Julia Gillard is correct. Following her appointment as prime minister, it is “game on”. The leadership change restores Labor as the favourite to win this year’s election. It also demonstrates how efficient the modern ALP is when political survival requires decisive action.
Labor changed from Kevin Rudd to Gillard when it believed it would probably lose to the Coalition led by Tony Abbott. Some ministers and parliamentary secretaries (Tony Burke, Mark Arbib, Bill Shorten, Gary Gray) were involved in the decision along with some parliamentary faction leaders (David Feeney, Don Farrell). They received strong support from the leaders of the Australian Workers Union – Paul Howes in NSW and Bill Ludwig in Queensland. Gillard did not advise Rudd of her intentions until the day before the leadership change.
Compare and contrast how the Liberal Party handled a similar dilemma in 2007 with a leader who appeared to have lost his way. Peter Costello publicly advanced his case for an orderly leadership handover before both the 2004 and 2007 elections and he also put the request personally to the prime minister. The problem was Costello received virtually no support from the parliamentary or organisational wings of the Liberal Party.
After Labor’s victory, I interviewed all the key Liberals involved in the decisions about leadership in the Howard government’s final term for the August 2008 issue of The Sydney Institute Quarterly.
Around the middle of 2007, Malcolm Turnbull suggested to John Howard it might be time to retire and left it at that. In September two cabinet ministers, Joe Hockey and Mal Brough, phoned Howard with the advice he should step down for Costello. Later, Andrew Robb, then a junior minister, had the courage to tell Howard he should quit in a face-to-face meeting at the Lodge. But that was about it.
It is fashionable to accuse Costello of lacking the intestinal fortitude to challenge Howard. However, he had scant support in the ministry and virtually no numbers on the backbench – there was little point in challenging Howard on the eve of the 2007 election.
The appropriate occasion for a leadership handover was around the time of the 10th anniversary of Howard’s victory – March 2006. Kim Beazley was ALP leader. Rudd was not popular among his colleagues then – or now. It is possible Labor might have stuck with Beazley, believing he could defeat Costello.
But the Liberals remained loyal to Howard and Labor decided Rudd was their only hope to win government. The leadership change then – as now – was ruthlessly efficient. It is not clear Costello could have defeated Rudd. But he might have. More likely, a leadership change would probably have reduced the Coalition’s margin of defeat.
Labor’s changes – from Beazley to Rudd and from Rudd to Gillard – demonstrate it does politics more effectively than the Liberal Party. The early polls indicate Gillard will do a better job than Rudd – if only because she has more people skills than her predecessor.
The term “people skills” was used – by Annabel Crabb and some other journalists – in a mocking way against Abbott. The real target for such a critique should have been Rudd. It has been common knowledge for ages, among those with an inside knowledge of politics, that the former prime minister was exceedingly rude to many of his colleagues and others. The footage earlier this year of Rudd appearing to snub the NSW Premier, Kristina Keneally, demonstrated an acute absence of people skills.
No one should deny Gillard’s well-earned political triumph. Yet even her strongest supporters would not claim it was achieved single-handedly. First, Gillard had many able supporters within the ALP. Then there was the Abbott factor.
If Rudd had called an early election late last year when Turnbull was opposition leader, he almost certainly would have won a comfortable victory. By early this year, it was too late. From the time Abbott took over as leader in December, he began de-authorising Rudd.
Abbott is particularly able at negative politics. He pulled down Rudd primarily on two issues, the carbon pollution reduction scheme and the resource super profits tax. Both were presented as great big new taxes which would have an adverse effect on all Australians. Without Abbott’s ability to deliver clear messages, it is far from certain Labor would have changed leaders.
Abbott may not have many fans within the parliamentary press gallery, but as the former Labor minister Graham Richardson acknowledged on Sky News last Thursday, Abbott has a certain appeal among what’s left of the working class and other lower socio-economic groups.
Recently, on the ABC1 Insiders program, journalist Laura Tingle declared “everybody thinks” the Opposition Leader is “an absolute stinker”. Not so, according to the only available scientific evidence. According to yesterday’s Newspoll, some 42 per cent of voters are satisfied with Abbott’s performance. Sure, his disapproval rating – at 41 per cent – is also high. But the polls indicate Abbott’s political support is greater in the general community than it is within the journalist profession.
Labor under Gillard starts a clear favourite. Yet the Prime Minister understands the election will be decided in the outer suburbs and regional centres. Abbott may be on the nose in Ultimo and Brunswick but it is far from clear that he is an absolute stinker elsewhere. It’s game on and we shall soon know for sure.