It looks as though we’re going to get a Newspoll every two weeks, and each of them will explore yet again the standing of the Prime Minister, as though we were the United States, with an elected president. And each time it happens, the press gallery goes to its usual sources and gets comments about whether or not a challenge is in the offing.
The prime suspect is Kevin Rudd, but he has said firmly that he is not interested, and he has said it more than once. Newspoll has shown that he has remained a preferred leader of the Labor Party from before the time he was dumped to the present, and that Julia Gillard has never been the preferred leader. If you consider opinion among two separate groups, Labor voters and Coalition supporters, then Kevin Rudd is preferred by the same proportion in each — 42 per cent. Julia Gillard is slightly preferred among Labor voters — 46 per cent to Rudd’s 42 per cent.
There’s really no one else. Wayne Swan had a brief period as a possible alternative PM a couple of years ago, and Bill Shorten is being mentioned today, but my guess is that few voters have much sense of the latter as a political leader, and if his name were not mentioned by the interviewer it would rarely be produced by the respondent. No, it is Julia or Kevin, and the shorter the period to the election, the more likely it is that Julia Gillard will be leading the ALP on September 14th.
The most startling of the Newspoll findings is the outcome of this question: ‘If Kevin Rudd was leader of the Labor Party and Tony Abbott leader of the Liberal Party, which one of the following would you vote for?’ You were given as alternatives Labor, Coalition, Greens and Others. The outcome was a clear victory for Labor, in two-party-preferred terms, by 56 per cent to 44 per cent.
I do find this an unlikely result, given everything else. Both Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott attract strongly negative judgments in terms of their performance as PM and Opposition Leader (57 per cent and 55 per cent dissatisfied respectively), and it seems most probable to me that the strong standing of Kevin Rudd is a combination of a feeling that he was hardly done by in 2010, and the memory of the excitement that he generated before, during and after the 2007 election, when he did capture popular support in a big way. That memory lingers on.
But he was not an effective Prime Minister. He did not trust his colleagues, and micro-managed the work of his Ministers. He did not trust the public service, either, and the ordinary business of government began to stall, as he became immersed in the 24-hour news cycle. He talked too much, and walked too little. The ordinary business of government is boring, but it is important to everyone. Transfer payments have to be made, negotiations with other stakeholders, like state and territory governments, business, unions, and non-government organisations have to continue, and timelines that were set ages ago have to be met.
There are few ‘announceables’ in all of this, and Kevin Rudd wanted to be in the news every day. There was a sigh of relief within the whole government enterprise when he went overseas, which he liked to do, because while he was away the business of government could get done efficiently, with Julia Gillard in charge. Why, you ask, isn’t she as efficient as Prime Minister? The problem is that, at least in my judgement, she has no over-arching sense of what she is for, and what her party is for. She is there, and in power, so let’s get on with it! But get on with what? Why that?
There is a useful comparison between the ALP in 2007 and in 1983. After the 1980 elections, which the Labor Party thought it would win, and did not, the wiser heads agreed that by the next election they would nut out what a Labor Government would do when it won in 1983. There would be an agreed set of long-range plans, and they would ensure that Ministers kept to the plans and sorted out differences well before they reached the press and television. Bill Hayden was responsible for that, and no doubt he would have been an effective Prime Minister too. As it happened, Bob Hawke was an especially effective PM, and the Hawke Government from 1983 to 1987 was remarkably impressive in what it did, and how it did it.
In 2007 it was not at all clear that the Howard Government would be defeated until the ‘Kevin ’07’ movement generated some steam. Kevin Rudd became Prime Minister without having had the years of hard work that Hayden and Hawke, Grimes, Button and others had gone through in determining their priorities for government. He was to a degree an outsider, and lacked a power base that was secure. His style of government increasingly offended his colleagues, and when they thought that his electoral magic had gone — via a great slump in the polls about this time in 2010 — they got rid of him in a putsch that has no counterpart in Australian politics.
Julia Gillard has never been able to escape complicity in the dumping of Kevin Rudd, and that has soured her time in the office. But though the polls were the precipitate cause of his dumping, they were not the underlying reason. Labor was not prepared for office in 2007, and it still shows.