Rudd’s nervous weekend awaiting poll position
In the current mineral-fuelled political debate, there is a certain irony that a Government known for its steely discipline and strict issues management could get its key lines so confused.
On Thursday evening, it finally delivered up a universal Paid Parental Leave scheme. After an extended labour, it was a big moment for a Government that has acquired a reputation for being all bump and no baby.
Plus, it was that rarest of political events, an election promise not only met but acclaimed across the community. Employer organisations more often aligned with the Coalition, welcomed the scheme’s successful passage - albeit with a few minor qualifications.
Ditto the ACTU and numerous womens’ and welfare organisations. For a Government under seige over its self-inflicted and unwieldy brawl with the nation’s big miners, the PPL victory should have been a huge morale boost internally not to mention a fillip in voter-land.
So it was surprising to see the Prime Minister just two hours later doing a live interview on the 7.30 Report and almost forgetting to mention the scheme while making headline-grabbing comments on polls and election timing.
In a generally defensive performance, he was even reduced to listing the contributions of individual ministers, again without mentioning parental leave or its minister.
Nicola Roxon and Julia Gillard got guernsies, as did Penny Wong, Tony Burke and Chris Bowen. It was not until several questions later and right towards the end that he remembered Families Minister, Jenny Macklin and the day’s big success, PPL.
It was all very curious and says much about a gathering crisis threatening to engulf his leadership at present.
Rather than spruiking his genuinely historic gain for ``working families’‘, a vital message right now one would have thought, he used the interview to soften up his colleagues ahead of next Monday’s Newspoll.
``I expect that we are going to continue to take a whacking in the polls for some little time to come yet,’’ he said.
``We have an election due by what ever it is, March or April next year, and we only have three year terms, we’ve go to use the time effectively.’‘
That itself was a subtle but important shift in language. Until now, he had said the election would held be this year. It may have been a statement of constitutional fact, but it conveyed an element of political unreality.
To his critics, it suggests the PM will do anything to delay his day of reckoning and raises further doubts about his political judgment. Others may be kinder but no one seriously believes the Government can limp on into 2011.
One theory in Canberra is that he was sending a message to a group of nervous marginal seat MPs who had started to panic recently at the prospect of being forced to fight an election while the polls show them being erased from history. Sources suggest he was telling them, ``don’t panic, there’s more time than you think’‘.
The Rudd Government’s travails are a reminder of how quickly things can unravel in politics.
Recent talk of a late switch to Julia Gillard, easily dismissed until now as the fanciful mischief-making of right-leaning commentators, has suddenly taken on a slight frisson of possibility.
And don’t imagine Kevin Rudd is not awake to it. His warning of a continued ``whacking in the polls’’ was an attempted innoculation designed to ward off a violent reaction among Labor MPs when it hits them. That message: `don’t worry, this is not free-fall so much as a controlled descent’.
The coming week will be crucial - perhaps the most crucial single week of Kevin Rudd’s first (and maybe only) term as prime minister.
Parliament rises on Thursday and will not reconvene for two months assuming it comes back at all.
In the unlikely event that there is to be change before the election, the necessary pre-conditions for that will reach their optimum this coming week. A bad Newspoll, especially if it maintains a record low primary vote (Nielsen had it at 33 per cent) and adds in a further drop in Kevin Rudd’s personal approval rating, could set the hares running.
One of the things protecting Kevin Rudd is that even as his own rating has dropped recently, Tony Abbott’s has been heading south also. Labor types have clung to this as evidence the Liberal hardliner is unelectable and that punters will come back to Kevin Rudd when faced with a straight choice between them.
But if that advantage were to disappear in Newspoll, so too could Rudd’s protection in Caucus.
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