Is it too late for Gillard?

9 September 2011

Written by: Samantha Afetian

With the High Court’s ruling that the planned refugee swap with Malaysia is unlawful, Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s authority is being seriously questioned by the media and the public.

Even former prime minister John Howard has weighed in on the debate, telling the ABC’s 7.30, ‘The biggest problem that the current Prime Minister has is that she lacks authority.’

‘And even if you are an unpopular Prime Minister – and I went through periods of unpopularity, all of us do as prime ministers – you have to retain authority and this is her biggest problem because she didn’t win the last election outright,’ Howard continued.

In light of the High Court’s decision, the big question is whether Gillard can establish her authority as Prime Minister or if her credibility is permanently diminished.

Dennis Altman, Professor of Politics and Director Institute for Human Security at La Trobe University, thinks that it is too late for Gillard.

‘Gillard’s last chance to asset herself and take control of the political debate was the High Court judgment,’ says Altman.

‘She could have used this to signal a more human attitude to asylum seekers, claiming the legal ruling as her justification, and at least staunching the impression of a divided party and a leader without principles.

‘She would also have to make a major speech in which she appealed to basic instincts of a fair go to reposition the whole debate. But she didn’t, and it’s hard to see how she can now retrieve her position.’

In fact, Gillard did exactly the opposite.

Following the High Court’s decision, Gillard criticised Chief Justice French for making a decision that ‘turns on its head the understanding of the law in this country.’

Gillard continued to accuse the Chief Justice of inconsistency, stating, ‘His Honour Mr Justice French considered comparable legal questions when he was a judge of the Federal Court and made different decisions to the one that the High Court made.’

Apparently Gillard’s reaction to the High Court’s decision has taken its toll on public opinion. Newspoll results released earlier this week show voter satisfaction with the Prime Minister has plunged to 23 per cent, while dissatisfaction of Gillard’s performance has jumped to 68 per cent, up seven points.

Maybe Altman is right; perhaps it is too late for Gillard to regain authority.

Unnamed Labor powerbrokers have reportedly told News Ltd recently that they will give Gillard until the end of the year before a change of leadership is contemplated.

But the Labor Party isn’t ready to give up yet. Immigration Minister Chris Bowen has said that he believes that Gillard will lead the party into the next election.

‘This prime minister is no different to the previous prime ministers who go through difficult periods. But that doesn’t mean that she won’t be leading the party to the next election because I believe she will be,’ Bowen told the ABC’s Insiders program.

The prime minister herself has dismissed the latest polls, saying that the 2013 election result will show the true value of her performance.

So, is it too late for Gillard? Only time will tell.

Samantha Afetian is a Journalism student at La Trobe University, currently on exchange from San Diego State University in California, and a member of upstart’s editorial team.  You can follow her on Twitter: @Sam Afetian.