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Gillard loses her glitter

3 September 2009 1,030 views No Comment

THREE weeks ago I wondered if there was something wrong with the Canberra press gallery. Despite a growing list of problems in the programs for which she has been responsible, their infatuation with Julia Gillard seemed to know no bounds.

A remarkable demonstration of political acrobatics last week by the Deputy Prime Minister proved to be the straw that broke the camel’s back. First was the backdown on youth allowance, an admission that country kids can’t be expected to live at home while attending university. Then there was the duck-and-weave on award modernisation when Gillard was forced to make further interventions in a system that she had previously described as faultless. And the week finished as she finally tripped over a $1.5 billion “bump in the road” (Gillard’s words) as her schools building program blew its budget in breathtaking fashion and her guidelines had to be amended to demand that “value for money” be a consideration for the first time.

Three policy disasters in a week proved too much for even the Canberra press gallery and opposition education spokesman Christopher Pyne took the opportunity to mount a brutally clinical assault on her credibility. It paid off. Increasingly, most observers agree that Gillard has lost her Teflon shell and is under pressure like never before.

For some time I have been following the intensely personal match-up between the Education Minister and her energetic opposition number. Gillard clearly has a strong personal antipathy to the younger Pyne, who has been in parliament five years longer than her and has been harrying her in the media and parliament.

In February she called him a mincing poodle. As political journalist Glenn Milne pointed out, imagine the outcry if Pyne had responded by calling her a brindle bitch.

More recently she has demonstrated her increasing obsession in the house, providing critical commentary on Pyne’s website and arguing that he isn’t working hard enough on his portfolio areas. Yet nobody is buying it.

Whenever she is criticised, Gillard sounds increasingly shrill; her instinctive response is a personal attack. She would be better served to have a good look at the policy issues for which she is responsible. Despite admitting that there is a problem with her new youth allowance rules for country students, her solution will help only 5000 of those country students, and only those who are in a gap year. There is, for example, no relief at all for students getting ready for their year 12 exams.

What sort of incentive do these students have to do well in this most crucial period in their lives if they won’t be able to afford to go to uni? Gillard needs to engage in a serious rethink of her youth allowance policy so young people in rural and regional Australia can have some confidence they won’t be left behind.

Award modernisation should be a big political winner for the Rudd government. The Work Choices election in 2007 gave Gillard as much of a political boost as anyone could ask for in dealing with this portfolio. However, even after last week’s backdown, the talkback radio waves are still buzzing with angry small-business people genuinely scared that Labor’s new rules will leave their businesses unviable.

Finally, to the schools stimulus debacle. Gillard must be too used to being given an easy ride by the press if she thought that there was any chance they would buy her spin that the $1.5bn blow-out was a result of the “overwhelming success” of the program. For an Education Minister who talks about the importance of numeracy, it was downright embarrassing. Apparently the whole school halls program was funded on the basis that, when offered $3 million to have a new building on their grounds, 10 per cent of schools would say no. How extraordinary.

For several months the federal Coalition has been railing against this program with charges that state skimming is rife. Some private firms are indulging in practices best described as profiteering, while some schools are finding they can’t use local builders because they aren’t state government-preferred tenderers. This means city firms are doing jobs hundreds of kilometres away, at great cost.

The opposition’s relentless campaign managed to attract the interest of the Auditor-General, who is investigating the waste and mismanagement. This week we have learned the Auditor-General will be joined in his investigation by the Australian Electoral Commissioner, who is looking into whether the compulsory Nation Building Stimulus Package signs that come with these buildings breach commonwealth electoral laws.

When it comes to spending billions of dollars of public money and creating policy that will affect the lives of millions of Australia’s young people, the detail matters. In the past week, it has become clear that Gillard is unable to get the detail right.

As Pyne has been saying for months, Australia deserves so much better than a part-time Education Minister.

The Australian September 03, 2009