Kevin Rudd Missed Chance To Act

Kevin Rudd missed chance to act

Dennis Shanahan, Political editor
From: The Australian
June 26, 2010

In late December Labor's electoral strategy group decided on a two-part plan for the summer of 2010 and the Rudd government's first election.

The first part of the plan was that the prime minister, who was devastated by the failure of the talks to reach any meaningful consensus, was to take a break with the family and refresh himself. Rudd agreed and he did take a break.

The second part of the plan was to start campaigning in late January and then, before parliament was due to resume sitting on February 2, call a double-dissolution election for March based on the Senate's rejection of the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme in the first week of December.

All Rudd needed to do was return from holidays and pull the trigger. He didn't.

Labor MPs were stunned when, instead, Rudd's first public duty in mid-January was to launch a children's book he'd co-authored with Play School actor Rhys Muldoon. Jasper and Abby and the Great Australia Day Kerfuffle was to encourage literacy, raise funds for charity and encourage care for pets.

“I like animals and whatever we can do to encourage the love of pets, cats and dogs and other pets and other animals, I think that's a good thing as well, encouraging our young ones to have a responsible attitude to looking after furry creatures is, I think, a really good thing,” the prime minister said as MPs were looking for him to take the lead in an early election campaign.

The opportunity for the Rudd government to go to the polls – while unambiguously in front and with Rudd as prime minister – was lost. “The plan was for the PM to go away, have a holiday and then come back and pull the trigger on the CPRS double-dissolution,” a senior Labor figure tells The Weekend Australian.

Since then, Rudd's support within the federal parliamentary Labor Party and with the public plunged.

This episode, according to senior Labor figures, is the genesis of this week's unprecedented and spectacular removal of Rudd as Labor leader – only the second sitting Labor prime minister to be removed by his own party and the only one to be cut down in the first term.

In December, when the party's strategy group came up with its plan, a rush to a climate change poll was deemed to be the best option even though Rudd's personal support had begun to drop along with the party's. Senior ministers such as Anthony Albanese and Julia Gillard believed an early, double-dissolution election was preferable to recalling parliament. “At that time we still had enough electoral capital to go to a campaign and win,” says one MP.

MPs say Rudd reacted slowly to the shift, not seeming to recognise the danger nor being able to change his style or direction. When he started to try to reconnect with MPs, the public and media, it was from a “position of weakness”, as one Labor insider described, and it wasn't credible or effective.

While the fall of Rudd in the past 10 days was swift and unavoidable, the decline was much slower and avoidable.

Smouldering issues in the electorate – smoking but smothered by the opposition's divisions and poor performance – began to take hold far earlier than the past fortnight as Rudd's character and personality were questioned much more severely by voters.

At the end of September, Rudd and Labor were ascendant in the parliament and the polls. The Liberals were looking at certain defeat, probably three terms out of office. On the weekend of September 30-October 1 Rudd was preferred prime minister over Malcolm Turnbull by 67 per cent to 18 per cent, Labor's primary vote was 46 per cent to the Coalition's 35 per cent, the two-party result was Labor 58 per cent to 42 per cent and satisfaction with Rudd was 67 per cent to 24 per cent dissatisfaction.

Last weekend, Rudd was preferred prime minister over Tony Abbott 46 per cent to 37 per cent, Labor was trailing the Coalition on primary vote 35 per cent to 40 per cent, Labor was in front 52 per cent to 48 per cent on two-party preferred and satisfaction with Rudd 36 per cent to 55 per cent.

Labor sources said the internal polling was as bad as the Newspoll surveys – and worse in marginal seats, particularly in NSW. “We were facing a cataclysmic loss, the worst on record,” one Labor figure who had seen the polling used this week to urge a move against Rudd.

From early October through to December, Rudd's handling of illegal boat arrivals and his climate change policy had been whittling away his public support and slowly eroding Labor's polling.

When parliament resumed this year – and Labor politicians waited for Rudd to move – this resentment and concern about an amalgam of immigration, illegal boat arrivals and population took off just as long-simmering suspicion and discontent about waste in multi-billion-dollar stimulus programs reached boiling point.

At Copenhagen, Rudd's standing took a hit. While he acted as a “friend of the chair” at the summit and negotiated with world leaders to get agreement on emissions trading, he talked of the meeting setting the tone for this century. “This history of much of the last century is littered with the carnage and the wreckage of ideologies incapable of embracing the common needs of all our peoples. Yet here at the dawn of this century, we are privileged to have been given by history this opportunity and this responsibility to write a different narrative of human co-operation,” Rudd said as he called for a “grand new bargain” on December 17.

Even supporters of an ETS saw the conference as a failure and a fiasco.

Rudd was devastated at the failure and virtually disappeared after returning from Copenhagen, while Tony Abbott, as the new Liberal leader, carried out a relentless attack on the CPRS (carbon pollution reduction scheme) as a “great big new tax”. Still the view within the senior Labor ranks was that they could go early and win.

When the CPRS was finally rejected for the second time in early December, Gillard as the deputy prime minister acting for Rudd who was away at a Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, avoided publicly talking about the double-dissolution trigger. But privately Gillard believed a double-dissolution was best even if the rejected bill was not in the form the government preferred. She argued that amendments the government wanted on the ETS could be moved after a joint sitting of parliament with a mandate on climate change.

Rudd's problems had started before Copenhagen when, in mid-October, he became embroiled in a crisis over 78 Sri Lankan refugees who were taken to the Indonesian port of Merak aboard the Australian Customs vessel Oceanic Viking, refused to disembark and occupied the ship for weeks. In the middle of this headline-grabbing exercise, the prime minister chose to deliver a speech on “the big Australia” and cited the prospect of Australia having a population of 35 million by 2050.

The issue of asylum-seekers, immigration levels and population became hopelessly entwined and public sentiment began to shift against the government. MPs were furious that Rudd had started talking about population policy and a Treasury figure of 35 million people in the middle of a febrile debate about immigration and refugees.

The polling also shifted on the issue. In last weekend's NSW state by-election in the western Sydney seat of Penrith, which Labor lost after a 25-point swing, the nearby federal Labor MP for Lindsay, David Bradbury, contradicted Rudd's claims there were no federal implications and cited concern about asylum-seekers as a real issue.

A Newspoll survey in the Western Sydney seat of Lindsay, which overlaps with Penrith, showed a swing of 12 per cent against Bradbury which would have tipped him out of his seat, and probably four or five other sitting Labor MPs in NSW.

For some time Gillard had been aware of the community concern about asylum seekers and the impact on the marginal seats. As MPs urged Gillard to stand against Rudd she became increasingly worried for Labor's base in marginal seats.

Despite being accused by Rudd on Tuesday night of preparing for a “lurch to the right” on asylum-seekers, Gillard immediately acknowledged community concern when she became Prime Minister and has signalled there will be changes.

Concerns about the number of illegal boat arrivals, rising immigration and population of 35 million that Australia “can't sustain” have underpinned the growing public anger at the botched $2.45bn home insulation scheme and Gillard's own wasteful $16.2bn school building program.

MPs were further dismayed and the public positively angry when Rudd, having recalled parliament, avoided a double-dissolution election on climate change and then dropped the whole idea of an ETS, putting it off beyond the next election and possibly the one after that.

After losing voters to the Coalition, who opposed the ETS, Labor then lost support to the Greens who objected to the government's refusal to go to a double-dissolution and fight for action against climate change.

Having missed the chance to go early and stand by Rudd's claims that climate change is the “greatest moral challenge of our time”, Gillard has taken a more pragmatic approach to an ETS and is using language that suggests she will seek a mandate for the scheme at the election but also leaves open the way for a carbon tax.

Gillard and other ministers had also become increasingly frustrated with Rudd's handling of the resource super-profits tax, where a lack of consultation and process has led to a damaging war with Australia's resources sector.

As ministers and backbenchers pleaded for action on the mining tax, particularly in Western Australia and Queensland, Rudd refused to use any terms that suggested ground was being given to the miners.

In fact, negotiations were under way, progress was being made and a deal was close with the coal-seam gas industry. Yet the public view was of a government at war with a vital and sustaining industry.

Gillard's view was that there was a technical issue, one which could be sorted by some compromise and by taking the heat out of the public debate. Gillard's first action as Prime Minister – to withdraw the government's $38 million advertising campaign supporting the tax – was met with immediate goodwill from the miners and shifted perception her way and to her advantage.

Of course, Rudd, having dropped the ETS, felt that if he backed down on the mining tax he'd be brought down by internal Labor forces. As it was, not backing down may have brought him down but the view remains there was no alternative this week because the chance to head off all the bad news and catch Abbott unprepared was lost back in January.