading it. It’s an ages-old problem that was addressed in the dating realm by two of the sages behind Sex & The City, Greg Berendt and Liz Tuccillo, in their classic tome He’s Just Not That Into You. Now, I have many problems with this book, some of which I outlined here, but in one respect, it is absolutely right. There’s no point sitting around and waiting in the hope that people will change their mind. And yet, to adopt the parlance of S&TC, Gillard and Swan are perched by the phone, waiting for Big to call.
Well, guys, he’s not gonna call. He’s more interested in Tony. Maybe he’d be interested in calling your former friend, Kevin, but one thing’s clear: no way is your phone gonna ring. When someone has written you off, it’s borderline impossible to get them to care again.
Okay, so I’ve just compared Australian politics to Sex & The City. That’s not really fair – at this point, Carrie and her friends have far more to offer. Even including their most recent movie.
It’s easy to take a swing at the Labor piñata – it’s clearly on the verge of cracking. But there’s a broader problem here, though, and it’s the one highlighed by Tony Abbott’s biggest problem – his personal lack of popularity. In that latest Newspoll that has the Coalition at record numbers, 55% of voters nevertheless expressed dissatisfaction with him. Sure, compare that to the ongoing Gillard catastrophe and he’s laughing – her dissatisfaction rating’s sitting at 63%. But still, it’s a surprising figure in the same poll that tells us he’ll lead a Parliamentary rout.
With two deeply unpopular leaders, the Speaker under a cloud, the iconic Leader of the Greens retiring, and even the rural independents having threatened their previous popularity by supporting this government, the electorate could be forgiven for getting fed up with whole of the political system, since every cynical instinct we have is ultimately justified.
Take yesterday’s events, for example. Suspicious about potential corruption in the union movement? Why, here’s the former national President of the ALP trying to escape a police raid with a bag of documents! Allegedly.
Perhaps we should consider selling the whole box and dice to Clive Palmer after all. At least it’d be entertaining, not to mention less depressingly predictable. And at least, unlike the Prime Minister, he knows when he’s on board the Titanic.