What does Gillard stand for?
DURING the last federal election a friend was having her hair cut at a local hairdressing salon. Flipping idly through a magazine, she came across a photograph of Julia Gillard. The young hairdresser (but of voting age) peered over her shoulder and asked sweetly Who is that? It may come as a surprise to our politicians, but many Australians would struggle to name the senior members of cabinet, some would even struggle, unless prompted, to name the Prime Minister or the Opposition Leader.
Yet opinion polls indicate that many people appear to have strong opinions about the performance of our political leaders.
While political parties spend millions of dollars every year in their attempts to influence public opinion, in subtle and not so subtle ways, in fact most members of the public form their judgments of a politician’s character or performance based on mere snippets of information that give rise to an overall impression.
This comes from the evening news packages, radio interviews, newspapers but more importantly, from talking with family, friends and work colleagues, many of whom may also be disengaged from the daily political process.
The electoral cycle places enormous pressure on political leaders to build and maintain public support. That is why they devote endless hours to media interviews and events staged largely for the media. These days, virtually every activity undertaken by our political leaders is assessed for its potential as a media opportunity. This creates one of the traps for politicians in the naked pursuit of popularity as an end in itself.
It is the siren call particularly for leaders fearing a leadership challenge or an imminent election loss.
Self preservation first, with the national interest coming a distant second to personal interest, seems to be the standard for the professional political class that now dominates the ranks of Federal Labor and increasingly the Coalition.
While it is easier said than done, political leaders who retain policy integrity can earn the grudging respect of the electorate, even for unpopular measures, if the public can be persuaded that a policy is in the national interest.
For years, John Howard managed to capture that public mood with his oft-repeated remark that Love me or loathe me the Australian people know where I stand. Despite his initially stratospheric approval ratings, former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd lost the leadership after the Opposition effectively portrayed him as all talk and no action.
Julia Gillard will forever be defined in the public mind by her pre-election commitment that there will be no carbon tax under the government I lead, and her subsequent broken promise. The Prime Minister is unlikely to recover from the impression that she cannot be trusted.
There is another less well-known quote that defines her leadership style far more effectively. In 2006 Julia Gillard admitted I had to fight hard to get preselected, I had to play a factional game to do that, I had to count numbers, I had to make deals and IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢d do all of that again tomorrow if I needed to. Ruthlessness and an ability to play political games are arguably Gillard’s strongest skills and she has utilised them relentlessly in her pursuit of political power.
The events surrounding Rudd’s demise provided an insight into the Prime Minister’s desire to win at any cost. It transpires that on the night of June 23, 2010, Ms Gillard kept Rudd tied up in a meeting while her henchmen worked mobile phones doing the numbers against him.
The reported chain of events reveals that she agreed with Rudd that night to allow him to remain in office – only to renege on the deal when the call came that she had the numbers to roll him immediately.
Gillard’s ruthlessness was on display back in 2006 when she teamed up with Rudd to depose Kim Beazley as Opposition Leader on the day that his brother died.
The problem with Gillard’s skill-set is that, love her or loathe her, the public can’t seem to know where she stands and that, whoever she may be, Gillard is not a conviction politician.
Apart from her infamous commitment to not introduce a carbon tax, she has shown a disturbing predilection for abandoning virtually any policy position to shore up her leadership.
As shadow minister for Immigration from November 2001 to July 2003 she argued vehemently against the Howard government’s Pacific Solution, with her key criticism that Nauru was not a signatory to the United Nations Convention on Refugees. This was a valid point and provided Gillard with an element of the high moral ground in the debate, although the fact the boats largely stopped arriving blunted her attack.
Prior to the 2010 election, the Prime Minister specifically acknowledged that East Timor was a signatory to the Convention when she announced her East Timor processing centre for asylum seekers. Yet just a year later, with the boats still arriving, the Prime Minister announced the asylum-seeker swap deal with Malaysia, despite Malaysia not being a signatory to the Convention.
It is no small thing for a Prime Minister to abandon a principle for which they have consistently argued for a decade. The public understand that policies can change as circumstances change, but are far less forgiving when a politician is seen to abandon a position of strongly held moral principle.
This week, Gillard announced she would seek to overturn Labor’s ban on Australian uranium sales to India, although this would be dependent on support at the coming Labor national conference. Again, her decision seeks to overturn a policy principle where Labor had sought to occupy the high moral ground.
The Prime Minister had said the ban was not directed at India, as it was underpinned by the principle of not allowing sales of uranium to any country that had not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. India has not signed that Treaty and yet Gillard is now prepared to sell uranium to that country.
There has been speculation that this decision is part of a play with the factions to shore up her leadership in the face of challenging debates over nuclear power and gay marriage. The logic is that she needs the support of Labor’s Right, which is opposed to gay marriage, but she cannot afford to alienate the Left, which supports gay marriage.
The compromise is that Gillard has floated the possibility of a conscience vote on gay marriage, in the knowledge that it would fail, while appeasing those on the right with the decision to allow a vote at the National conference on uranium sales to India.
While these tactics may shore up her leadership, the national interest does not appear to come into her game play.
If there is a compelling case for approving sales of uranium to India, the Prime Minister should announce it, rather than go through a charade of taking it to a conference dominated by union officials and professional politicians.
The PM may prove to be good at working the numbers to stay a step ahead of her rivals.
However, her track record of flawed judgment calls will only get worse if her decisions continue to be driven by the desperation to build popularity rather than the long-term interests of the nation.
Ross Fitzgerald, emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University, is the author of 35 books, including the co-authored satire FoolsÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ Paradise: Life in an Altered State and his memoir My Name is Ross: An Alcoholic’s Journey.
THE CANBERRA TIMES, November 17, 2011