View from The Hill

Ministers forced to defend their loyalty to Gillard

Bob Carr denies ever talking about Labor’s troubles to his colleagues. AAP/Made Nagi

The latest shot in the Labor leadership battle – a Fairfax story saying that two cabinet ministers were “reconsidering their support for the Prime Minister” – has both helped and hindered its promoters.

The story has added to the destabilisation just when Julia Gillard’s authority is being further undermined by the conflict and mismanagement around the government’s controversial media package. But it has also forced the ministers fingered – Bob Carr and Mark Butler – to declare publicly their continued loyalty to the PM.

Despite everyone chattering about it in every corner of Parliament House, no one raised the leadership at today’s regular caucus meeting.

There was, however, criticism of the handling of the media issue, with chief whip Joel Fitzgibbon telling caucus the government could not win the argument on vague concepts such as media diversity, but should be casting its case in terms of protecting victims of reckless reporting.

Fitzgibbon, a Kevin Rudd numbers men, bought in after Gillard named him as one of those in caucus who had previously called for media reform.

Backbencher Janelle Saffin failed to get an answer to her question to the PM asking whether the media plan would remnain the government policy if it failed in Parliament.

Lead author of the story sparking today’s round of leadership excitement - headed “Ministers turn on PM” in the Sydney Morning Herald and “Ministers desert PM” in The Age - was Peter Hartcher, who wrote a report in June 2010 (about the Rudd office checking the then PM’s support) that helped trigger the dramatic coup which installed Gillard.

Today’s story said that Foreign Minister Carr, who is from the NSW right, had told colleagues he had lost faith in Gillard some time ago, while Butler, Minister for Mental Health and a force in the left, had told colleagues he was reconsidering his support for her.

Standing beside US Secretary of State John Kerry at a joint news conference in Washington - the Americans, bemused by the coup against Rudd, must now seriously marvel at Australian politics - Carr declared: “The Prime Minister has my unqualified support.” He said he had not been asked to comment on the article beforehand.

On the ABC, Carr flatly denied speaking to colleagues about Gillard’s leadership and the fortunes of the government. To be frank, that stretches believability; if it’s correct he must be the only caucus member with zipped lips on these matters.

Butler initially stuck to his usual line of refusing to be drawn into leadership speculation. But later he tweeted: “Still a proud member of Julia Gillard’s team, contrary to latest media frenzy”, a line with a Jesuitical touch about it.

Butler has been regarded as a significant ministerial figure in the leadership battle – if he moved decisively, it would carry some weight, Carr was specifically recruited into the government by Gillard herself to be Foreign Minister. The pair may well be disillusioned with her. But what the Rudd forces need is for ministers who have been backing Gillard to publicly desert her, rather than being forced to rally behind her.

Some pro-Rudd sources claim Gillard has lost the numbers but say things are tight and no one knows where it is all going.

As the hours for negotiation on the media bills tick away, if Gillard and Conroy can’t make some progress with the crossbenchers on the core elements of the package, it will provide her caucus critics with a potent weapon to inflict further damage on her. The question is how much more of a battering can her leadership stand?