Prime Ministerial Musical Chairs

What possible benefit would the Labor Government receive from ditching Julia Gillard now?

Yes, a Fairfax poll on Monday suggested Kevin Rudd would win an election handily if only he was swapped back in as prime minister. Forty-four per cent of voters prefer Kevin. Only 19 per cent prefer Julia.

But there are some heroic assumptions here, not least of which the changeover would be seamless and appear effortless. No late-night press conference with Gillard about how she won’t stand by as her party lurches to the left on asylum seekers. No teary farewell. Some convincing explanation of why a leadership change was necessary.

And entirely absent from hypotheticals like these are any consideration of the shape of the alternative government.

It wasn’t, after all, the simple fact of Julia Gillard’s appointment as Prime Minister that put voters off her. It was what happened next: a series of backdowns, reversals, preening factional warlords, major policies announced without checking whether they were actually possible, and, as Annabel Crabb pointed out in The Monthly, her Government’s complete inability to describe why she is Prime Minister in the first place.

In politics, like policy, implementation matters more than intention.

The air of illegitimacy about this Government grew over time. It didn’t spring up instantaneously. It’s not Julia Gillard, but the policy and political decisions she has made – from the over-scripted “moving forward” speech, to the carbon price turnaround, to the High Court’s ‘Malaysia Solution’ case.

So the question is not really who the Labor Party would like as leader, but what they plan to do when they get there.

That’s, in part, why Stephen Smith would be such a bizarre choice. His primary qualification for the role appears to be that he exists. Not that he has any particular views, or is driven by any standout philosophy of government.

Lots of people seem to think that Simon Crean would be good as PM, but, then, lots of people thought Julia Gillard would be good too.

There seems to be growing sentiment from within the Government that a change in leadership may be necessary, but no indication that a leadership change would have any policy consequence.

Prime minsters Smith or Crean would have to decide what to do about the one policy which is eating Labor alive – the carbon tax. It’s not just ‘Convoy of No Confidence’ types who disapprove. Newspoll suggests the climate policy only has the support of 37 per cent of Australian of voters.

“Putting a price on carbon” is a political trap. From the moment the carbon bills are signed into law, the Government will – fairly or unfairly – take ownership of every single job loss in energy and manufacturing. Gillard may get her bills through but the next Labor prime minister would have to decide whether to maintain the system as it stands. If the new PM does nothing, then almost every dissatisfaction with Gillard will apply to them.

And the image for the Labor Party will be even worse. What was an aberration would become a pattern. Is the modern ALP fundamentally unable to keep one prime minister in the Lodge for a full term? If Labor really wants to give the electorate the impression that it is completely unable to govern like adults, then continually swapping out prime ministers would be the best way to do it.

It wouldn’t be just this Government at stake. It would be the electoral viability of the party over the next few decades. In 2007, Labor argued voters couldn’t be sure whether the Coalition was offering prime minister Howard or prime minister Costello. In 2013 voters won’t know who in the entire ALP ministry they’re being asked to support. And then in 2016, and 2019, and on and on.

The story would be a little different if Kevin Rudd was returned to the leadership. Imagine a Rudd coup tomorrow. Gillard herself would be the aberration, not the leadership spill: a 14-month failed experiment. The Labor Government would be back on the path it set out on in 2007. Wounded, embarrassed, contrite, but alive.

But that assumes that everything goes smoothly, and that voters don’t mind political parties making colossal leadership errors whilst trying to run the government.

And Rudd would still face policy questions which have no easy answers. The former PM certainly has more forthright views on questions about climate change and refugees, but they wouldn’t provide much of a guide out of the Government’s mess. On the carbon tax, Rudd would be more likely to double down than fold.

A change in leadership is an answer to a question that hasn’t been asked. The Government’s problem is not just the personality at its top.

Let’s face it: Labor cooked its Government when the smartest warlords in the room decided Kevin Rudd had to go. Everything since then has been an extended death monologue.