IN THE showdown in February with the former prime minister Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard had almost unanimous support from MPs who owe their position to the union movement.
But following discussions among unions this week, union leaders concede they can no longer hold their MPs in behind the Prime Minister.
The meeting of union leaders discussed how to handle a leadership change if it could not be prevented, as senior Labor figures concede Gillard’s prospects of staying in the job are receding.
In February Gillard had almost unanimous support from the union movement and leaders – including the Australian Workers Union chief, Paul Howes – who lobbied the caucus members associated with their organisations.
But senior Labor figures and several MPs have told the Herald that unions, including the AWU – which has at least 15 closely associated MPs – have indicated they would not be as active in defending Gillard in another ballot, even though they were not supporting a shift.
In part the change is an acknowledgment of reality, with MPs less fearful of threats to their preselections because opinion polls indicate they are likely to lose their seats at the next election.
”The AWU is not plumping for a change but they are not standing in the way either … that is a significant change in attitude,” a Labor figure said.
The stance is similar to that of the NSW Right faction, as support in that grouping shifts from Gillard.
Union leaders confirmed yesterday that the leadership had been discussed at a meeting this week, but strongly denied there was any shift in their strong support for Gillard.
”The discussion really was about how we would handle a change if it became unstoppable,” one source said. ”It was not a conversation that could be considered in any way supportive of Kevin Rudd.”
The ACTU secretary, Dave Oliver, said: ”Nothing has changed at all. The movement is
supportive of Prime Minister Gillard and her government for the work that is being done on the issues that matter to us most.” And Howes tweeted from Washington that suggestions the union movement was shifting support were ”complete b-s”.
The unions, which imposed a $2 levy on members to establish a $4 million election fighting fund, are deeply concerned that on the latest polling the Coalition would win control of the Senate, putting it in a position to reverse all the industrial relations changes Labor has made.
They are also worried about changes a Coalition government is likely to make to political donations laws, which would break the funding link between Labor’s political and industrial arms.
In NSW the Coalition government has banned donations from organisations, including unions, and in Queensland the Newman government plans to force members of organisations to vote before they can make a donation to a political party.
Labor’s latest returns to the Australian Electoral Commission show that after the 2010 election it was almost $15 million in debt. Corporate donations are evaporating.
On the latest poll figures, Labor would receive 1 million fewer votes across both houses than it did at the last election, which would slice about $2.5 million from the public funding on which it is increasingly reliant.
MPs, who are in their electorates for the winter break, are concerned that despite a fairly smooth introduction of the carbon tax there is no sign of a turnaround in the polls or a lessening of public hostility towards Gillard. But many are unenthusiastic about change.
In February Gillard beat Rudd by 71 votes to 31, including 12 from the NSW Right faction, which would now deliver her five or six votes.
There has also been some shift in the Victorian Right, amid speculation that the former AWU chief and now Workplace Relations Minister, Bill Shorten, could become deputy prime minister to Rudd.
Any new leader would have to renegotiate the support of the independents and the Greens that has allowed Gillard to form government.
Yesterday the independent Tony Windsor said his agreement was ”not a transferable document” and a change would mean ”all bets are off”.