Can Julia Gillard take any more hits?
WITH the upcoming anniversary of Labor’s removal of Kevin Rudd from the office of prime minister, his successor Julia Gillard will be nervously keeping watch on her dangerously low approval ratings.
If she cannot turn public opinion, it can only be a matter of time before her caucus colleagues remove her from the top job.
Gillard’s ability to recover from her slide in the polls will depend on how well entrenched public opinion is of her and her leadership style.
If the public decides it has seen enough of this Prime Minister to pass judgment, it will be very difficult, although not impossible, for her to redeem herself.
Given the circumstances in which she attained the leadership and her relatively short time in the role, it is open to question whether the public has fully grasped the fundamental essence of Gillard’s character and what she stands for or what she hopes to achieve.
Gillard’s convictions and her policy agenda lack the clarity and coherence Australians have come to expect of their leaders. As has often been said of past leaders, love them or hate them, at least we know where they stand.
The reality is that what the Prime Minister has revealed of her personal beliefs paints a deeply confusing picture. For example, when and why did the outspoken feminist activist and founding member of Emily’s List Australia, who was committed to its socially progressive agenda, transform into a traditionalist social conservative who rejects gay marriage?
To add to the uncertainty, Gillard has not developed her own signature policy or reform agenda. Recent prime ministers were able to establish their political character through an embrace of reform, backed by clever political skills, which garnered respect. One of the challenges for Gillard to overcome is that she came to the job of Prime Minister without a positive reform agenda.
Her claim on the job initially rested on an ambition to fix the three issues on which she declared the Rudd government had “lost its way”: the asylum-seekers policy, the resource super profits tax and the carbon pollution reduction scheme.
She faces a credibility gap on all three issues.
First, when in opposition she was primarily responsible for drafting the framework on asylum-seekers, which was subsequently adopted by Rudd in government.
Second, Gillard was one of the Gang of Four responsible for the implementation of the mining super profits tax.
Third, along with Wayne Swan, she convinced Rudd to dump his emissions trading scheme.
However, the greatest challenge confronting Gillard is the perception that she cannot be trusted. For the voting public, the critical tests of her honesty are her successful toppling of Rudd for the leadership and her election promise that she would not introduce a carbon tax. Despite declaring repeatedly that she was a loyal deputy, likelier to fly to Mars or play full forward for the Bulldogs AFL team than mount a challenge for the leadership, challenge she did.
Rudd’s continuing popularity in the polls suggests the public is still smarting from the fact Gillard denied it the opportunity to pass judgment on him.
More disturbingly, Gillard has not yet adequately explained the contradictions between her claimed long-term support for a price on carbon, her urging of Rudd to drop his scheme to price carbon and her statement six days before the election last year that: “There will be no carbon tax under the government I lead.”
This is the prism through which her actions and pronouncements are judged.
In July last year Gillard announced that East Timor would host a regional processing centre for asylum-seekers. When it attracted criticism, she attempted to retreat from the announcement, but when confronted with her own words she promptly re-embraced the policy. It made her look, as the Nine Network’s political editor Laurie Oakes said at the time, “silly and slippery and slimy and shifty”.
During the last sitting week, as Labor attempted to claim the moral high ground on sexist remarks in parliamentary debate, Gillard denied that she had ever referred to Christopher Pyne as a “mincing poodle”, lecturing journalists to read the Hansard record of her comments.
While it is true that she did not use the phrase “mincing poodle”, she did refer to Pyne as “mincing” and a “poodle”, and did not deny that was what she meant to call him when asked about it at the time. A small issue, perhaps, but it was disingenuous at best and fed into the perception that she is often too clever by half with the truth.
Another challenge for Gillard is to explain how Labor, and she in particular as opposition spokeswoman at the time, railed against the Howard government’s Pacific Solution to process asylum-seeker applications on Nauru. Gillard argued that as Nauru was not a signatory to the UN Convention on Refugees it could not be trusted to treat asylum-seekers with appropriate respect and that their human rights were not guaranteed, ignoring the fact Australia provided resources and staffing to the island nation to oversee the process.
It beggars belief that Gillard now argues it is preferable to trade asylum-seekers, including children, with Malaysia, a nation that is not a signatory to the UN Convention and that is notoriously harsh in its treatment of asylum-seekers.
There has been no credible justification for this hypocrisy and it provides further damning evidence that Gillard will shred any conviction, or walk away from any principle, to cling to the job of Prime Minister.
Further insights into the Gillard psyche were provided mid-way through last year’s election campaign, when she announced a change to her re-election strategy. No longer would the public be presented with a scripted, managed persona presumably based on what her minders believed would appeal to the public. She promised we were to see the “real Julia”, explaining: “I’m the Prime Minister. I’m the leader of the party and I obviously take responsibility. It’s about me.”
A senior Labor source said: “What she’s saying is that they will now see the Julia that people wanted to be PM.”
Back in 2005, a magazine feature quoted Gillard as saying she would “cheerfully kill several hundred people” for the opportunity of being prime minister. Taken metaphorically, it was a clue that she would not flinch at political kills on her way to the top. She certainly did not flinch in removing Rudd in a cunning coup d’etat. But it takes more than naked ambition to be a successful leader.
Gillard’s policy shambles gives the impression of someone who wakes up every day asking: “What do I have to do today to stay in power?” After all, as she declared during the election campaign last year: “It’s about me.”
Meanwhile, Rudd – and possibly Simon Crean – are waiting in the wings to see if an already wounded PM takes even more hits.
The Weekend Australian – 18-19 June 2011