Grattan on Friday: Labor shrapnel flies

Backbencher Ed Husic is in a stoush with Tanya Plibersek. AAP/Alan Porritt

No doubt the money helps create jobs and investment but Labor backbencher Ed Husic surely had a point when he said the government’s $21.6 million grant for the Disney film 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea raised his eyebrows.

With the budget strapped, it does seem a touch indulgent. Husic’s complaint was that the money would be better spent on an MRI at Sydney’s Mount Druitt Hospital.

Husic, a Rudd supporter from Chifley, one of the few (apparently) safe ALP seats in Western Sydney, has not been mollified by Health Minister Tanya Plibersek’s reply.

“Ed’s run a very good local campaign but I don’t hand out MRI machines on the basis of good local campaigning,” she said.

“We do a very strict independent arms-length process from me based on the biggest needs in the community. That’s not to say there will never be a machine in Mount Druitt - it’s just to say there has been a big need right across Australia.”

Husic, who is asking for a new round of funding to be opened, hit back, “I would hate for people to interpret Tanya’s comments as suggesting that there is little value in securing community support for obtaining health care resources for areas of high need”.

Quite apart from the pros and cons of the particular issues, Husic’s intervention was significant because it is symptomatic of the current climate, in which Labor MPs are increasingly willing to take on the government publicly over policy matters.

Although she is now secure in her position, having backbenchers so obviously off the leash presents new dangers for Julia Gillard.

After last month’s leadership fiasco, which landed several highly-regarded ministers on the backbench, Gillard said the government would go forward united. In fact, Labor is presenting a more divided face than at any time since 2007.

The caucus has been through phases since the ALP was elected. Initially it was near supine. Later, some MPs such as left senator Doug Cameron raised their voices on various issues.

But now, critics are more vocal, and have stronger firepower. They include people formerly in high places with behind-the-scenes knowledge, who carry greater cachet in the media than the “usual suspects”.

Former minister Simon Crean has the government on the spot over the highly sensitive issue of superannuation; outgoing whip Joel Fitzgibbon (who promised to be quieter) has spoken out on super in defence of his local coal miners’ interests.

Former human services minister Kim Carr this week attacked the 2012 budget decision to push a group of previously grandfathered single mothers on to the dole.

Carr targeted fairness and process: the Human Services department “should be in the room when decisions are made… At the very least, it should be properly consulted…”.

Carr also argued that setting out to save $700 million just boosted the campaign to increase the dole, which would cost billions.

Gillard is experiencing the flip side of the leadership bid by the Rudd forces. In recent months tension built, which was destabilising. Then the situation came to a head, Rudd lacked the numbers and declined to enter the ballot, and Gillard triumphed without a vote.

Now Rudd supporters are in a new situation. Their mood is black. They actually have less reason to be disciplined. They are no longer restrained by tactical considerations. Crean and Carr are not locked in by frontbench jobs.

But not all the Ruddites want to see attacks on the government. There is a concern that if there is too much criticism in the run up to the election, a big defeat would be blamed on Rudd. Post-election, the Gillard supporters could say that his ambitions, and then the behaviour of his followers when those ambitions could not be realised, had destroyed Labor’s chances.

Some Ruddites advocate giving Gillard clear air, so she cops maximum blame for the electoral smash up they are convinced will come. It’s a comment on Labor’s situation that people are already preoccupied with how the bitterness will flow in opposition.

Gillard has little power, in practical terms, to deal with the dissent. Earlier this year she fulminated in caucus against those leaking. But after all that’s happened, such lectures are likely to have minimal effect.

The willingness of MPs to speak out is especially dangerous with the May 14 budget coming up. Governments don’t seem to get bounces from budgets but this one needs to go reasonably well if Labor is to have any chance of improving its stocks.

Doug Cameron is getting in early with crazy brave advice. He urges a “modest increase” in the Medicare levy to finance the Gonski education funding plan and the national disability insurance scheme. “If we want Scandinavian-type social support it has to be paid for”. He also says the mining tax should be widened and deepened, and calls for crackdown on family trusts which have grown into “super trusts” for tax avoidance.

If, after the budget, backbench critics publicly diss measures they consider unpopular, this will just reinforce the impression the government is a shambles.

Distancing themselves from unpopular decisions must be a temptation for backbenchers in marginal seats. Some would feel this could increase their chances of survival. That isn’t necessarily so, but fear is a powerful motivation to take desperate actions.

Even if the superannuation changes are pre-announced to isolate this vexed issue, it is hard to see how the government can produce a budget which will do much for it. It needs big savings, presumably bringing some pain. There is not much room for fresh goodies, and Gonski and the NDIS may have already have yielded their political kudos. The budget’s fiscal bottom line is unlikely to be helpful.

If there are provocative decisions Gillard could be in the firing lines of both internal critics and difficult crossbenchers who need to make last stands before their own battles for survival.

The journey ahead could rival the trials Jules Verne imagined for his characters in 20,000 Leagues.