Now it is 'game on' for Tony Abbot - Gillard

By Greg Ansley

Finally, after 18 months of bitter division, internal carnage and plummeting polls, Prime Minister Julia Gillard can return to the opening challenge she laid down to Opposition Leader Tony Abbott: "Game on."

Following her 71-31 defeat of ousted leader and former Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd in yesterday's leadership ballot, Gillard now faces a gruelling marathon to pull Labor out of a terminal nosedive before next year's election.

Given the appalling spectacle the Government has presented to the nation since sabotage from within almost killed its re-election, undermined its credibility and hammered its agenda, survival will be almost miraculous.

But Abbott will also have a much harder job without continual Labor squabbling, facing his own electoral unpopularity and his consistent failure to present any policy alternatives beyond a negativity that has earned him the nickname "Dr No".

As well as her resounding victory and unqualified pledges of support from Rudd and supporters, yesterday brought some other encouraging signs. A Newspoll in the Australian confirmed Abbott's low popular standing and showed gains in Labor support despite the eruption of the Government's internal ulcers.

Newspoll said Labor's primary vote had climbed three points to 35 per cent in the past week, with a slight narrowing in the two-party preferred vote that determines Australian elections - still a crushing 53-47 per cent lead to the Coalition, but a possible foundation for reconstruction.

The Greens applauded her victory and said they would work with the Government into the next election; the support of key independents Tony Windsor and Ron Oakeshott will continue.

Gillard can also gain from an overwhelming sense of relief among voters and key sectors of the economy. Her victory has been welcomed by big business and the union movement, both of which bemoaned the instability the leadership row caused and demanded unity in common cause.

Gillard expressed her understanding: "The last week has seen us, the women and men of the Labor Party, focused inwards, focused on ourselves. At times it's been ugly. As a result, Australians have had a gutful of seeing us focus on ourselves."

Gillard has few changes to make to her team, minimising disruption. Most of her Cabinet supported her. She has already indicated her willingness to embrace one Rudd supporter, Transport Minister Anthony Albanese, and has appointed Trade Minister Craig Emerson as temporary Foreign Minister.

Last night Mark Arbib announced he was resigning as sports minister and senator for New South Wales, saying the rigours of politics were taking a toll on his family life.

Rudd will move to the back benches, pledging to remain in parliament beyond the next election - removing the threat of a byelection or a risky fight for his seat next year - and has promised his complete support for Gillard.

"Caucus has spoken," he said. "I accept its verdict without qualification and without rancour.

"I bear no grudges, I bear no one any malice and if [I] have done the wrong thing, in what I have said or what I have done then I apologise ...

"We have a higher purpose, to serve our nation, not ourselves ... I will now throw my every effort into securing Julia Gillard's re-election as Prime Minister."

While resentments will stew beneath the surface, Labor is closing ranks before a common enemy, and Gillard made it clear policy and reform would now be her priority.

"The leadership question is now determined," she said. "You, the Australian people, rightly expect the Government to focus on you.

"I can assure you that this political drama is over and now you are back at centre stage where you should properly be, and you will be the focus of all of our efforts."

Labor sees the Opposition as vulnerable provided the Government can remake itself, painting the leadership crisis as "cleansing" and "cathartic" and turning its guns on the populism of Abbott and his reluctance to clash on policy.

Increasingly, Abbott will be forced to focus on policy - including some which the Opposition has previously supported but since rejected on purely political grounds - and alternatives.

Abbott and his shadow ministers continued to focus on the leadership when Parliament resumed yesterday afternoon, claiming Gillard had no mandate as Prime Minister because one-third of her Caucus and one-quarter of her Cabinet no longer supported her.

Gillard shot back a reminder that Abbott had won his job by just one vote and quipped that she often saw the man he ousted, Malcolm Turnbull, "eyeing a spot on the Leader of the Opposition's back".

Abbott said an election was needed to allow a Coalition Government to bring spending down, lift productivity, and introduce strong policies on the environment, border control, and communities.

But the main thrust remained the leadership crisis, which he said had merely been a stay of execution exposing a bad Government "run by faceless men and led by someone who has lost the trust of her Government".

Gillard, in contrast, found new fire and said she was impatient to launch into priorities including the economy, sharing the benefits of the mining boom, the national broadband network, a carbon price, the national disability insurance scheme, and further education reforms.

She said Labor could unite, as it had done in the past, and could win the next election: "Tony Abbott will be focused on the Labor Party. We will be focused on the nation. There is not a day to waste."

Convincing voters she can get the job done will be the hard part.

GILLARD'S RECORD

WINS
* Negotiated Labor into minority government
* Carbon pricing
* Plain packaging of cigarettes
* Minerals Resource Rent Tax
* National broadband network starts
* Hospitals deal with states
* Private health insurance means-testing

LOSSES
* Carbon tax broken promise
* Failure to explain June 2010 coup
* Asylum-seeker policy unresolved
* Murray-Darling reform unresolved
* Broken promise on pokies
* Australia Day security scare.

- AAP

- NZ Herald

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production bpcf02 at 28 Dec 2014 09:11:59 Processing Time: 477ms