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The Real Julia: Is That It?

The Real Julia was much talked about during the recent election campaign. It was a conversation initiated by Gillard herself. She offered the view that if only she could be left to be herself we would have a political leader of whom we could be proud.

The Real JuliaOf course, The Real Julia campaign collapsed under the weight of its own contradictions.

At the same time, many commented on the discipline shown by Tony Abbott. The Real Tony had been mugged by the campaign managers, it was alleged.

I have a more prosaic view. I believe we did see The Real Julia and The Real Tony throughout the election.

An election campaign is a period of immense concentrated activity, much of it artificial and simply silly. Nevertheless, it’s one of those times when the real nature of a political leader is hard to disguise. It tends to seep through the countless television and radio interviews. It’s seen in their reaction to pressure and in their contact with voters, no matter how stage-managed.

Would anyone seriously argue that we didn’t see the real John Howard in his first electoral outing in 1987 and his five campaigns from 1996? Can it be denied that the real Bob Hawke was on display in his four winning campaigns from 1983 through 1990? Or that the deficiencies in Andrew Peacock, John Hewson, Kim Beazley and Mark Latham weren’t evident in their losing campaigns over that whole time?

In retrospect, even the real Kevin Rudd was largely there in the 2007 campaign. The loner who persisted until he could no longer be denied campaigned with all of that energetic obsessiveness, policy wonkiness, twee folksiness and calculating control that later metastasised and destroyed him. Even the prime ministerial failure of nerve on climate change can be traced to the risk-averse campaigner of 2007.

Notwithstanding the exaggerated influence of the campaign managers, the past three months have revealed the real Gillard and the real Abbott. Neither of them is going to change. We’ve already seen them up close.

Let’s save Abbott for another time and consider what we’ve got with Gillard.

We’ve got a Prime Minister who dared to snatch the prize when it was offered, no matter who the grubby bastards were who made the offer. Her decisiveness stands in marked contrast to the Howard deputy who never risked it all on one glorious kill-or-be-killed moment.

We’ve got a Prime Minister who on taking office immediately disappointed her supporters by taking the low road on issues of population and asylum seekers, the road of betrayal and farce on climate change, and the road of pragmatism on the mining tax.

We’ve got a Prime Minister who can rise to the challenge of a process. Faced with negotiations with the disparate band of cross-benchers, she out-played Abbott and secured the Government’s re-election. By all accounts, she is a skilled negotiator.

Gillard leads a government that polled an abysmal 37.99 per cent of the national primary vote. Let there be no more argument about the ALP’s capacity to win an election when its core vote falls this low. A primary vote swing of 5.4 per cent against Labor is a damning indictment of a first-term government that cocked it up big time. In Queensland, the ALP primary vote fell 9.33 per cent, in NSW 6.86 per cent, in Western Australia 5.62 per cent, and in the Northern Territory 9.74 per cent.

Even in Victoria and South Australia, the ALP primary vote fell 1.88 per cent and 2.44 per cent. Only in Tasmania did the ALP increase its primary vote by 1.18 per cent.

The imperative of regaining some of that lost primary vote should influence much of the Government’s program. Broadband, health, education and infrastructure will all be weighed in the electoral balance. Some may call it pork but it’s also what Kevin Rudd might have called “core business”.

And then there’s climate change, the issue that precipitated the Government’s loss of support in April.

To Gillard’s left are the Greens, sitting triumphantly atop their victory in the electorate of Melbourne and the Senate balance of power nine months hence. Their success is pregnant with both possibility and danger for the Government.

The Greens polled 1.4 million primary votes in the election, 11.76 per cent of the national vote, an increase of 3.97 per cent over their 2007 result. They burst into the House of Representatives and they’re knocking on the door in a swag of seats around the country. Their preferences delivered a narrow two-party-preferred victory to the ALP of 50.12 per cent, or 30,527 votes.

As Mungo MacCallum observed this week to an audience in the heart of Green Melbourne, the ALP needs to understand that the Greens are competitors, not allies.

Managing the Greens and the rural independents will make or break Gillard. So far, it’s been clear sailing. When they all voted with the Government last week to elevate Peter Slipper to the Deputy Speakership the stunned silence from the Coalition benches spoke volumes. The Opposition understood the show of unity and recognised that another number had probably been filched from under their noses.

But there are unanswered questions about Gillard. What does she believe in? What will she fight for? Will she seize the opportunity confronting her to govern boldly or will she play it safe? Can she retain the parliamentary support of the Greens whilst repelling their electoral threat to the ALP heartland?

Look at her behaviour over Afghanistan this week. This is one of a number of issues where the crossbenchers threaten to outflank Gillard. To be sure, there was a golden opportunity to damage Tony Abbott over his jet-lag comment. But with opinion polls showing growing scepticism about the merits of our Afghan commitment, the political games obscured the broader reality that this policy is unlikely to change.

And so Labor people ask themselves whether this is what it will be like in other policy areas. For instance, what will emerge in 12 months’ time from the Climate Change Committee? Will the Gillard who so adamantly moved to kill off the Emissions Trading Scheme whilst Rudd was still prime minister retreat in similar style from a carbon price? When push comes to shove on these key issues, where will Gillard be?

We know she has steel but we don’t yet know whether that steel will be tested in the fire of a major policy battle. Is the steel merely reserved for survival and ambition?

The signs are not all that promising. A Prime Minister for whom foreign policy is not a “passion” could well be a politician with a limited vision. The world outside our massive coastline is seething with possibility, danger and uncertainty. If a Labor government is anything, surely it is internationalist? Remember Evatt?

Of course, perhaps she is just playing to her domestic audience when she says she’s more comfortable watching a group of school kids learn to read. Her repeated homilies on work and school suggest she’s serious.

At other times, however, Gillard leaves an impression that she masters whatever brief she needs from time to time.

During the election, the brief was about a “sustainable Australia, not a big Australia”. Then it was about “the real Julia”. As the ALP clawed back ground towards the end of the campaign, the brief was all about jobs.

After the election, the Prime Minister discovered regional development and broadband.

Gillard leads a busy government. It has much it can offer as achievement. The Parental Leave policy, for example, is a major social reform.

But the Gillard Government, like the Rudd government before it, still struggles to explain what it is on about. It struggles to explain what it stands for. It struggles to present a coherent framework that explains its world view.

And Gillard isn’t yet a good political story-teller. She still sounds packaged and rehearsed, pumping out the prepared lines.

The Government’s scattergun approach could be seen yesterday when the ALP website posted a disparate series of items ranging from the opening of applications under the Paid Parental Leave scheme, through tackling Indigenous unemployment in Townsville, to breast cancer treatment and a census of marine life.

It was indicative of a government that still operates in electoral niches when it also needs to market a broad-brush story that will bring its errant supporters back into the fold.

Those supporters yearn for more of the clarity that was on display last week when Stephen Conroy demolished Malcolm Turnbull over national broadband policy.

They fear that the real Julia is indeed the one we saw during the election: a leader all over the policy shop.

This article first appeared on The Drum.

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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