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The Narrative: Week Two Begins

If a weekend can be said to start on Friday morning, this past weekend began with Julia Gillard throwing away whatever credibility she had left on the issue of climate change. It ended with a poll showing Labor leading the coalition by 52% to 48%.

Gillard’s speech at the University of Queensland on Friday morning to announce a revised climate change policy had been eagerly awaited. Everyone knew that Rudd’s poll numbers had dropped almost instantly he dropped the Emissions Trading Scheme last April.

At any other time, her announcement of a raft of measures to promote renewable energy and to halt the building of new coal-fired power stations might have been well received.

But it was the proposed 150-member citizens’ assembly, part of a process of building a “deep and lasting consensus” around climate change, that revealed the vacuum at the core of the policy. The Opposition and media commentators alike scoffed at the idea. Are we not in the process of electing a 150-member assembly in this election, they chorused.

Stripped of its rhetoric and electoral considerations, the citizens’ assembly embodies everything that worries the progressive side of politics about the Labor Party and Gillard. Process-driven, wedded to nothing in particular, there is a nagging doubt that this is now a party that has retained the will to win but lost the will to fight for what it believes. Where is the spirit of the 2007 WorkChoices campaign?

“It’s too embarrassing to defend, so I don’t bother,” someone said to me. “She thinks this is her Bob Hawke consensus moment but it’s just pathetic.”

Gillard invoked Medibank in support of her consensus building plan. For Labor people with memories, the quarter-century struggle to introduce and entrench universal health insurance had been repeatedly fought at every point by the Liberals. Gillard’s appropriation of this holiest of holies was simply outrageous.

We often hear exhortations to politicians to just do what’s “good for the country”. The trouble is there is rarely a consensus on what’s good for the country. There are competing ideas, competing ideologies, competing programs. That’s why politics exists. It’s why Parliament matters. It’s why there’s nobility in political struggle and grandness in political leadership.

On Saturday morning, Gillard announced a $2000 “Cleaner Car Rebate”, lazily christened “cash for clunkers”, to encourage owners of older, higher-emission vehicles to trade up to more fuel-efficient vehicles.

A worthy policy? Probably.

But why can’t you bloody-well lead on the big issues, you could sense people saying. After the backdown on the mining tax and the coded messages contained in the “I don’t believe in a big Australia” population and border protection policy, many Labor people have lost faith in Gillard. And they so desperately wanted to believe.

The fear is that Gillard is simply a more street-smart version of Rudd. She’s good, oh yes, she’s pitch perfect, never puts a foot wrong. She can weave a picture of understandable philosophy matched with practical policies. But what does she believe in? Asked in last night’s debate for an example of her political courage, she nominated the My School website. It hardly seemed convincing. What would Keating, Hawke and Whitlam have said to that question?

However, Saturday brought opinion polls showing Gillard opening up a large gap over Abbott amongst female voters. Abbott addressed the Liberal Party faithful at the Burswood Casino in Perth and told them he was surrounded by “strong women”, as if that negated the negative perceptions. As always, Julie Bishop stood by her man but there was a perceptible view forming that the election may be just about all over for Tony Abbott, whatever doubts there are about Gillard.

In his speech, Abbott announced the princely sum of $50 million for CCTV cameras to help in controlling local street crime. There is a sense that the politics on the ground is now turning to the most basic of security issues. Reports of Liberal candidates campaigning on law and order issues are emerging.

Sunday was the day for sad and sorry faces.

Penny Wong appeared on Channel 10’s Meet The Press to defend the indefensible on climate change. Bravely proclaiming that the government has a plan, she said: “…and part of that plan is building a stronger, deeper community consensus than we previously have had.” As the Minister for Climate Change charged with overseeing what had previously been, she looked drawn and miserable as she put the case for the citizens’ assembly.

Most tellingly, Wong had no answer to video of Gillard proclaiming in 2009 that on climate change, “delay is denial”. Some words cannot be taken back.

The coalition’s Immigration policy was launched on Sunday morning, fed by strategic leaks to the morning papers. It calls for “guard rails” for population growth and “real action” to reduce net migration to no more than 170,000 within three years of a coalition government taking office.

If Wong looked pathetic, then Joe Hockey looked exasperated and harrassed, and that was before the Immigration policy was even officially announced. Interviewed by an especially rapacious Laurie Oakes, Hockey was pursued over “shonky” figures in the policy. BIS Shrapnel figures showed net immigration this year at 175,000 and dipping to 145,000 in 2011-12, well under the target proclaimed by the Liberals as a dramatic cut.

When Oakes decided to “move on” from Immigration, he hammered Hockey on the coalition’s position on debt, as contradicted last week by the Governor of the Reserve Bank, Glenn Stevens. It was a bruising encounter.

But Sunday was all about the Leaders’ Debate, scheduled for 6.30pm so as to avoid overlapping with the finale of “MasterChef”. This subjugation of the nation’s fate to the manufactured drama of a cooking competition seemed a fitting end to the first week of the campaign.

Election debates are imbued with much myth. As Barrie Cassidy pointed out, Gillard and Abbott were as “confident, articulate and focussed” as any contenders we’ve seen debating in previous elections. Both leaders were workmanlike, reprising the now familiar lines.

Gillard was poised. Abbott spoke steadily and confidently, despite slipping a couple of times. Earlier, the journalist Patricia Karvelas said on Sky News that she was staggered at how many different lines Abbott could come up with in a single interview, let alone a series of interviews. He kept that tendency in check last night. He was on message.

With five television channels to choose from, and two 24-hour news channels, the debate probably had a large audience. Commentators scored the event, most for Abbott some for Gillard. All agreed it was evenly matched. But all this missed the point. These events are about impressions, about confirming pre-existing attitudes and prejudices, about reassurance.

By this measure, both Gillard and Abbott would be pleased. Week two of the election campaign is now upon us. The debate may influence the conversation for a day or so but it will be gone soon. Abbott wants more debates but he won’t get them. We are moving on.

The relentless grind of real campaigning on the ground proceeds apace whilst the leaders jet across the nation to one stage-managed television event after another. The faces of local candidates are all that will change at these events.

As Sunday night drew to a close, the Newspoll was released. From an unrealistically high point of 55% of the two-party-preferred vote a week ago, it showed the ALP now on 52%. Perhaps significantly, this was the first poll taken since the climate change announcement on Friday. Have the government’s numbers settled at this level or are they heading south again?

Perhaps Week 2 will decide.

This article first appeared on The Drum.

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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