The ticking time bomb of power

OPINION

The last week in November was supposed to be Julia Gillard's last as Prime Minister. That's what her enemies were saying a few months ago.

They said Labor's relentlessly poor showing in the opinion polls would reach critical mass within caucus and force a return to Kevin Rudd.

But much has changed, thanks to a confluence of political and policy eventualities that have strengthened her hold on the leadership and, perhaps, Labor's electoral fortunes.

Alan Jones's ratings might have gone up, but his comments about the Prime Minister's father dying of shame swung public sentiment, across political persuasions, behind Gillard in a way that perhaps no Australian political leader has experienced.

Despite the unpalatable sleaze surrounding Peter Slipper and the unedifying argument of moral relativity about which side of politics had protected him most, Gillard's leadership and Labor's primary vote strengthened after her ''This Man'' speech.

Policy? The Coalition is having difficulty demonising the interim carbon tax.

The government remains trapped, however, by its continued lack of courage on asylum-seeker policy, hostage to its belief that it must neutralise xenophobia in sections of the electorate with solutions that ape Howard-era toughness rather than enlightenment and honesty.

Conversely, the Gillard government's response to the latest outcry over the generations-old tragedy of the sexual abuse of children by members of religious and other institutions was commendably swift, and a reminder of the appalling inertia of previous governments.

So, where a vast number of Labor MPs were looking at Gillard a few months ago and pondering what they would do after losing their seats at the next election, they are now wondering whether they might, just, hold on.

Hold that thought. This new glimmer of optimism is, according to Rudd's supporters, perhaps the strongest card in his suit.

Time - media-confected deadlines and anniversaries - is the enemy of political leadership. Tick, tick, tick.

Since the 2010 election, Tony Abbott and his closest supporters have told anyone who would listen the minority Labor government wouldn't last a year. They hoped. Abbott's short-term strategy of negating government initiatives while providing few policy alternatives was formulated to this end. But since late last year, there has been an underlying party-room anxiety that voters would grow cynical of this strategy. Tick, tick, tick.

With brutal efficiency, Labor has painted Abbott as ''backwards man'' - a leader with no capacity to take a progressive, globally ambitious, socially complex Australia forward. The ''misogyny'' label Labor assigned him was potently resonant, not because of its literal meaning (does he really hate women?) but for everything else it implies. Labor wants to promote Abbott as a conservative Catholic, with all that that implies on social issues such as abortion, contraception, homosexuality and euthanasia. Abbott is careful to quarantine his religious views from his political persona. With mixed success.

Abbott's comments on ''urban Aboriginal'' Liberal MP Ken Wyatt add definition to Labor's picture of him as a middle-aged fogey. In truth, Abbott has shown greater practical awareness of the problems facing Aboriginal Australia than most MPs. More such mistakes will cost him dearly.

And so to next week - the last parliamentary sitting week for the year. Tick, tick, tick.

You'd have to say Gillard will survive it, but she's headed for a torrid week, as the opposition sharpens focus on her time as a solicitor in the 1990s.

The Coalition pursuit of these matters is somewhat illusory. The fact is, Gillard's Labor enemies are said to be even more energetically promoting the contention that she still has questions to answer.

It's an astounding illustration of the bastardry of politics. But, then again, so too was the undoing of Rudd.

That Gillard has lifted Labor's standing works in Rudd's favour, his supporters contend. Their rationale: Labor MPs who thought they had no hope of retaining their seats a few months ago now see that Gillard is capable of bringing them close - but perhaps not close enough. They know Rudd, for all his faults, remains - with Malcolm Turnbull - the most popular putative leader in Parliament.

And Abbott? Well, it's a big final sitting week for him, too. At the end of that week it will be exactly three years since he took over as Opposition Leader. Tick, tick, tick.

smh.com.au

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