The Australian political year is regarded as commencing around Australia Day. The Prime Minister’s National Press Club address today kicks off 2011.
But it’s a myth that politics in Australia stops over the summer holidays.
In fact, experience suggests leaders are often made, broken or changed in January. In the past, elections have been called, ministries reshuffled and major policies announced. In this way, the parameters of the new political year are set.
Sometimes it is only in retrospect that we can see how significant were the somnolent weeks of January. Who would have thought last January that Kevin Rudd had just made a fateful decision? Had he announced a climate change election on this day last year, we can but speculate what the political landscape would be like today.
For the people who work in and around politics, or follow it slavishly, there has been only one topic of conversation this January: the future of Julia Gillard. Even for those with only a passing interest in politics, there has been but one question: “How do you think she’s going?” The question’s myriad variations all seek to know the same thing: will she last?
It’s a question asked in fear and trepidation by Labor people who sense the shifting political sands. It’s a question asked in despair and disillusionment, even by those who desperately want her to succeed. It’s a question asked in hopeful confidence by those who still can’t believe or accept that Tony Abbott is within striking distance.
So it was with interest that I tuned in for the Prime Minister’s Australia Day speech at a function in Adelaide last Friday. One of the morning newspapers said Gillard’s office was billing it as a “major speech”. The Herald-Sun’s Michael Harvey said the speech “was written entirely by Ms Gillard rather than her usual speechwriter”.
The “usual speechwriter” should be re-engaged. Whilst it was mercifully short – 15 minutes – Gillard managed to pile on a mass of platitudes that were simply embarrassing to listen to.
You couldn’t fault the speech for the tribute it paid to the courage of many Australians in the floods. To a large extent, she was also right about the informality, lack of deference and lack of obsequiousness that characterises many Australians. In the phrase “don’t let go” she had a good image from the floods on which to hang her message of support for its victims. By implication, “don’t let go” epitomises the kind of Labor Government Gillard sees herself leading.
But, in a jarring note, she compared the spirit shown during the floods to the behaviour of Australian prisoners of war in Changi. Then she channelled John Howard, repeatedly invoking “mateship” as a core Australian value. All that was missing was Brendan Nelson’s idolisation of Simpson and his donkey.
And then there was another serving of the thin gruel of Gillard’s political philosophy. She talked about the “Aussie fair go”. There were her usual clichés about the dignity of work. She defined “success” for “working Australians” as the preparedness to work hard.
All this shallow nonsense was delivered in a sing-song tone, almost patronising, reminiscent of a primary school teacher talking down to her charges, an attempt to be egalitarian and inclusive but missing the mark.
In a couple of weeks we will see a more believable Julia Gillard in Parliament, the politician who loves mixing it in the House with the Opposition, who is at her best when laying into her opponents. We will see the forensic way she can demolish an argument. It is these performances on which her political reputation was built.
Those red meat occasions may be best suited to the true believers but it surely wouldn’t hurt Gillard to show this side in public a bit more. She might be surprised how many people would welcome it in place of the saccharine offering on display in Adelaide.
To be fair, it may have been a reaction to the allegations of aloofness directed at her leadership during the floods. She could hardly be faulted for anything she did to assist the flood recovery efforts but the invidious comparisons with Anna Bligh have fed a dangerous perception for the Government. The contrasting television images were deadly.
As someone said to me last week: “You can listen to and look ‘into’ Anna Bligh as she speaks. She resonates. Julia Gillard does not ‘resonate’. Hard to explain.”
It is hard to explain. But this issue lies at the core of the public perception of Gillard. When she talks in public now, she so often does her case no good at all.
The disdain of the die-hard Gillard haters can be discounted. There are those for whom Gillard can never measure up.
Yet, for those not automatically hostile, there is a genuine concern about what she represents. Her position on climate change is suspect to many. Others query her stance on issues as diverse as Iraq, gay marriage and WikiLeaks. Her positions on educational issues – the ones she touts as her major achievements – are under challenge.
In other words, the presentational issues merge with and possibly arise out of doubts about her philosophical and policy positions. The chances of being cut some slack for one thing or another decline accordingly.
Against an aggressive Opposition, it casts doubt on the Government’s ability to stay in control of the everyday political and media game.
On January 7, the ‘inland tsunami’, the devastation of the Lockyer Valley and the flooding of Brisbane were still several days off but Tony Abbott and Andrew Robb announced they were setting up a committee to study the possibility of building more dams. Abbott was already positioning himself for the inevitable debate and linking the costs of flood reconstruction with his calls for the abandonment of the National Broadband Network.
Even yesterday, as Abbott grandly decreed Australia Day the one day of the year when no-one should grumble, his shadow treasurer was condemning a flood levy as a “dumb idea”. In laying the groundwork for another “great big new tax” campaign, Hockey no doubt welcomed the assistance provided by Peter Costello AC.
It was small time political grandstanding but Gillard faces a self-described “ferocious opposition”. Those who think Abbott’s strident sloganeering is going to stop are kidding themselves. Those who dismiss it as ineffective are overly optimistic. As has been said so often this month in an entirely different context, “words matter”. Political salesmanship counts and the government’s chief seller is struggling with her message.
As far as we know, Gillard is running a far better government than Kevin Rudd did. She has revived some of the processes of government that stultified under Rudd. Cabinet is said to be functioning better. There is no Gang of Four. Consultation occurs. Decisions are made. Anecdotal accounts offer praise for Gillard’s grasp of issues and for her ability to ask the right questions.
But so often the Government looks and sounds like a bunch of middle-level managers addicted to process and its attendant jargon.
This month Stephen Smith referred to “helicopter assets” being provided for flood rescue. Gillard said a New Zealand offer of assistance was being “actioned”. Asked about increasing taxes, she said the Government won’t be “revisiting” the GST.
Of course, governments function best through clear and defined processes. A government which lacks control of the Senate needs a process for negotiating with other groups. A government which lacks control of the House as well depends even more on consultative processes.
For example, Gillard established a multi-party climate change committee that has now met three times and issued three “communiqués”. The committee is aiming to settle on a carbon price mechanism by the end of the year. In July, the dynamics will alter as the Greens assume the balance of power in the Senate. The issue is a complex one. It’s sensible to hasten slowly during 2011. But, paradoxically, this process is damaging the Government because it looks like it doesn’t have a clear policy on climate change abatement.
Having astutely boycotted the committee, the Opposition can campaign on the issue with impunity. Does the Government have the wherewithal to prosecute its case or will it just hide behind the process?
Another consultative committee has just been set up to advise on how to achieve constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians. Absurdly, a two-month consultation was first undertaken to choose the members of the committee. Any advice to the Government on what kind of referendum to hold, and when to hold it, is another year off.
Is it any wonder that across a wide range of policy areas the processes of government, admirable, consultative and democratic as they may be, nevertheless contribute to a sense of drift, indecision and lack of leadership?
Only the Government’s leaders, especially the Prime Minister, can arrest this drift.
If she doesn’t, she may be sitting on the Opposition benches next January.
This article first appeared on The Drum.