Never say that Shakespeare doesn’t speak to our present condition.

This article is from the June 23 issue of The Sydney Morning Herald Digital Edition. To subscribe for $4.50 a week, visit http://smh.com.au/digitaledition.
Julia Gillard is still suffering due to her callous usurping of Kevin Rudd — a tragedy of her own making.

Peter Hartcher

Exactly two years after she walked into Kevin Rudd’s office to demand the prime ministership from him, Julia Gillard is like Lady Macbeth walking the battlements trying to wipe the king’s blood from her hands long after his murder: “Out, damned spot!”

By deposing Rudd, Gillard created a question of political legitimacy that haunts her still. By itself, it was probably insufficient to doom her prime ministership.

After all, Gillard’s ascension was greeted by an initial surge of support. It may be hard to believe now, but in the Herald Nielsen poll conducted after she took the Labor leadership her net approval rating was a positive 22 per cent, while Tony Abbott’s was minus 8. Her advent lifted Labor’s share of the two-party vote from 47 per cent to 55 at a stroke. Gillard and the faceless men celebrated their cleverness.

But the manner of her ascension contained the seed of the mistrust that has come to characterise her prime ministership. She became the first leader to dispatch a prime minister in his first term. She struck without warning; she was unswervingly, insistently loyal until the day she challenged. And she failed to give any compelling explanation.

“A good government that lost its way,” was the best she could do. As Nicola Roxon later put it: “The biggest mistake we made was not explaining to people why we got rid of him.”

Gillard’s disloyalty was the emotional starting point for voters’ relationship with her, and it was not a happy one. Seven out of 10 voters said they did not approve of the way Labor treated Rudd, according to a Herald Nielsen poll.

Three further events nourished the seed of mistrust. First came the 2010 election campaign . The leaks against her revealed that, in the inner sanctum of the Rudd government, she had opposed Labor’s plan for paid parental leave and the move to increase the age pension. Yet now she was campaigning on these policies. Her decision to reveal the “Real Julia” only furthered the suspicion that she was insincere.

Second came the election result itself. After failing to win an outright majority, Gillard crafted the first federal minority government since the 1940s. Although this is quite ordinary in the world’s other Westminster democracies , it is extraordinary in Australia. When the opposition cried “illegitimate” , many voters believed them.

Third was her fateful decision to impose a carbon tax, breaking her pre-election promise . This series of events built progressively on the initial act of disloyalty.

By the end of her first year in the leadership, the image was entrenched, the damage done. Labor’s own internal research, as reported in the Herald at the time, summarised the Prime Minister’s perception problem this way: “Gillard is seen as cold and untrustworthy, still haunted by the way she took the job.”

Rudd’s failed challenge in February only served to remind the public of the ugly origins of Gillard’s prime ministership. The erosion of trust has been progressive and it continues even now. Asked in a series of Essential Media polls whether they found Gillard “trustworthy,” 49 per cent said yes when she was first elevated . This fell to 42 per cent after the election, to 30 per cent after announcing the carbon tax and, most recently, to 25 per cent in April.

Other leaders have taken power by challenging their predecessors, but managed to transcend this by their performances in office. But not Gillard.

She has some serious achievements to her credit. Although most of her government’s agenda is the work program inherited from Rudd, some quality achievements are proudly hers.

The $3.7 billion aged care reform package is good policy. Emergency flood relief payments of $5.8 billion, partly funded through the flood levy, were necessary relief, financed sensibly. The budget’s pathway to return to surplus is commendable and plausible, even if global events conspire against it. And, agree with it or not, the carbon tax package is a formidable piece of policy and legislative work. The performance of the Australian economy is the envy of the world.

But, like Lady Macbeth on the battlements, Gillard has been unable to enjoy the fruits of power. All polling for the past year and a half has her government on a settled trajectory for a defeat of historical proportions. In a telling poll published by Essential Media on May 28, 52 per cent of voters agreed that “the state of the economy is good” .

Those voters were then probed further with this question: “Although Australia’s economy is doing very well, according to opinion polls the government is very unpopular. What do you think is the main reason for this?”

The most common answers in descending order: Voters don’t trust the Prime Minister, 28 per cent; the carbon tax will increase the cost of living, 17 per cent; the economy is doing well for other reasons, like China and the mining boom, and not because of the government, 15 per cent; voters are still angry about the treatment of Kevin Rudd, 12 per cent.

Taken together, Gillard’s untrustworthiness and the related issue of anger over Rudd’s treatment accounted for much of the government’s inability to get credit. “Here’s the smell of the blood still,” as Lady Macbeth cried. “All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand. O, O, O!”

Can Gillard turn it around? Her loyalists tell each other reassuring stories to keep their spirits up.

One dominant theory was that while there was accumulated anger at Labor, this would be vented at state elections. Once the longserving Labor governments of NSW and Queensland had been dismissed, the anger would be sated and Gillard would be seen in a calmer, happier light. But reality has punctured this cheerful little fantasy.

The current reassuring story they tell each other? It’s OK because Gillard is suffering from the Abbott fear campaign over the carbon tax. When the tax arrives and the effects are seen to be negligible Labor’s stocks will rise.

This is possible, but unlikely. Voters could well reassess the credibility of Abbott, but all evidence suggests that voter impressions of Gillard are fixed. But that’s OK for federal Labor, right, because even if Gillard remains terminal, Rudd will return to the leadership and make Labor competitive again? He remains preferred Labor leader over Gillard by a margin of two to one among the voting public. This is the conventional wisdom among most of those in the political system and among most front-row observers. But there is a flaw in this scenario. The Labor caucus might decide that it needs to get rid of Gillard to avoid electoral Armageddon. But does it really have a willing replacement? Does Rudd actually want the leadership again? It’s generally assumed that his burning anger and overweening ambition will drive him to another challenge. But some of the MPs who have had contact with Rudd aren’t so sure. He is not soliciting votes and he is not responding to entreaties. The most colourful account from a caucus member familiar with his thinking asks, why would he? “They assassinated him, they trashed his reputation, they buried him, then they dug him up, made him foreign minister, assassinated him again, trashed his reputation again – and now we want him back?” Rudd would certainly enjoy vindication . But Labor is so deeply unpopular, and the Australian electorate is so disenchanted with its union powerplays and factional manoeuvring, that returning Rudd to the leadership might not work. Who can say that it will convince a spinweary electorate? Putting yet another head on a rotting corpse may prove unconvincing. Rudd would surely like vindication. But there is no vindication in returning to the leadership only to take the party to electoral defeat. Rudd has told caucus members that it would be a “hospital pass” . Changing leaders is probably a necessary but insufficient condition to make Labor viable. Labor also needs to make fundamental changes to itself to make it electorally presentable. In the absence of dramatic change, it looks likely Labor has trapped itself in a dilemma. Its current leader may be unelectable, and its alternative leader may be unavailable. One of the members of Gillard’s own government has presented her with a most unwelcome second anniversary present. Gillard sacked her former attorneygeneral , Robert McClelland, and sent him to the backbench after he publicly supported Rudd’s unsuccessful bid for the leadership in February. Now he has returned the favour in a most unlikely fashion for so mild-mannered a man. Speaking in Parliament on Thursday, McClelland revived memories of old allegations of union corruption involving Gillard’s former partner, Bruce Wilson. The pair lived together in Melbourne in Gillard’s pre-parliamentary career when she was a labour lawyer with Slater & Gordon and Wilson was Victorian secretary of the Australian Workers Union. Speaking of the need to strengthen protections against union corruption such as the case of the Health Services Union, McClelland referred repeatedly to the allegations against Wilson. Gillard’s then-partner was accused in the Victorian Parliament in 2001 of misappropriating about $500,000 of union money, including $102,000 spent on home renovations. Gillard has repeatedly denied benefiting from the money and rejected any other involvement. The shadow attorney-general , George Brandis, called this “most significant” . He and the Nationals’ Barnaby Joyce yesterday took to the Senate to follow up McClelland’s invitation. They demanded explanations of the Wilson affair. It would be unremarkable for the opposition to take this up; it is just extraordinary that they were given the opportunity by a member of Gillard’s own government. This is McClelland’s clear payback for Gillard’s vindictiveness in sacking him for his support of Rudd. It’s the last thing she needs. “Hell is murky!” as Lady Macbeth said. “Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?”

Peter Hartcher is the political editor.

Copyright © 2012 The Sydney Morning Herald