Gillard has failed the leadership test
ECONOMIST John Kenneth Galbraith once said: “All of the great leaders have had one characteristic in common: it was the willingness to confront unequivocally the major anxiety of their people in their time. This, and not much else, is the essence of leadership.”
If this test were to be applied to the leadership of Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, both would fall far short of greatness.
At least Rudd started well, identifying climate change as the “great moral challenge of our age” and working tirelessly to introduce an emissions trading scheme to tackle it.
Climate change was a key element of his campaign to defeat the Howard government and his commitment to an emissions trading scheme defined him in the eyes of the public.
Without raking over the still smouldering coals of the politics of the first 18 months of the Rudd government, there is little doubt that his championing of his ETS was popular and put the opposition in a quandary.
The test of his leadership came with two events: the ascension of Tony Abbott to the leadership of the Coalition and the Copenhagen climate change conference.
Abbott won the leadership through a stance of implacable opposition to Rudd’s ETS with the simple but effective mantra of “a great big new tax on everything”.
Rudd went to Copenhagen with high hopes and worked around the clock until he realised belatedly China would not sign up to any binding or substantive agreement.
While Rudd retreated to Kirribilli House for several weeks, in the face of Abbott’s intransigence he appeared to consider a double-dissolution election on the great moral challenge.
Fatally for Rudd, he dithered and ultimately decided to take the issue to a general election later in the year.
It now transpires Gillard lobbied for Rudd to ditch his scheme, obviously spooked by Abbott’s scare campaign that was gathering momentum but was hardly a game changer at that stage.
Gillard clearly was influenced by what she anticipated the scare campaign might achieve rather than what it had achieved to that point.
She jumped at shadows; Rudd accepted her advice and his credibility fell off a cliff.
With no defining policy, Rudd became increasingly desperate to recapture the momentum and grasped at the resource super-profits tax.
However flawed it was, Rudd did have a vision of some form of sovereign wealth fund that would ensure Australians continued to benefit from the resources boom after it had abated.
To his credit, Rudd held his nerve on the tax and was determined not to back down in the face of the mining sector’s advertising campaign and the unrelenting attack of the opposition on “the great big new tax on mining”.
Yet again it was Gillard who was spooked by the campaign and lobbied Rudd to back down.
Courtesy of journalist Laurie Oakes, we also know Gillard was lobbying Rudd about the growing public unease at the number of asylum-seekers heading for Australia. She tried to get him to support the idea of a regional processing centre in East Timor.
This time Rudd did not cave in, telling Gillard it would not work, that East Timor would not accept it and that it was a return to Howard’s Pacific Solution, albeit under another name. His confrontation with Gillard came just hours before she played the final card in his political demise.
While Rudd will be remembered for his chaotic and authoritarian management style, Gillard’s leadership abilities are not readily apparent. Indeed, since assuming the role of Prime Minister, she has demonstrated a craven refusal to confront any difficult issue and a reliance on the political quick fix to feed the daily media cycle.
Gillard took power amid high expectations, claiming a mandate to deal with three issues: climate change, the mining tax and asylum-seekers. Yet her handling of all three has been nothing short of disastrous.
She single-handedly destroyed her credibility on climate change with a decision to refer the issue to a citizens assembly to build consensus. In other words, she was too timid to take on this great national debate, wanting to hide behind a group of unelected volunteers shouldering that burden.
Terrified of another Abbott scare campaign, Gillard repeatedly and unequivocally ruled out a carbon tax before the election, but after the election has been driven by the Greens to commit to introducing such a tax.
As for the mining tax, the three large mining companies outsmarted Gillard in the pre-election negotiations and now she is wriggling her way out of the deal she struck with them.
But it is her idea of a regional processing centre in East Timor that has been her most embarrassing policy position to date. Early criticism of the announcement led her to deny she had suggested East Timor, but confronted with the backflip she then re-embraced it.
It is hard to think of a single issue where Gillard has stood against the tide of criticism or public opinion. The Prime Minister is the first to cut and run at any sign of negativity about a policy.
The charade over the East Timor regional processing centre will continue because Labor has no alternative policy and will have to keep the idea alive long enough to get through the next election.
In parliament, the Prime Minister is increasingly self-righteous, bristling during question time when the opposition exposes
her weaknesses and indecision.
Opposition deputy leader Julie Bishop has asked pertinent questions about how the regional processing centre would operate. The Prime Minister’s apparent lack of understanding of the significance of the issues Bishop has raised, coupled with her attempt to deflect the questions, is laughable.
Gillard knew she was floundering in dangerous waters and flicked the switch to derision.
Successful leaders must champion issues in which they believe even though initially they are often unpopular.
Herein lies Gillard’s problem.
There does not appear to be any conviction that she is not prepared to walk away from, no promise that she is not prepared to break, no commitment that she is not prepared to compromise to cling to power.
It is not evident that there is any issue on which she would be prepared to stake her leadership.
Bob Hawke championed bank deregulation and an accord with the unions to keep wages low.
Paul Keating committed to privatisation and a curbing of excessive union power, issues that were deeply unpopular with his electoral base in particular.
John Howard fought a battle to win reforms on the waterfront, which had been a running sore damaging Australian productivity, and nearly lost an election over his belief that a GST was a necessary economic reform.
In stark contrast, Gillard lacks the political courage to attempt any big reform. Her recent speeches claiming to be a reformer leading a reforming government are the hollow stuff we have come to expect of the school of juvenile spin doctors populating the ranks of Labor advisers.
For Gillard to come anywhere near meeting Galbraith’s test, she must identify anxieties within the Australian community and confront them.
If she fails to step up to that challenge, the opposition will not only define those anxieties for her but underline the weak nature of her leadership.
The Weekend Australian , November 6-7, 2010