Say, weren’t you left-wing?
Julia Gillard once pledged herself to the unions, but today her allegiances are unclear.
AS the dust settles over the prime ministerial demise of Kevin Rudd and the hype surrounding Julia Gillard subsides, the questions remain: who is she and what does she stand for?
The fact that Gillard was parachuted into the job of prime minister by the largely “faceless” union backroom boys has led to the inevitable claim that she is a puppet of the union movement. Gillard recognised she needed to move quickly to counter that impression and declared at her first press conference: “I would defy anyone to analyse my parliamentary career and find that I have done anything but made up my own mind.”
Gillard’s biography would lead one to conclude that she is a committed member of the Labor Left. Her student activities included president of the Adelaide University Union, president of the Australian Union of Students in the early 1980s, and a campus convenor of the Socialist Forum at Melbourne University.
In her first parliamentary speech in 1998 she spoke of her time in the student union: “It inspired me to spend eight years as an industrial lawyer defending trade unions and working people.” And she declared: “I will remain fiercely committed to working with unions.”
Gillard was given her first real opportunity to live up to that commitment when she produced the workplace relations policy for Labor in opposition in May 2007. The original document was widely believed to have been crafted by the unions, as it was much more pro-union than John Howard’s laws were pro-employer.
The alarm bells rang within Labor’s sensible centre, whose leading parliamentarians predicted a battle with employer groups over her hardline provisions, which initially banned all individual agreements, with only collective employment agreements seemingly available.
The lack of detail in Gillard’s policy as to the proportion of employees that could force employers into negotiations with unions led to the conclusion that if only one employee among 200 requested union representation, the union automatically became a party to the workplace agreement with open access to all non-union employees, including their wage and employment records.
Such was the level of concern raised by Gillard’s policy that Rudd drafted a replacement document that significantly watered down the union influence in time for the 2007 election.
Gillard was rumoured to be humiliated at the time. Her message was clear, however, when she suggested that employers could get “injured” if they opposed her workplace reforms. Later dismissed as a joke, it had all the subtlety of Rudd’s joke to the miners that in opposing the mining tax, they should remember Labor has “a long memory”.
As education minister, Gillard initially supported unprecedented union influence, endorsing the right of unions to enter schools and recruit students as young as 14: “I think it is important we are getting information to young workers about what their rights are in the workplace . . . it is important for secondary school students to have information on the rights of workers,” she said.
However, at least since last year Gillard has sought to reposition herself more towards the Labor Right. There was an effort to distance herself from the teachers’ unions with a faux fight about the MySchool website. It was not lost on the unions that the information from the national tests used to establish that website resulted from reforms of Liberal education ministers Brendan Nelson and Julie Bishop.
Gillard’s makeover from Left to Right included the embrace of a number of the Coalition’s education and industrial relations policies. Key elements of the Coalition’s education platform for the 2007 election, including a national school curriculum and greater autonomy for school principals, were part of Gillard’s education revolution.
The Coalition’s blueprint for capital funding of government and independent schools has been followed, with the fatally flawed exception that Gillard decided to put the federal funding for government schools in the hands of state governments and not school communities, which led to massive waste and rorting.
In workplace relations, Gillard retained the Australian Building and Construction Commissioner, established after a royal commission instigated by Tony Abbott. The unions loathe the ABCC and Gillard trumpets this decision as proof of her independence from union influence.
Her biography on the parliamentary website does not mention the word “union” once, which may itself be a sign that she will try to govern from the centre if not from the Right.
Yet it is hard to imagine that Gillard’s skirmishes with the unions had much substance, given that the unions have now thrown their support so comprehensively behind her.
Lest there be any doubt about who made the decision to dump Rudd and install Gillard, the precocious but talented Paul Howes of the Australian Workers’ Union gave a running commentary on the evening of the coup.
To understate the case, the unions clearly believe Gillard is not hostile to their interests.
The point of all this is that the public should know what values and beliefs will underpin the new Prime Minister’s policy decisions and who or what are her greatest influences.
The still unanswered question is whether Gillard is the left-wing activist who entered parliament to fight for union interests, or has she now changed her focus to that of the broader national interest?
Former Labor leader Mark Latham has said that Gillard was committed to her left-wing values and ideals, but that she changed after the 2007 election and became a pale shadow of Rudd.
Latham has been rightly criticised for his leadership of the Labor Party, but he can and does provide invaluable insights into the inner workings of the Labor machine.
Moreover, before he became leader, when he and Gillard were close, Latham engaged in some inventive policy work, although whether these ideas, especially about the importance of nurturing communities, rub off on the new prime minister is unclear.
Gillard claimed that she needed to replace Rudd because the government had lost its way and therefore it was in the national interest that she did so. When pressed for an area of policy differentiation, she identified population policy as a key difference, insisting that any population growth had to be “sustainable”.
Her case rested on the false premise that Rudd had unquestioningly endorsed a much larger population of at least 36 million people by 2050. While Rudd did give one interview supporting a “big Australia”, the opposition used it to verbal Rudd, claiming he supported an unrestricted population growth.
To counter this claim, Rudd appointed Tony Burke as minister for population.
His role was to develop a comprehensive population strategy that took into account challenges and opportunities, including the social and economic infrastructure and the roads, housing and service delivery network needed, the impact on regional towns and communities and the impact on the environment, water, and urban congestion.
In other words, Rudd’s policy was based on sustainability.
Prime Minister Gillard, in adopting the opposition’s misrepresentation of Rudd, merely changed Burke’s title to Minister for Sustainable Population, clearly already part of his brief. In fact, there was and is no policy schism with Rudd.
It seems likely that Gillard will call an election for sometime in August. The Australian public thus has only a matter of weeks to find out whether she is a true believer from the Labor heartland, a true centrist, or just another politician practised in the art of spin and ultimately beholden to the unions who put her there.
The Weekend Australian, July 03, 2010