Gillard becomes PM

Published in the Australian on 24 June 2010

Forget loyalty to the leader or “ the Labor way”. The federal ALP partyroom should do what it thinks gives it the best chance of winning the election. Either it was in their electoral interests to replace Kevin Rudd with Julia Gillard or it was not.

It was not. This was a blunder. For the first time, the Coalition must be slightly favoured to form government later this year.

Warm the set and cool the tinnies, we now have a contest.

This was not as disastrous as the December 2003 vote that made Mark Latham opposition leader instead of Kim Beazley, but that’s because Labor is in government.

Latham, like Gillard, was very popular – the then most popular opposition leader in opinion poll history – but he was difficult to vote for.

Gillard is rather the same, but she at least enters the contest as prime minister.

Until today, the only thing – the big thing – this government had going for it was incumbency versus the “risk” of Tony Abbott. Forget this week’s opinion polls, the most likely public opinion trajectory between now and polling days was towards a comfortable Labor win – probably with an increased majority.

Rudd’s approval is low, his stature is down the gurgler and people think he is a jerk. Big deal. It’s votes that win elections.

Labor has now thrown away a large chunk of the benefit of incumbency, all but admitted the opposition was right all along about everything and is pleading for a fresh start.

The maddest idea going around is that Gillard should go to an election soon. On the contrary: she needs time to accrue the benefits of incumbency. An election held today would be between to untried contenders, with one side weighed down policy disappointments.

We need to hear and read the words “prime minister” and “Julia Gillard” together as often as possible, to see her getting in and out of commonwealth cars, to see her making important decisions. She has to become the the person with authority, the one who is safe to vote for. Glamour and charisma mean nothing at the ballot box.

On one television show this morning we learnt that published polls showed Labor couldn’t win, Gillard could have had the leadership in late 2006 if she wanted it, and Rudd “never runs away from a fight”. Tall stories all, but that’s commentators for you. Many of them inhabit narrative-land, where cause becomes effect and effect becomes cause.

Don’t feel too sorry for Rudd. His defeat of Beazley came about in similar fashion.

We now have a contest. It could go either way.

A stinker of a day for the government’s election chances, but marvellous for politics addicts.