Pressure on Julia Gillard amid poll slump

Chief whip admits there is unrest in the party but dismisses talk of leadership challenge

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 21 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 21 March, 2013, 4:03am

A key Australian government figure yesterday confirmed pre-election unrest within the Labor Party over Prime Minister Julia Gillard's leadership, but claimed there was no leadership challenge likely against her yet.

Speculation intensified that Gillard could be toppled by her party after a report said former prime minister Kevin Rudd was only five votes away from victory.

TheAustralian Financial Review said Gillard, the nation's first woman leader, was lagging so badly in opinion polls that even her more strident supporters doubted she could win the September 14 national election.

It said three senior sources had confirmed momentum was moving towards Rudd, who was suddenly ousted by Gillard (pictured) in a party-room coup in mid-2010, less than three years after he swept Labor to power over the conservatives.

The paper said one supporter, asked whether Gillard could maintain her position, replied: "It's hard to see."

But chief government whip Joel Fitzgibbon insisted that while Labor politicians were worried about their future there was no canvassing of support for Rudd.

"It would be silly to tell people watching your programme that there is nothing going on," Fitzgibbon told Fairfax Media.

People are looking at the polls and they are expressing concern about the future of the government and indeed the party

"Obviously, internally people are looking at the polls and they are expressing concern about the future of the government and indeed the party, and you'll get conversations and those conversations are, unfortunately, making their way into the media."

But he dismissed reports that vote-counting was going on. "People are just speculating," he said. "We're six months out from an election, obviously we're struggling in the opinion polls. It's causing unrest in the party room, particularly amongst [lawmakers] that are on relatively narrow margins, about their future in this place."

Some ministers, including Foreign Minister Bob Carr, have stressed their loyalty to Gillard, but reports said Rudd's camp was actively canvassing for support and any leadership vote between the two would be tight.

Gillard became prime minister in mid-2010 when she ousted Rudd, who at the time had lost the support of powerful factional leaders.

She called an election which she failed to win outright, gaining power to govern only after cobbling together a coalition with a Greens lawmaker and several rural independents.