Sometimes only a hard decision will do
Labor hard man Graham Richardson noted yesterday that courage was a defining quality in a leader. He was speaking about Peter Costello’s unwillingness to do the hard graft of gathering the numbers for a challenge which of course, never came. That tawdry clash of egos which bedevilled the last Coalition governemnt will re-surface this week when John Howard’s memoirs, ``Lasarus Rising’’ hits the bookshelves.
Courage remains important in the contemporary political context too because it is not just seizing power that takes guts, exercising it fully also requires steely determination in the face of resistance.
Even Julia Gillard’s political enemies concede she has passed the first of these tests. Blasting Kevin Rudd from the leadership took a lot of sand.
But thanks to the historically inderterminate result in the subsequent election, the minority government she now leads is being squeezed from both the left and the right.
There are emerging fears - albeit premature - that a government that is a mere by-election or two from defeat, might duck the hard issues and weave around the tough fights. Having fights and creating losers is an inherent reality of reform and while it makes politicians nervous getting voters off-side, it is positively scary for a minority government which in theory, could be pushed into an election fight at any time.
Yet strangely, the minority situation need not be all bad for reformers. Ms Gillard’s pre-election suggestion of a ``150 member citizens’ assembly’’ to inch climate change policy forward was hardly encouraging to those looking for signs that the Rudd Government’s review-rather-then-act approach was dead. As luck would have it, the that miserable piece of artifice from the NSW school of spin has since been dumped, thanks to pressure from the independents and Greens.
But there are new concerns now that the Government’s will can be bent. An iron-clad no-qualifications election campaign promise to save the River Murray, is suddenly less than iron-clad and full of qualifications in the face of irrigators’ protests.
This week the Nationals leader Warren Truss told colleagues the Government was ``doing nothing, just bobbing around’‘. Perhaps this is harsh given that the election was just a couple of months ago. Nonetheless, Truss’s amusing imagery should sound an alarm bell in the Cabinet room: after Rudd’s thousand balls in the air approach, any claims Labor makes to being reform-focused will be all the more closely scutinized. Words will no longer do. Ditto for reviews.
Much attention has been focused on the sustained pressure the Government is under from an Opposition which has as near-as-dammit to equal numbers in the Parliament.
This is understandable. But Ms Gillard, a former left-faction warrior, needs to watch both her flankss. Indeed one reason her government is being squeezed is that it surrendered two safe Labor seats to its left: Greens MP, Adam Bandt in Lindsay Tanner’s old seat of federal Melbourne, and former Greens-turned independent Tasmanian, Andrew Wilkie in the Hobart based seat of Denison. Both seats had been held by left faction frontbenchers.
The implications of this shiftt have been somewhat overlooked except that is, among the wiser heads in the ALP and of course, in the now ascendent Greens party. Both groups recognise the historical fracture splitting life-long Labor supporters from their old party for the first time - often because the alternative seemed somehow truer to Labor values than the real thing.
Melbourne and Denison are Labor heartland seats and their loss portends a genuine problem for the ALP in a changing political environment. This new mostly green-driven challenge flows from the perceived inability of left-aligned figures inside Labor to influence policy on everything from asylum seekers to indigenous affairs and particularly, climate change.
Senior Left faction members are awake to it and will gather in Canberra tomorrow to discuss the problem. It is not exaggerating the situation to say they are deeply worried.
Not only did these two seats fall, but several others in the inner-metropolitan heartland went close and could well fall to the Greens at the next election.
Anthony Albanese’s inner western Sydney seat of Grayndler, and Tanya Plibersek’s electorate of Sydney, are both seen as genuinely vulnerable to the Greens and there are others.
In Grayndler, the Greens scored a healthy 21,555 first preference votes actually outpolling the Liberal Party on 20,178. The high-profile Albanese survived with 38,369 number one votes but, with the Greens finishing second, it is not hard to imagine enough Liberal Party preferences electing a Greens member next time around. According to an ALP source, in some areas of Grayndler, the Greens’ first preference vote actually topped 40 per cent.
It is in this complex environment that the Government must measure its reform priorities from moving to a carbon price and saving the River Murray, to continued labour market reform, health changes, and long-overdue aged care reform. All will test Ms Gillard’s courage because all will create winners and losers.
But after the Rudd Government’s celebrated sideways steps and capitulations, anything even smelling of a retreat will be harshly marked by voters too.
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