With the Gillard government apparently headed for a crushing defeat, it’s perfectly healthy and natural that speculation about a change of leadership has emerged. It was Howard’s weak polling in 2007 that fueled speculation about a last minute leadership change in favour of Costello, it was only when trailing hopelessly in the polls that Bob Hawke was finally run down by Paul Keating and the official reason given for the sacking of Kevin Rudd was that he was losing and showing no signs of recovering. The fact is that parties do and should consider the likelihood of winning the next election when they elect a leader and at the moment it appears unlikely that Julia Gillard is capable of winning the next election. Despite this there are two reasons why changing leaders is fraught with more danger than is generally the case.
The first is the Rudd fiasco. Conventionally there is trade off when a major party changes leaders; they suffer a bit for looking inconsistent and wavering but gain more for having rid themselves of a political liability and (hopefully) empowered a political asset. If the Labor government were to change leaders now; the perceptions of fickle inconsistency and instability would be compounded significantly by the memories of the Rudd sacking. As it were however, the standing of Julia Gillard in opinion polls is so dire that there is little to be gained from avoiding a spill. Unlike John Howard and Bob Hawke, Gillard is not merely losing popularity because she is out of touch but because she is perceived to lack authority. The role of factional powerbrokers in elevating her to the leadership, her dependence on the support of crossbenchers in the House of Representatives and her self styled humility has seen her denied the perception of a safe, reliable leader typically afforded to incumbent Prime Ministers.
The other added risk to changing leaders now is the agreement the crossbenchers have with Julia Gillard personally. While it may be technically true that the agreement they made was not with the Labor Party, it requires some imagination to believe that Bob Brown, Andrew Wilkie or Tony Windsor are going to support an Abbott premiership. Rob Oakeshott may have less personal animosity towards Abbott but all polls in his electorate of Lyne say he is gone for all money and torpedoing the Labor government would more or less ensure an imminent election. Obviously it’s not my government but I think, given the desperate state of affairs in the Labor Party, it might be worth calling the crossbenchers respective bluffs.
But what would happen politically if the government installed a more electable leader? Defence Minister Stephen Smith is experienced, articulate and debonair. He comes across as calm, sensible, patient, dignified and a great many other positive adjectives. No doubt he could improve on Labor’s current position and might just get over the line if everything went according to plan. The other sensible alternative, Kevin Rudd, is a lot more interesting and dramatic.
A return of Rudd is probably the one way the government can shake the perception that factional leaders and union bosses now wield absurd amounts of influence over government policy. When he was elected in 2007 he did so against a backdrop of anti-union commercials from the Howard government who portrayed Rudd as a puppet of unpopular figures like Joe Mcdonald. Rudd himself went to great strides to prove Howard wrong but in June 2010 the ALP caucus vindicated Howard in a way nobody had imagined at the time. The factions demonstrated that they didn’t merely influence ministers and the Prime Minister, but if resisted they would choose them. In doing so they consolidated the public perception that Rudd was, as they say “his own man,” not a puppet or a pawn like the rest of Labor. He wouldn’t be tied to the unpopular brand of Labor, like Tony Blair he has the ability to centralize the image of a party around his own, highly popular personality and distract from the unpopular image of movement born out of a long since expired era of class warfare.
Yet it is those virtues which make Rudd an impossible choice for the caucus. The reason he can cut this image of autonomy from the factional bosses is the mutual disdain between them. They might be unpopular but the factional bosses are humans too, with feelings and everything. Like Rudd they went into politics with some ideas about how to make the world a better place and understandably take none too kindly to Rudd’s portrayal of them as some sort of cancer on democracy. It therefore remains for Rudd to convince a majority of MP’s in the federal caucus to defy the directives of their factional leaders and vote for him. While he’s at it he might buy some lottery tickets.
It’s not a bad idea for Rudd to return to the leadership, it’s just not possible.