Rudd or Gillard: Does it really matter?
When then Treasurer Paul Keating made his move against Labor Prime Minister Bob Hawke in 1991 he did so on two grounds.
Firstly he claimed that Hawke had ratted on the so called Kirribilli House agreement between the two men for a transfer of power at the top. But more significantly as far as the public and specifically his fellow caucus members were concerned he was arguing that he was the best chance Labor had to retain Government. His message was that leadership overrode popularity when it came to the crunch with the electorate.
And as luck would have it he was able to crow about the sweetest victory of all after he defeated the Coalition under John Hewson at the 1993 poll. Many would argue that this was an unloseable victory that Hewson somehow managed to throw away rather than a vote of confidence in Keating’s leadership skills.
Be that as it may a win is a win.
Years later another Treasurer-this time deputy Liberal leader, Peter Costello, found himself in a similar situation as the country moved towards the 2007 election. Costello felt he had done the hard yards and was entitled to take the seat at the top of the table particularly as there had been an understanding between him and Prime Minister, John Howard, that this would occur.
Costello’s strategy in a grab for power was simple: He had to tell the party that he was the best and only chance it had to retain Government- under Howard it had none. Once he did this the numbers game would have been on in earnest. The fact that he did not have the necessary numbers before calling it on would have been irrelevant. Costello needed to be prepared to fall short the first time around and be willing to go to the backbench pending a second assault.
But clearly Costello did not have the stomach for any of this instead relying on the argument that leadership was a matter for the party. The reality was that he had to carry the day with the party not the reverse. Anyway nothing changed. The Liberals were thrashed, Howard lost his seat and Costello, who declined to run for leader in opposition, went on to resign from parliament.
This brings us to the latest leadership machinations between Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, and Kevin Rudd the man she politically assassinated before the 2010 election.
The argument by Rudd’s supporters that Gillard’s disastrous leadership of the Labor Government has made a win at the next election impossible is the same line her backers used to blow Rudd out of the Prime Minister’s office.
In both cases, going on the opinion polls anyway, these forecasts look pretty accurate. Rudd’s procrastinating, micromanaged style of leadership put him offside with most of the Labor Party and saw his personal support in the community plummet.
And Gillard was able to claim justification for her assertion that under the Rudd leadership the Labor Government had lost its way by squeaking over the line in the last election albeit in a deal with a handful of independents.
But the opinion polls in recent months reflect a growing disenchantment with Gillard and the post-Rudd path she has set for Labor and the country. This is so entrenched that it is hard to see how Rudd could turn it around enough to get Labor over the line at the next election due by the end of 2013.
So while Keating and Costello could argue to their respective parties, “ You need to make me leader because I am your only hope if you want to stay in Government”, who is going to believe that Rudd can pull off the impossible if he seizes back the prime minister’s mantle?
Surely the best that Rudd could achieve is to lessen the electoral damage if he has a personal popularity that translates itself into electoral appeal. Of course this may be attractive to those ALP parliamentarians who are currently staring at inevitable annihilation under Gillard’s leadership. On the other hand leadership changes in NSW made no difference to the Armageddon which Labor confronted in the 2011 election.
In the 2010 election campaign we were told to expect a “new Julia” and Rudd is now suggesting a new, more approachable and understanding, Kevin. But unless he has had a sudden reawakening since he micromanaged the ill-fated Australia Network tender into, effectively, his own international television service nothing has changed.
Rudd may not be able to steer Labor to a victory at the next election but it would deliver him the opportunity to take the party to the polls as prime minister- something that was denied him by Gillard. But if political history is anything to go by he may have to spend some time on the back bench before he gets there.
And this would give no comfort to Gillard.