In politics there are plans, even cunning plans. And then there is resignation, perhaps best described as the Micawber option. Mr Micawber, in Charles Dickens”s novel David Copperfield, invariably made plans for a brighter future, despite his dismal reality, in case anything turned up. It seems Prime Minister Julia Gillard and her supporters are waiting for something to turn up that will restore Labor”s political fortunes.
Despite the fact the Labor government is not yet five years old, it is showing signs of serious dysfunction. Last week”s confusion illustrates the point. The decision to allow overseas workers to be employed on remote running projects is good policy. However, it is now the cause of serious disagreement within the government.
Traditionally in Australia, dysfunctional governments have not lasted long. Yet the indications are that Labor, under Gillard or someone else, could well run its full three-year term. Put simply, there is no obvious quick resolution to the current problems. Unlike the situation in 1941 and 1975.
The first Menzies government has not been well regarded by historians. Yet it did quite well. Nevertheless the cabinet soon tired of Menzies and he was forced to stand down in late August 1941. Arthur Fadden, the Country Party leader, became prime minister.
In October 1941 Coles and Wilson withdrew their support from the Fadden government and voted for a no-confidence motion moved by Labor”s John Curtin. Curtin became prime minister on October 7, 1941, and led Labor to the 1943 election which it won easily.
It was extraordinary that in 1941 an incumbent prime minister was dumped by his colleagues at a time of war. It was also unforeseen that the UAP could not find anyone from within its ranks who could lead the country and handed the prime ministership over to the Country Party leader.
But the turmoil was resolved when Coles and Wilson made a decisive move and changed their political allegiance. Today it is not at all clear that any of the independents (Rob Oakeshott, Andrew Wilkie, Tony Windsor) who are backing Labor will switch their support to Tony Abbott and the Coalition.
About the middle of 1974 Gough Whitlam”s Labor government effectively lost control of the economy. This was accompanied by Whitlam”s dismissal or demotion of such key ministers as Jim Cairns, Rex Connor and Frank Crean. By early 1975, Whitlam Labor was clearly a shambles and attempts were made later in the year to repair the damage by the appointment of Bill Hayden and Jim McClelland to key portfolios.
It was all too late – from Labor”s point of view. The Coalition, led by Malcolm Fraser, had blocked supply in the Senate and the governor-general Sir John Kerr dismissed Whitlam in November 1975. There followed a double dissolution election which Fraser easily won.
Contrary to the prevailing cliche, history rarely, if ever, repeats itself. There are no precedents available from 1941 or 1975 as to how the current political turmoil is to be resolved.
Some Coalition backers are hoping the independent Speaker Peter Slipper (ex-Liberal Party) and/or the scandal-prone independent Craig Thomson (ex-Labor) might resign and create a byelection which the Liberal Party could win. Such an eventuality is unlikely.
It would be foolish to make predictions. But it is possible Labor will survive until the 2013 election, despite the dysfunction that surrounds it.
It remains to be seen whether Mr Micawber”s wish fulfilment works and something turns up to save Labor.
Gerard Henderson is executive director of The Sydney Institute.