Labor Lawmakers Urge Unity Amid Gillard Leadership Speculation

Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard is seeking to shore up support for her leadership as senior Labor lawmakers called on the party to unite six months before an election.

“People have to pull back, they have to unify,” Simon Crean, minister for regional Australia who led the party for two years in the early 2000s, told reporters today in Canberra. “It is killing us, in my view, the disunity.”

Gillard has faced days of intense media speculation that backers of former leader Kevin Rudd are trying to muster support for a party coup before Parliament rises for a seven-week break today. Communications Minister Stephen Conroy told reporters the prime minister has the backing of the party and a leadership ballot won’t be called today.

The government has trailed in opinion polls for almost two years, with surveys this month showing Gillard lags behind opposition leader Tony Abbott on the question of preferred prime minister and Rudd as preferred Labor leader. Gillard is seeking a compromise on proposed media industry laws as she battles to avoid the first defeat of legislation introduced by Labor since she formed a minority government in September 2010.

“While anything can happen, Rudd doesn’t seem to have the numbers yet and may think that in a couple of months’ time Labor members will be forced to hand him the leadership on a plate,” said Stephen Stockwell, a political analyst at Brisbane’s Griffith University. “Gillard is hoping by playing to her negotiating strengths she’ll be able to get her media laws through and finish the week not only still in power, but with a minor victory.”

Rudd Pledge

When Rudd challenged to reclaim the leadership in February 2012, Gillard won that ballot by 71 votes to 31 in the 102-member Labor caucus. After losing the contest, Rudd pledged to “dedicate myself to working fully” for Gillard’s re-election and has repeatedly said he wouldn’t challenge again.

“Regarding the Labor leadership, Mr. Rudd has made his position clear in numerous media statements,” his office said in an e-mailed statement today. “He stands by those statements.”

Crean told reporters that if Rudd, who was ousted by Gillard in a June 2010 coup, had the backing of a majority of the Labor caucus, he would already have moved to reclaim the leadership this week. When asked whether he himself was a good third option to unify the party, Crean responded: “I haven’t got the numbers and I’m honest enough to admit that.”

Party Unity

Crean denied that Rudd backers had approached him to run as deputy in a leadership challenge. He called on Gillard to show leadership and unite the party.

“The way in which the Labor party has always operated most effectively is when it has been inclusive, when it has sought consensus, not when it has sought division, not when it has gone after class warfare,” Crean said. “They can do it under whatever leader is prepared to stand up and say that. I believe she can, but she must.”

Gillard still commands the support of the party, with Rudd at least 6 votes short of the 52 caucus votes he needs to win leadership should he challenge, according to the Australian Financial Review, which didn’t cite sources.

Policy Backflips

Support for Labor has waned after a series of policy back flips -- including on a tax on carbon emissions -- and scandals involving senior party members. A weakening manufacturing sector in some key Labor seats on the fringes of major cities has also seen her support dissipate.

Labor was at 48 percent on a two-party preferred basis, with Abbott’s coalition on 52 percent, according to a Newspoll survey published in the Australian newspaper on March 12. The poll also showed Labor would win the election if Rudd replaced Gillard as Labor leader.

The opposition says failure to pass a package of bills on the media industry today would further weaken Gillard’s position.

“If the bills fail, it’s a matter of confidence in the government,” Chris Pyne, the manager of opposition business, told reporters in Canberra today.

While bills on broadcasting license fees and local-content rules passed parliament earlier this week, the government is still trying to secure the support of independent lawmakers for four others. Bob Katter, one of the independent lawmakers who is promoting amendments to a proposal to create a panel to monitor the media, said today the laws had a 50 percent chance of passing.

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