Labor looking for a lifeboat

FIRST, a confession of interest - I am a member of a weekly lunch club where we talk politics a lot, but these days usually in grumpy and despairing tones as we survey the current dismal scene. We are hardly a typical demographic: all male, politically left of centre and old enough to remember, through a haze of nostalgia, not only the triumphal years of Bob Hawke and Paul Keating, but the glorious dawn of Gough Whitlam's short-lived reign.

So to read what follows in its true context, wrap yourself in sackcloth, smear your forehead with ashes and prepare to drink quite a lot.

Last week one of our number suggested that we should get serious and each make a firm nomination of just who will lead the Labor Party to the next election, whenever it may be. There was a fair bit of preliminary discussion in which even such unlikely names as Bob Carr were raised; he could, someone suggested, do a John Gorton and lead from the Senate until after the election, when a suitable seat could perhaps be found.

But this scenario was quickly dismissed as unrealistic; even if caucus was desperate enough to accept a blow in, Carr would surely knock it back; he is no John Gorton. Gorton was an ambitious minister in a government which expected to stay in power for some time. Carr is a veteran who has already rebuilt one demoralised party from opposition, a period he later described as the worst time of his life. He would not want to repeat the experience.

The various stop gaps were considered, chiefly Simon Crean and Stephen Smith, but it was generally felt that since neither would make much difference, there would be little point in going through the trauma of knocking off the second leader in a term to install either. If there is to be a change, it needs to be a dramatic one. So in the end each of us, reluctantly and without much conviction, wrote down a name.

Surprisingly Greg Combet topped the count with three votes, but it was agreed that this had more to do with hope than reality. Combet certainly represents both brains and integrity and has kept out of the worst of the blues and booboos of the last couple of years, but he has no real following within the caucus and is hardly a name to conjure with among the wider public.

And then there were two votes each for Kevin Rudd and Bill Shorten, the obvious contenders, and one for the incumbent, Julia Gillard. Just one out of eight of a party of long-standing Labor supporters believed that the current prime minister will survive to face the voters for a second time.

There was little, if any, ill-will towards Gillard. We all agreed on her persistence and her negotiating skills, and acknowledged and admired the fact that she had managed to steer some serious reforms through the most difficult and fragmented parliament in living memory, and against an opposition whose sheer bloody-minded obstructionism has been without parallel. And there was genuine regret for what might have been; at the right time, and with the rights conditions, she could have made a formidable prime minister.

But we are talking about here and now, and the hard fact is that well over half the electorate has turned decisively against her and is not going to turn back. And as a result any government she leads is doomed - not only to defeat, but to a devastation so overwhelming that it would take many years to rebuild, if indeed it could ever be rebuilt in anything like its historic form. It's not just and it's not fair, but it can no longer be denied.

And there is a general acceptance of this unhappy fact throughout the caucus, even among the hardy rearguard determined to resist change although their recalcitrance means certain obliteration. Like General Westmoreland in Vietnam, they are willing to destroy the village in order to save it. They are joined by a number of the union Gillard entertained at the Lodge last week at a function designed to show solidarity, although from the outside it had something of the air of the last days of Pompeii.

It is all very well for the union bosses to talk about toughing it out; their positions are not under threat. But those of at least half of the backbench now are, and a lot of the rest are feeling queasy. And the usual tools the faction leaders, either safely outside the party room or else cocooned in the few remaining safe seats, rely on to keep them in line are no longer relevant: the threat of being passed over for preferment or even losing preselection is pretty empty if you're about to get turfed out of the place anyway.

So, we are told through the usual anonymous sources who regularly leak to their media mates, Gillard has been given a deadline: before parliament rises, improve Labor's primary vote to 38 percent - which is where it was when she fought the 2010 election - or prepare for the tap on the shoulder. Note that no successor is named; the ultimatum is for Gillard alone.

And it is an unrealisable one. Labor's vote has been stuck in the low thirties for months, and all the promised avenues for improvement - the passing of the carbon tax, the introduction of generous compensation, the debunking of Tony Abbott's crazed predictions - have turned out to be cul de sacs. It isn't about policies any more; it's about Gillard herself, which is why she has to go. Unless, of course, she can persuade almost a million estranged voters to switch to Labor by the end of November, which she won't.

And then what happens? My own tip is that caucus, with nothing left to lose, will swallow its pride, hold its nose and re-embrace Kevin Rudd as its last and only hope. But I'm not putting money on it. The way things are looking, I'll need every last cent for the lifeboat. Anyone know a reliable people smuggler?

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