One month on, what future for Labor?

Nearly one month on from the leadership race that nearly tore apart the Labor Party, what do we know about the state of Australian politics?

First the relevant facts:

  • Kevin Rudd has returned to the backbenches after losing the leadership vote (71-31), where he has pledged not to challenge prime minister Julia Gillard for the party leadership before the next federal election.
  • Rudd has once again taken to his home state of Queensland to lick his political wounds, campaigning hard in advance of local state elections to be held this Saturday, March 24.  Rudd, who remains perhaps the most popular politician in Australia, is especially popular in Queensland.  Labor has held state-level power since 1996, but Queensland premier Anna Bligh seems unlikely to win a sixth-consecutive term for her party in the state, leaving Labor party out of power in the four largest of Australia’s six states.
  • Gillard remains slightly more popular than Coalition leader Tony Abbott as prime minister, but Labor’s primary vote share has fallen from 35% to just 31% since the leadership crisis — on a two-party preferred basis, the Coalition would defeat Labor 53% to 47%.  Gillard must announce a general election before November 2013.
  • Former NSW premier Bob Carr has been appointed by Gillard to the Senate and as the new foreign minister, replacing Rudd.
  • Gillard yesterday secured the passage of the Mining Resource Rent Tax, a 30% tax on Australian coal and iron ore miners with profits in excess of $75 million, which is expected to raise around $11 billion in revenue over three years.  The mining tax is a complimentary step to Australia’s carbon tax, both of which take effect this July.  The carbon tax passed in November 2010 and imposes a pricing regime on carbon emissions by fixing a a tax on each ton of carbon emitted by the top 500 polluters, and will move to an emissions trading scheme in July 2015.

What does this all really mean?

  • Rudd’s future leadership hopes.  Rudd will not hesitate at the next chance to contest the leadership.  He is on record as saying that Gillard cannot win the next election for Labor and polls currently confirm that (perhaps in no small part due to the intraparty drama that has plagued since Labor regained power under Rudd in 2007).  The question is whether he can wait out a federal Labor loss and win the leadership after turning once again to his colleagues, who have now rejected him, in essence, twice.  It may well be that after such a loss, Labor will simply want to turn the page from the Rudd-Gillard duels once and for all — the fight has always been about personality (mostly Rudd’s) and even strategy, but never amounted to fundamental clash of policy vision.
  • Rudd’s Queensland politics play. Rudd will get all of the credit in the event that Labor holds on in Queensland and none of the blame if Labor falls.  Conversely, Gillard will get none of the credit if Labor wins and most definitely all of the blame. This may not be fair, but them’s the rules — Gillard clearly now owns Labor and she owns the government, so she owns its successes and failures.  In either case, Rudd will be able to spin it to his advantage vis-a-vis the federal Labor leadership.  Normally, you would expect a months-long cooling-off period after such a high-stakes leadership race, but if Labor somehow pulls off an upset Saturday, the pro-Rudd second-guessing will start even earlier that it would otherwise.  The sniping may start even if Labor loses.
  • Labor’s chances at the next election. The polls do not paint a pretty picture for Labor.  While Abbott remains unpopular, Gillard remains even more unpopular, and Australian voters cannot feel very good about the stability of a party that has just gone through the kind of personality-based civil war that Labor has just endured.  One can’t very well imagine Rudd working overtime on the campaign trail on Gillard’s behalf.
  • Bob Carr is no Kevin Rudd.  It may have been a smart move on Gillard’s part to help bring Labor’s parliamentary caucus back together, but there’s no getting past the sense that having the Mandarin-fluent Rudd on the backbenches is an absolute waste of talent and that Carr is yesterday’s man.
  • Environmental politics. Rudd won the election in 2007 in large part on the basis of his promise to enact the carbon tax (as well as a mining tax); his failure to do so by 2010 was a major frustration among those — both in and out of government — who saw Rudd’s tenure as prime minister plagued by dysfunction and led in no small part to the coup that saw Gillard replace Rudd.  So Gillard’s success is a major substantive accomplishment.  Abbott, however, has announced his plans to repeal the carbon tax if elected.  So its future remains far from secure.  A Labor loss in the next election could have the effect of rolling back the signature accomplishment of the entire Rudd-Gillard era.

Australians generally favor Labor on many policy issues to the Coalition, the mining tax victory is a strong start for Gillard on the long march toward the next election, and she has 20 months to turn it around.  The bottom line is that it’s not wholly lost for Labor, although it’s also difficult to deny that this government feels locked into a slow-motion death spiral, and it’s also very hard not to see Rudd or others causing some amount of internal turbulence in the meanwhile.

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