Gillard displays grace under pressure

dennis-altman-big Professor Dennis Altman


First published in The Australian on 6 February, 2012.

It is time for Kevin Rudd either to definitively rule out a challenge to Julia Gillard for the Labor leadership, or to retire, as Keating did, to the back bench and announce he is campaigning for her position.

I do not accept the proposition, advanced by some of his supporters, that Rudd could change Labor's standing in the polls. However, I strongly believe that his continuing low-level undermining of Gillard makes recovery for Labor difficult. The idea that someone who was ousted by his peers for poor leadership can now magically reverse the situation is pure fantasy.

A change of leadership now would merely reinforce the perception that Labor is divided and unable to decide on its direction. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde: to lose one leader may be a misfortune; to lose two looks like carelessness. Has Labor learnt nothing from its revolving-door leadership in NSW?

Rudd's present lead in the polls is purely hypothetical, and is inflated by voters who are generally fed up with the government. Moreover it is odd that those who complain about Labor being poll-driven place so much reliance on polling to suggest that changing leaders will save their electoral chances.

The strongest argument against Gillard is that she has broken commitments, especially on the carbon tax and now poker machine reform.

In both cases her defence is realism: the parliamentary balance has not allowed her to meet these promises. A change in Labor leadership would do nothing to alter that reality.

Indeed the perception of the Labor government losing its way dates back to Rudd's abandonment of his own carbon emissions trading scheme. Unless Rudd is prepared to offer some genuine alternative set of approaches to those of the current government the argument for his return is meaningless.

In retrospect the caucus was probably wrong to unseat Rudd when it did, and it is conceivable that had it not lost its nerve it could have held on to a couple more seats and avoided minority government status. But equally, had Rudd called a double dissolution election when Malcolm Turnbull was still opposition leader Labor most likely would have won an outright majority.

In the present situation Gillard is developing a style of leadership that deserves the support of her party. She has handled an extraordinarily complex parliamentary situation with skill and aplomb, and some of her natural grace under pressure is beginning to break through the media dislike of her.

Possibly Rudd had more potential to be a great leader. At his best he could summon up a vision of a better and a fairer Australia, playing its role as a decent global citizen in ways that Gillard rarely expresses. But as she grows into the position one hopes she will be more confident in reaching back to her radical past rather than exhibiting a gut response to what polls and talkback radio demand.

Gillard has yet to project a genuine vision of national leadership equivalent to Rudd's apology to the Stolen Generations. The High Court decision on offshore processing provided an opportunity she squibbed, and while she handled the Australia Day incident with aplomb she failed to take advantage to reach out to indigenous and settler Australians alike to suggest greater mutual understanding.

But she is becoming prime ministerial. The turning point may well have been US President Barack Obama's visit, when she was mocked for what seemed an infatuation with the President. But that visit was one of a series of high profile international events in which Gillard showed an ability to represent Australia at the highest levels of international diplomacy.

Were Rudd's claims to enjoy being foreign minister more credible, he could work closely with Gillard, possibly even increase her understanding of the world, which appears too closely aligned with a particular American optic. As US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appears to have a close relationship with the man who beat her for the nomination, Rudd has had the opportunity to build a new partnership, which seems obviously lacking.

I wish that Gillard had more intellectual curiosity, and more willingness to engage with world views outside those of her comfort zone. But to expect this while she is constantly under threat of a leadership challenge is unrealistic. Rudd's fantasy of a return is a constant restraint on Gillard, and one that forces her to compromise with the worst aspects of the Labor Party.

The greatest contribution Rudd could now make would be to publicly rule out any challenge during this parliamentary term, and start talking up his Prime Minister. For Labor to now overthrow Gillard and return to Rudd would be rather like Elizabeth Taylor's second marriage to Richard Burton. What might seem popular in polls could very easily backfire and make Labor seem even less fit to govern.

Dennis Altman is professor of politics and director of the Institute for Human Security at La Trobe University.