From media reports, it appears that Julia Gillard is set to be comfortably elected as Labor leader and Prime Minister tomorrow morning. The question then becomes: what does she do about the impending election?
She will surely be planning some changes of key policies, possibly dropping the Resources Super Profits Tax or toughening the government’s stance on asylum seekers. Having said that, she can’t exactly distance herself from the Rudd agenda, considering how deeply she has been involved.
On the surface, it seems an act of crazy-brave recklessness. Despite the media campaign against Rudd, he had only lost a single poll. On a two-party preferred vote Rudd was still on 52%. Bear in mind that Howard was behind in the polls before the 1998, 2001 and 2004 elections. It’s possible that this is just the jumpy nature of the modern Labor Party powerbrokers. There are, however, two behind-the-scenes factors that may have triggered this: Rudd’s leadership could have been as incompetent and isolated as David Marr painted it in his recent Quarterly Essay, and internal polling by unions and the ALP showing Rudd destined for defeat, and with Gillard able to beat Abbott.
You’d expect a surge in the polls for Gillard. She is very popular, and despite being integral to the government she doesn’t have Rudd’s baggage. After all, despite all of Rudd’s problems, Abbott has failed to dominate in the way that Latham and Rudd had done over Howard. A more popular Labor leader should be able to dominate.
Yet that could slip quickly. The charge of ‘unelected leader’ will hurt, particularly when people haven’t anticipated such a sudden transition in the way they would have with Paul Keating, Gordon Brown or even Peter Costello. In addition, it seems unclear that she can distinguish her party in terms of policies as she has to govern. Can she really resurrect the CPRS? Will she produce a completely new climate policy? What about refugees? It seems to me that, the longer she waits, the harder it will be to win the election. It’s not like she isn’t already known in the electorate, and her popularity will be hard to sustain at the head of a government which has already lost its shine.
In terms of election dates, it is difficult to hold an election between September 18 and October 9, due to school holidays, the AFL and NRL finals, and the timing of parliamentary sittings. If Gillard chooses to go later, it makes sense to go around October 16 or October 23, any later and you clash with the Victorian election.
We are one week away from Thursday, 1 July. After 1 July it is possible to call a half-senate election, along with an election of the House of Representatives. If Gillards wants to, she could call an election before Monday, 5 July, to be held on 7 August.
An election on 7 August would allow Gillard, after about ten days in office, to call a new election asking for a mandate from the voters. She would likely go to the polls well ahead of Tony Abbott, and her honeymoon could well last right through to election day.
It remains to be seen how she will move the ALP’s policy agenda, whether to the left or right. You would expect her to make a dent in the growing Greens vote, but it’s yet to be seen if her reputation as a supposed ‘left-wing’ candidate (despite the institutional support of the Labor Right), but we’ll wait to see if this will be enough to stave off the threat of Green gains in the House of Representatives and a swag of extra Senate seats.
Of course, there is another possible outcome, that could reflect another jurisdiction in Australia. Just over six months ago, another Labor leader gave a defiant speech before his execution, labelling his rival as a puppet of the factions. Despite personal popularity and a change in image, she failed to turn around her government’s popularity, and just five days ago lost the Penrith by-election in a massive landslide. Is it possible that Labor’s problems are deeper than Kevin Rudd, and his execution simply exposes the chaos of the government, allowing Tony Abbott to win the election. I don’t think that’s likely, but it reveals the massive risk Labor powerbrokers are taking in knocking off Rudd.