Stench of ICAC corruption spells disaster for Federal Labor

When Julia Gillard revealed her plan for a September 14 election I was on a small island in Papua New Guinea, mercifully isolated from both the shock of the announcement itself and from the arrest of Craig Thomson and the ministerial resignations that followed.

But last week I was back in plenty of time for the grim moment when it became clear that her government was almost certainly doomed, and that nothing Labor could do - and that included a leadership change, even if Bob Hawke had been ready to step back into the breach - was going to save it.

No, this wasn't the publication of the Newspoll which showed a sudden six percent drop in Labor's primary vote and put Tony Abbott back neck and neck with Gillard as preferred prime minister. This was bad news, but after all it was just another poll, and given that Newspoll has been all over the place like a maddened break-dancer in recent times, it should not be taken too seriously.

(In November it assessed Labor's primary vote at 36%. In December that fell to 32%; in January it leapt to 38% percent and in February it is supposedly back to 32%. In other words, more than half a million voters are apparently changing their minds on an almost weekly basis, and jumping backwards and forwards between the major parties for no apparent reason. Frankly, I doubt it; and even if Newspoll is right, it suggests that they could all jump back next month. The polls can be, and should be, treated with a healthy scepticism.)

But other factors can't and for me the crunch came last Wednesday when I saw the Sydney Daily Telegraph's poster: STENCH OF NSW INC REACHES CANBERRA. The story, of course, was that in the ICAC hearings in Sydney, Eddie Obeid had said that at least two federal ministers had enjoyed his hospitality at the family ski lodge.

Actually he got them wrong: he named Tony Burke and Bill Shorten, when they were actually Burke and Stephen Conroy. And both insisted that no Obeids were in attendance during their brief visits. But the details were irrelevant. The feds had been irrevocably linked to the cesspit of New South Wales Labor and the damage would almost certainly be terminal.

It becomes a matter of simple arithmetic: Labor's standing in New South Wales is already abysmal and it will certainly not improve as the hearing continues. And there will be no respite: Commissioner David Ipp has said that he plans to release his findings at the end of July, just a couple of weeks before the formal election campaign gets under way. So the ALP can anticipate a landslide against it of catastrophic proportions.

Any seat held by a margin of less than five percent is certainly gone: write off Greenway, Lindsay, Robertson, Banks, and Parramatta. And while you're at it, add Craig Thomson's seat of Dobell to the list. Then on to the next tranche: Kingsford-Smith, Barton Werriwa and McMahon have to be serious risks. And in the outer west of Sydney, even Blaxland and Chifley cannot be considered safe. And these are just the Sydney seats; we haven't even looked at the country, where another four or five seats could fall.

But it gets worse for the ALP. In the present mood, Labor could lose either or both of Sydney and Grayndler to the Greens, and while Tony Windsor may hold New England - if he stands again - Rob Oakeshott looks certain to lose Lyne. So that's the ball game: there is no way Labor can make up these losses with gains in other places.

Indeed, other losses are on the cards: all four of its Tasmanian seats may swing as the island state goes through one of its periodic cycles and even the Northern Territory seat of Lingiari is now vulnerable after Gillard's ham-fisted intervention in the Territory's senate preselection. Any hope of winning Solomon has evaporated.

There is not much in South Australia for Labor to win, although Boothby could be a possibility, as could Casey and Aston in Victoria and Hasluck in Western Australia. But Labor's only hope of substantive gains is Queensland, where Brisbane, Forde, Longman and Bonner are in play, and in the country the party has a chance, albeit a vague one, in Herbert and Dawson.

But that's about it: even if all the cards fall Gillard's way it is hard to see them getting her over the line. A lot may change over the next six months, but one thing that certainly won't is the ICAC inquiry, and there is absolutely nothing that Gillard or anyone else can do about it.

There was just one way she could have made a difference that might at least have distanced her government from the shenanigans and ameliorated the impact of the findings: if she had used her authority as leader to insist on a no-holds-barred investigation when the stories first surfaced and followed it through with swingeing reform to the New South Wales branch, the voters just might have been prepared to believe she was serious and offer her a measure of forgiveness. But she refused to give meaningful support even to the more cautious measures recommended by numerous bodies since the election.

Now, of course, the time has passed: anything she did would be seen as desperation, too little and too late. But, never mind. After September 14 the party will have plenty of spare time and in all probability no government in Australia left to lose. And then perhaps, we will see the cleansing fire historian Manning Clark says is needed before there can be a new beginning.

In the meantime, thank you Eddie, and Joe, and Ian, and Mark, and Karl, and all those wonderful folk from Sussex Street who have brought the disaster about.

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