Jacqueline Maley has an article in today’s Fairfax media musing about who might succeed Julia Gillard as Labor leader after an election loss later this year.
It seems a tad premature in the circumstances, though only slightly more so than the subject of this post, which addresses the question: what options if any does Labor have if we reach April/May and Labor’s opinion poll ratings remain stubbornly stuck at around 33-35% primary vote and 47% or thereabouts two party preferred?
Polling for federal Labor improved somewhat over the last 3-4 months of 2012, partly because people began to realise that Abbott had been bullshitting them about the impact of Labor’s carbon pricing regime and perhaps also partly due to a grudging recognition that Julia Gillard, whatever her shortcomings, is a tough and feisty PM. Perhaps too we’re seeing the beginnings of public realisation that Australia’s economic position is actually very strong and that Abbott has been bullshitting on that front too. People have begun spending again (rather than saving more and more while reducing debt) and consumers generally are feeling less pessimistic. Those are certainly promising signs for the Gillard government, as is what appears at the time of writing to be a “done deal” on the US fiscal cliff standoff.
Overall Labor actually has a very attractive political story to tell: one of the world’s strongest economies; generally competent economic management (leaving aside its clinging for too long to a “surplus at all costs” promise – but that’s expectation management rather than economic management per se); a highly successful legislative record despite minority government constraints; and achieving seemingly durable settlements of two of Australia’s most intractable environmental issues, namely Murray-Darling waters and Tasmanian forestry.
If in the next 3-4 months the government can also fashion a plausible long-term funding model for the National Disability Insurance Scheme and the Gonski education reforms, an unlikely election victory in the second half of this year might yet be conjured, something that seemed utterly inconceivable only a few months ago.
But what if it isn’t? What if if becomes unavoidably apparent by April-May that swinging voters have made up their minds adversely about the Gillard government? Will federal Caucus members just shrug their shoulders resignedly and passively accept the inevitability of electoral obliteration? Somehow I doubt it.
Of course the problem will then be just who could replace Julia Gillard and provide a ghost of a chance of victory? An obvious answer, albeit unpalatable to most Caucus members, once upon a time was Kevin Rudd. However the calculated carpet-bombing of Rudd’s character and reputation by Julia Gillard and her supporters in the lead-up to Rudd’s unsuccessful February leadership challenge has almost certainly made that option a non-starter, however much Rudd and some of his supporters may still fondly hope otherwise. Polling suggests Labor would even now gain a significant short-term increase in support following a Rudd re-appointment, especially in Queensland. But it wouldn’t last, not only because half the Cabinet would instantly resign but because the Coalition undoubtedly already has “in the can” all the attack ads against Rudd that it needs, using the words of his own colleagues.
Because it has long been evident that the Rudd gambit is a non-starter, the groupthink Press Gallery appears to have concluded that Gillard will certainly lead Labor to this year’s election come what may. It’s almost certainly true that just about any other likely leadership candidate isn’t a viable solution even for a desperate Caucus. Replacing Gillard with Bill Shorten, Greg Combet, Stephen Smith or even Nicola Roxon just isn’t going to make any appreciable difference. It would just be shifting the deckchairs on the Titanic.11. KP: Sorry, I just couldn’t resist that cliche. [↩]. Moreover, for ambitious future leadership aspirants like these, accepting the leadership in the circumstances being considered here would be the ultimate hospital pass.
However there’s one possible leadership choice who hasn’t been seriously discussed to the best of my knowledge, and who isn’t likely to be too worried about destroying his future leadership prospects in a self-sacrificing last-ditch effort to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, 22. KP: Feel free to keep count of the cliches for yourself. [↩] because he’s already been there and done that, and as a “last generation” Labor leader would not be in line for Opposition Leader after a Labor loss anyway.
Of course I’m talking about Bob Carr. Carr has the stature and assured, commanding presence needed in such a situation. He certainly wouldn’t be rattled by a one trick pony bovver boy like Tony Abbott. The faceless men would need to make sure that he has no significant Obeid/Tripodi skeletons in his closet, but presumably the Coalition dirty tricks team would already have pulled them out if they existed.
I can only assume that Carr hasn’t to date entered seriously into Press Gallery leadership speculation for the simple reason that he’s currently a Senator, and Prime Minister is generally regarded as a position held by the parliamentary leader of the party holding an effective majority in the Lower House (House of Reps). However that is not a formal constitutional or legal requirement, indeed the office of Prime Minister is not even mentioned in Australia’s Constitution. It is simply an unwritten rule or convention that the PM is a member of the House of Reps. Constraints against breach of such conventions are solely political not legal. Moreover the precise scope of conventions may be somewhat uncertain and can evolve over time, as the conventions concerning dismissal of an incumbent government did as a result of the Whitlam Dismissal in 1975.
The convention that the Prime Minister must sit in the Lower House arguably did not even exist in any clear form when Australia’s Constitution was being drafted, approved and enacted. British Prime Ministers had quite frequently been members of the House of Lords through the 19th century. Indeed Lord Salisbury remained in the House of Lords as Prime Minister continuously from 1895-1902, which spanned the entire gestation period of Australia’s Constitution.
However Salisbury was the last British PM to sit in the House of Lords for more than a transitional period. Sir Alec Douglas-Home was a member of the House of Lords (as the Earl of Home) when elected to lead the governing Conservative Party in 1963 following the resignation of Prime Minister Harold Macmillan due to health problems. He then disavowed his peerage and stood for a Commons seat in a by-election. Douglas-Home was Prime Minister, though not in either house of Parliament, for a period of almost three weeks.
Similarly, in Australia the only example of a Prime Minister appointed while a member of the Senate (upper house) was John Gorton, who was the Coalition nominee in 1968 after Prime Minister Harold Holt disappeared while skin-diving at Portsea just before Christmas 1967. Like Douglas-Home, Gorton resigned from the Senate within a month of being sworn in as Prime Minister and successfully contested a by-election for the seat of Higgins, which had of course become vacant by virtue of Holt’s presumed death33. KP: assuming, as most people were willing to do, that he had not been spirited away by a Chinese submarine to disguise his role as a covert Communist spy and conceivably (semi-intentional pun) father of Barack Obama as well. [↩].
Applying those precedents to Bob Carr, it might well be possible to engineer a swap with ministerial colleague Peter Garrett for the seat of Kingsford Smith, which adjoins and substantially overlaps the area covered by Carr’s old State Parliament seat of Maroubra which he held for 18 years until 2005. Garrett would be appointed to fill the Senate vacancy created by Carr’s resignation. There would be no immediate political risk involved in that step given Constitution s 15.44. KP: Inserted by the 1977 referendum to remedy Queensland Premier Bjelke-Petersen’s breach of convention in the lead-up to the Whitlam Dismissal. [↩]
Moreover, like Gorton and Douglas-Home, there would be no constitutional problem with Carr being PM for a transitional period of up to three months even after his resignation from the Senate.55. KP: although there would be a certain element of political risk about winning Kingsford Smith in a by-election given that Garrett currently holds the seat on a 2PP margin of just over 8%. [↩] Constitution s 64 provides that “no Minister of State shall hold office for a longer period than three months unless he is or becomes a senator or a member of the House of Representatives.”
However in my view constitutional convention does not necessarily even require a Prime Minister who is a Senator to resign immediately and contest a by-election. Gorton remained a Senator for three weeks after he became Prime Minister, only resigning when he had to do do so in order to be eligible to contest the Higgins by-election. In our hypothetical 2013 situation, where a general election will be nominally due within two or three months of Carr’s appointment as Prime Minister, it would make far more sense for him to remain in the Senate as Prime Minister until the election is actually called, rather than contest an unnecessary by-election and then have to stand again at a general election probably only a few weeks thereafter.
Carr’s accession as Prime Minister would undeniably be a last-ditch strategy, but it also offers some potential advantages. First, it would create an obvious opportunity for Kevin Rudd to return to Cabinet as Foreign Minister replacing Carr, but without simultaneously compelling senior Ministers like Wayne Swan and Simon Crean to go to the backbench (as they swore to do if Rudd ever returned as PM). Rudd’s return to a senior ministerial position (but not PM) could also be expected to have a positive impact on Labor’s electoral standing in Queensland. At present Labor is looking much healthier in Queensland state-level polling as a result of Campbell Newman’s “slash and burn” economic policies, but those results have not to date translated into any significant improvement in ALP prospects federally in Queensland seats. It’s reasonable to suggest that the explanation lies in greater anti-Gillard resentment in Rudd’s home State of Queensland, a factor that would certainly be drastically reduced if Rudd returns to the front bench and Gillard is no longer Prime Minister.
A move like this would only have a chance of success if it could be negotiated in close secrecy, with Julia Gillard being persuaded to step aside graciously without a public leadership contest. Desirably she would retain a senior ministerial portfolio, probably Education given her longstanding engagement in that area. That in turn would provide an opportunity to shift Peter Garrett to Environment and Indigenous Affairs (where Jenny Macklin has not endeared herself to Aboriginal voters with her stewardship of the Intervention/aka Stronger Futures). A further reshuffle of Craig Emerson into the Treasurer role in place of the radically uninspiring Wayne Swan would complete a recasting of Labor’s team which could well give it a fighting chance of pulling off a last-minute victory, particularly given a Coalition opponent led by the most unpopular Opposition Leader since Alexander Downer at his lowest ebb.