The look on Tanya Plibersek’s face yesterday said it all. She wanted to talk about health and medical research but the reporters only had questions about Craig Thomson and splits inside the Government.
Not a day into her new position as Health Minister, her frustration was plain to see. She was even asked if she “liked” Kevin Rudd.
This Facebook approach to political leadership has surfaced repeatedly over the past fortnight. John Laws took up the likeability question with the prime minister on Wednesday. Like Plibersek, Gillard seemed nonplussed. She criticised the pop psychology approach and repeated stock phrases about her professional working relationship with Kevin Rudd.
Some have it that all this is the media’s fault, that it’s not interested in policy. Issues bore them. The Gillard-Rudd talk is just more sideshow politics.
Well, maybe. But it’s also real. It’s not just the media to blame. It’s more than just horse-race politics. In truth, the fate of Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd is the big question that will linger over the summer break. At some point, it will be answered.
What we see over and over is the inability of the prime minister to dismiss this question. All week, she tried, without success. She can’t kill it with derision. She can’t ridicule it with humour. She can’t counter it with argument. As is so often the case, she simply doesn’t sound believable. The prepared lines don’t wash.
Most of all, we keep seeing that whatever skills and talents she has, Gillard doesn’t have the sure political touch her job needs. It ought to be a compliment but she lacks the guile and the roguishness that a prime minister needs, that capacity to lie if she has to but to make us believe she isn’t – or if she is that it doesn’t matter all that much. Howard could do it and so could Hawke. When she tries, Gillard sounds artificial.
The Prime Minister’s supporters say she is different in private, that the real Gillard is warm, witty and engaging. How often we hear of her negotiating skills and her capacity to build relationships in order to get things done. It must be true because the Government’s legislative record is piling up.
But we inevitably keep returning to the authenticity problem and its companion, the authority deficit. Roll them into one and it’s a potent mix. Season the mix with public perceptions of incompetence and broken promises, and the brew is deadly.
As the Government approaches the half-way mark of its term, whichever way you look at it, all roads lead to Julia Gillard.
It will be 18 months on Christmas Eve since Gillard assumed the prime ministership and her public perception is a massive negative for the Government. It must be obvious to her colleagues that the public Gillard is not going to change. In 20 months’ time, the Government will be in election mode. The clock is ticking. What to do?
Of its 72 seats in the House of Representatives – already four short of an outright majority – the ALP holds eight with a margin of less that 2 per cent. It holds a total of 18 seats with a margin of less than 5 per cent and another 17 seats between 5-8 per cent. Those 35 members are the frontline troops who face annihilation when the party’s primary vote is in the low 30s. There can be no doubt that the prospect is front and centre in their thoughts every day. They don’t need the media to manufacture leadership concerns for them.
That’s why last Monday’s reshuffle may have an unintended effect. By positioning her best performers in the Cabinet, what ought to be an act of strength by a leader unafraid of surrounding herself with potential competitors instead confirms her own deficiencies.
Plibersek as Health Minister has been well received. She is one of the Government’s most able communicators. Similarly, Roxon’s dynamism could well make the Attorney-General’s position a scene of political and legal reform which could burnish the Government’s depiction of itself as a Labor Government. It is said Bill Shorten’s job is to burn Abbott on industrial relations. Mark Butler is a rising star in Mental Health and Ageing. Greg Combet is Mr. Fix-It. And so it goes.
But a government fails from the top down, not the bottom up. Ultimately, compelling performances from these ministers won’t save the Government. In our presidentialised parliamentary system, the media and public focus takes in the ministry but is fixated on the leader.
In positioning her best performers on the rungs beneath her, Gillard highlights her weakness, not as the Government’s administrative fulcrum but as its chief public representative, explainer and advocate.
The weakness is not just presentational. Whilst some like to say that if only the Government could sell its policies better it would have some electoral hope, it is more complex than that. The key policies and programs of the Government are part of the problem, as the carbon tax demonstrates. Its tortuous path to implementation has been built on the chameleon-like positions of the Prime Minister. As with the gay marriage issue or refugee policy, Gillard’s positions are often attributed to populism, pragmatism or pressure, rarely to genuine conviction.
On top of all that, Gillard’s political judgment and courage is repeatedly brought into question. It happened again with the reshuffle.
Take the demotion of Senator Kim Carr. He was the only minister to be demoted from Cabinet to the outer ministry. No reason has been given. In contrast, McClelland and Evans got to stay, even though Gillard wanted to move them. The Cabinet was increased in size by two and both men had a ministerial position cobbled together for them from the remnants of other portfolios.
Carr’s demotion can only be seen as a warning to the Rudd camp. It is akin to taunting them with a head on a pike, an assertion of power and determination, coupled with a dare. Look what I’m prepared to do, Gillard seems to be saying. Are you game to take me on? As a strategy designed to bolster her position, it is both misconceived and reckless. As the week progressed, it became apparent that Gillard has fuelled dissent in her ranks, emboldened Rudd and possibly driven disaffected ministers and MPs into his camp. In Carr, he may have found himself a full-time campaign manager.
There are those who argue that none of this is true, that Gillard has simply promoted the most talented people in pursuit of electoral victory. This she has done, but it is ludicrous to suggest that Labor MPs don’t understand that Gillard has also pulled up the drawbridge and manned the turrets. She has sent a message to Rudd that she is digging in. In surrounding herself with her army of right-wing supporters, she is marking out her territory. Whilst most of the ministers Rudd appointed in 2007 remain in the Cabinet, they now hold portfolios decided by Gillard.
All ministries balance factions, states, the two houses, and even gender. But the overt and covert rationales for the reshuffle point to the weakness of Gillard’s position. The week ends with yet more questioning of her political judgment.
Gillard toured the media and sought to dismiss the static caused by the reshuffle as what inevitably happens when the Government is having a “change conversation”. Such technocratic language speaks volumes. What do those dozens of members in marginal seats think when they hear it?
One important member of the Government has been absent overseas this week. Did anyone notice that Wayne Swan wasn’t here? Whatever effectiveness he may have as Treasurer, he and Gillard are a duo singularly unable to expound their case to the people. Together, they are about to be outshone by the Cabinet Gillard has assembled.
The situation is unsustainable.
Common sense decrees that sticking with Gillard is the only sensible course. Any move to topple her could destroy the Government. Another change of leader would make the ALP a laughing stock. Acceptance of inevitable defeat could make for a government squarely focused on getting runs on the board before losing office. Who knows, they might even score some electoral kudos.
More likely, though, Rudd will strike.
Faced with a choice of doing nothing or something, hope and desperation will favour something and Caucus members will weigh Rudd against the alternatives Gillard positioned at the Cabinet table this week.
This article first appeared on The Drum.