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How Do You Solve A Problem Like Julia?

Chants of “ditch the witch” and “ditch the bitch” could be heard repeatedly at the protest rally against the carbon tax in Canberra yesterday. It was a fitting illustration of the escalating vitriol against Prime Minister Julia Gillard.

Julia GillardAgainst that backdrop, Labor supporters hesitate to criticise the Prime Minister. Indeed, to express concern about where she’s taking the party is to invite accusations of misogyny, disloyalty and anti-Laborism. But as I watched Question Time yesterday, an experience one now endures rather than savours, I couldn’t help thinking that the invective from her opponents did not diminish my belief that she is indeed a disastrous Labor leader.

With a gallery of protesters applauding every line from Tony Abbott, Gillard adopted a fighting posture, much as she has done in Question Time since late last year. As she does most days now, she repeated her “bring it on” challenge to the Opposition. Multiple questions on climate change and the carbon tax were turned into an attack on Tony Abbott’s credibility and policy shortcomings. This heartens the faithful, as it should.

“She’s so good in the House,” Labor people tell each other, pinpointing one of the qualities Gillard’s reputation was built on. But there’s a certain undergraduate quality to Gillard’s performances. Abbott has it too, that combative, take-no-prisoners approach, the repetitive jibes, the sharp put-downs. It’s difficult to define but there’s something missing in these performances.

Outside the Parliament, it’s palpable. For her it’s substance, for him it’s restraint. Gillard’s public appearances are now a constant search for command of the political game. She doesn’t bestride the Parliament so much as attempt to outflank it. Always struggling to take control of the debate, her parliamentary performances are rear-guard actions against a deteriorating political climate outside.

Gillard always seems to be at her strongest and most articulate when she’s announcing a new strategy, a new direction, or a new recalibration. We saw it in the middle of last year after she supplanted Rudd. Her three keynote announcements (on population and immigration, the mining tax, and climate change) were made in speeches or press conferences designed to establish her prime ministerial credentials.

We saw it when the “real Julia” campaign was launched and again after the election when she decreed that 2011 would be the year of decisions. It’s been on display this week as the government gratefully chewed on the tax cut bone thrown to them by Ross Garnaut.

Crisis management situations also show Gillard to her advantage. Her press conferences during the Queensland floods and at the time of the Japan earthquake were brisk, impressive performances. Her command of detail was obvious.

But there it ends. Her strengths lie in managerialism. Ask her to expound a philosophy and you get recitations of trite clichés about the dignity of work. Ask her to explain what distinguishes Labor from the Greens and she struggles. Check the transcript if you don’t believe me.

At one point yesterday, Gillard told the House: “I make my own decisions based on my own convictions.” Really? What are these convictions? Who in the community or the Labor Party can identify what it is that she stands for? Where is her version of the Whitlam Program? The Hawke Consensus? The Keating Big Picture? Even the Howard Picket-Fence?

Ask Gillard and she will always cite the MySchool website as proof of her Labor credentials. She will talk about transparency and improving standards of literacy. But does anyone seriously believe MySchool will be used to redress the gross disparities in public and private school funding? Don’t hold your breath.

As Education Minister, Gillard must take some responsibility for frogmarching Australian schools down the path of constant testing. Teachers know where this leads: not to more accountability and improvements in literacy, but to teaching to the test, to drilling and rorting. Science, literature and the arts all suffer in this regime and with them the competitive advantage we really need.

Gillard didn’t start any of this but she’s done her bit to appropriate educational policies from the political conservatives, policies already under challenge elsewhere in the world.

The problem of Gillard’s policy positions lies at the heart of the government’s political identity crisis. She has been a severe disappointment to those of us who foolishly thought she was something more than merely ambitious.

When she does expound a philosophical position, she disappoints further. Just this week, Gillard said she found herself “on the conservative side” of the gay marriage debate “because of the way our society is and how we got here.” She added, “I think there are some important things from our past that need to continue to be part of our present and part of our future.”

Put the issue to one side for a moment and instead consider the process she uses to arrive at her opposition to equal marriage rights. It’s not based on any principle of equality or non-discrimination. No, it’s a call to tradition regardless of the merits of the issue. Some commentators see this as evidence that Gillard is a social conservative in the Howard mould, a cultural traditionalist. Maybe, but it strikes me as a simple case of shallow and sloppy thinking. Worse, it may just be calculated political positioning.

Whatever it is, she invokes a slippery line of argument that can be selectively used to reject any change on any issue at whim. You have to wonder whether, in the face of strident opposition, a Gillard government would ever have legislated for no-fault divorce as Whitlam’s did. Would a Gillard government have passed the Sex Discrimination Act as Hawke’s did? Would a Gillard government have screwed its courage to the sticking-place and brought in the Native Title Act, as Keating’s did?

Recently, Gillard has discovered the “Labor tradition” of “reform”. Announcing the carbon tax, she likened it to the Hawke-era reform of lowering tariffs, a reasonable analogy up to a point, but a gross over-simplification of the range of interlocking fiscal, monetary, industry and social policies instituted by that government. In placing herself in the reform tradition, she invoked the spirit of Bill Gates.

“The reason Bill Gates is such a rich man today is he got in on the change,” she said, referring to the information technology revolution. What a strange justification from a Labor prime minister. These lines, repeated verbatim inside and outside the parliament, have the appearance of having been workshopped and memorised for repeated regurgitation.

This, then, is the concern about Gillard: she revels in the political game but seems to lack any deeply-held or coherent philosophy, beyond a handful of platitudes and snippets of management-speak. Give her a brief, a new set of lines to deliver, and she learns them off by heart and trots them out when the political situation requires. And then there’s her tin ear. For someone so intensely political, she seems oddly out of sync with political sentiment.

Put her in the US Capitol and she delivers a cloying, obsequious hymn of worship, unbecoming of an independent nation’s leader. She tearfully lauds the Americans for putting a man on the moon. I was a child who vividly remembers the moon landing also, but decades later you’d think she might have advanced enough to know that on that very day in 1969 Australian soldiers were fighting in Vietnam for the US and our nation was rent by the conscription lottery. Tears were shed back then too.

This week Gillard talked about her conservative upbringing and learning scripture, almost as if she sought to ingratiate herself with her political enemies who snidely seek to impugn her personal circumstances and her atheism. Surely she knows that her enemies will give her no quarter, whatever she says. But this is what she also did during the election campaign with her dog whistling speeches on population and asylum seekers. Without persuading her opponents, she manages to alienate her supporters and sympathisers.

Take her chameleon-like stand on climate change. By all accounts, she and her deputy Wayne Swan prevailed on Kevin Rudd to drop the ETS last year. After assuming the leadership, she refused to commit to its reintroduction. This has led to two concurrent problems. The allegation of lying about a carbon tax may well be a problem with swinging voters but her prevarication on the issue remains a problem with Labor voters, some of whom crossed over to the Greens in the election.

One lot of voters believe she lied and is about to introduce a great big new tax, whilst the others don’t trust her to actually do it. It’s an agonisingly exquisite dilemma.

Gillard lives in the shadow of the events of June 23 and the inconclusive election that followed. A puzzled electorate wasn’t happy with Rudd but nevertheless did not understand why he was removed so abruptly. The political insiders who understood the dysfunctional nature of the government Rudd presided over never bothered to share their views with the people.

But what seems clear now is that Rudd was never mistrusted the way Gillard is now by those who should be her firm supporters. Ever since June 23, Gillard has struggled to justify her prime ministership. Time and the crossbenchers seem to be on her side, so she may yet do so. But she battles a perception that her government lacks something at its core.

As RH Tawney wrote of another minority Labour administration: “The gunpowder was running out of it from the moment it assumed office, and was discovered, on inspection, to be surprisingly like sawdust.”

This article first appeared on The Drum.

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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