If you’re an Australian prime minister, and the leading newspaper from your own city, with roughly similar political leanings, writes an editorial that calls on you to resign “for the sake of the nation” and then – as if that was not enough – “in the interests of democracy” … well, you might feel compelled to keep flipping the pages to the “Jobs” section.
Certainly it cannot have been a pleasant Saturday morning for Julia Gillard, with that editorial in Melbourne’s The Age. But perhaps she is inured to it now, given the steadily rising drumbeat of calls for her head – including a much more restrained editorial from Fairfax’s other marquee paper, The Sydney Morning Herald two weeks ago.
On one level, the question facing Gillard’s Labor Party is quite simple. Next week is the last week when parliament sits before the election, and so it is the last week when a change of leadership can feasibly occur. If Gillard is still leading the party at the end of the week, then it faces something approaching an extinction-level event at the election, and many MPs can start cleaning out their offices (indeed, some have). If Gillard steps down, or is ousted, and Kevin Rudd returns to lead the party, then it has a fighting chance at the election and, irrespective of which party prevails, many of those MPs will be returning for another term.
On another level, though, Labor has an excruciating dilemma. It boggles the mind to wonder at the extent to which Gillard’s predecessor Kevin Rudd must have irked his colleagues, both to be dumped as prime minister at the first sign of polling weakness and then to be resolutely left in the cold despite every indicator that he is the party’s sole hope of salvation. Part of the reason is perhaps that Rudd himself, despite protestations to the contrary, shows little sign that he’d be any different in a second go-round, and giving him the vindication he clearly wants would be a bitter pill to swallow for the caucus.
But increasingly it appears that party room members might be prepared to do just that. The question then turns to the mechanics of the challenge. Rudd prefers that Gillard step aside, so that he could then be “drafted” by his party room colleagues for the leadership slot. That would enable him to meet the conditions he reiterated after the aborted challenge earlier this year, and it would also permit him to claim party unity heading into the election. If Gillard refuses to step aside – and giving up the job of prime minister is not an easy decision – then his next best hope is that somebody, perhaps a delegation of senior ministers, gives her a nudge. At this point, though, nobody is showing signs of doing that (they really don’t like Kevin) and time is running short.
Overlooking his hyperbole, The Age’s editor is correct: Gillard should resign, and then get behind the new leader. Australia and its democracy will survive a Labor wipeout, but a dignified exit on her terms is best for her, her party and her legacy as Australia’s first female prime minister. At just 51, well liked by her colleagues and – until a year or two ago – widely respected by the public, she could still have a prominent role in Australian public life. There are second acts in Australian lives. In her valedictory speech she could point to a number of important legislative achievements during her term, achieved despite the slimmest possible parliamentary majority.
For the Labor Party, a change of leadership would enable it to draw a line under the incredibly damaging disruptions of the past several years and start rebutting the policies of Opposition Leader Tony Abbott, he of the infamous climate science is “absolute crap” line. The election must be held no later than November 30.
So, welcome back Prime Minister Rudd? We’ll see, but it will be an interesting week for Australian politics.