Voters are harsh on leaders they perceive tricky
FEDERAL elections usually come down to a struggle for the hearts, minds and votes of Australians living in marginal seats.
The demographics of many of these seats are remarkably similar, located in the outer suburbs of our main cities or inland regional or coastal areas.
The issues that concern voters in marginal seats are also remarkably similar. Concerns about employment are paramount, followed by housing affordability, mortgage pressures and the cost of living: electricity, groceries, healthcare, childcare and education. It is no accident that federal political parties focus primarily on the hip pocket nerve of voters who are struggling to afford the basics, let alone aspiring to better lifestyles.
Part of the delicate balancing act politicians try to maintain is to reassure voters that their concerns will be addressed, while managing expectations of what government can realistically do to ease these pressures.
Voters are particularly harsh in their judgments about politicians they perceive to be tricky in making pre-election promises that are little more than electoral bribes.
The public is increasingly cynical about government largesse, as most citizens understand that governments can hand out only what has been collected by way of taxation.
Former prime minister Kevin Rudd went too far in his campaign for the 2007 election by raising expectations that he could reduce the cost of living, particularly the price of groceries and petrol.
Even though both are beyond the direct influence of government, it was not until he failed to implement even the promised price-tracking websites of FuelWatch and GroceryWatch, let alone achieve any reduction in prices, that his authority and popularity began to wane.
Rudd’s policy failures were many and by June 2010 his disastrous handling of climate change policies, the mining super profits tax and border protection gave his deputy Julia Gillard the ammunition she needed to go after his job.
Yet rather than learn from Rudd’s failures, Gillard has taken duplicity to a level rarely seen in Australian politics.
Her now notorious promise before the 2010 election that “there will be no carbon tax under a government I lead” may have been true when she said it but in the end the Australian public had a right to feel deceived. Yet, strangely, Gillard seems oblivious to the source of the public antagonism towards her.
The next federal election is looming not so much as a battle for the votes of people in marginal seats as a struggle for the survival of the once great Labor Party.
Of late Gillard has adopted an approach that is virtually guaranteed to lead to her political demise. What should be of concern for the Labor Party, and indeed for the health of our democracy, is that the Prime Minister seems intent on taking Labor down the same dark path taken by former Queensland premier Anna Bligh, whose prime electoral tactic was to launch a full-frontal assault on the character and personal life of the leader of the opposition.
Emboldened by the success of this tactic in 2009, Bligh approved and spearheaded an ugly and destructive smear campaigns against her opponent, Campbell Newman, and the family of his wife, Lisa. After the flimsy foundations of the campaign were exposed, the public reaction was savage, with Labor reduced from 51 to seven seats in Queensland’s one-house parliament of 89 seats, giving Newman an unparalleled mandate to govern.
Labor members fear that if allowed to act unrestrained, Gillard will take federal Labor down a similar sorry path.
Her continuing focus on Tony Abbott has been described in more sensible Labor circles as unhinged. But Gillard’s behaviour as PM has given nervous Labor members and the Opposition a portent of what is likely to come if she remains at the helm.
The decision to install Peter Slipper as Speaker was made so that she could walk away from her written commitment to Tasmanian MP Andrew Wilkie over poker machine reforms.
Rarely has the office of prime minister been more sullied by blatant political expediency, yet Gillard tested new depths when she sanctioned a concerted campaign to trash the reputation of Rudd.
It is true that Rudd was a thorn in her side and was slowly building momentum for a leadership challenge, but every leader of every political party has had to deal with ambitious contenders.
As a former prime minister, Rudd should have commanded at least a degree of respect.
As foreign minister, and on duty at the time in the US, Rudd was entitled to expect the public support of the Prime Minister.
Instead, Gillard abdicated her responsibilities to the nation and to the Labor Party and unleashed a campaign of character assassination that shocked Rudd and his supporters with its ferocity.
Coming on top of the Australia Day incident when a member of the Prime Minister’s personal staff tried to implicate Abbott in a race riot, it is clear that Gillard plays tough and dirty. However, the action that strikes at Labor’s foundations is Gillard’s handling of the Craig Thomson affair.
For more than two years there have been serious allegations about Thomson’s rorting of Health Services Union funds.
Fair Work Australia was created by Gillard and she filled its ranks with union officials and supporters. Yet she refused to explicitly back the organisation when its investigation found that not only had Thomson misappropriated $500,000 of union funds but that he had been dishonest in his evidence to the inquiry.
Gillard has protected Thomson to protect herself.
A message was sent loud and clear to every union member in Australia, and to every marginal seat voter, that the Prime Minister puts her political survival before any issue of principle or any issue of concern to them.
In 2006 Gillard said: “I had to fight hard to get preselected, I had to play a factional game to do that, I had to count numbers, I had to make deals and I’d do all of that again tomorrow if I needed to.”
This was once seen as indicative of her strength of character but it is increasingly seen as an insight into her modus operandi as Prime Minister.
There is little doubt that Gillard is in a fight for her own survival. So desperate is her need to shore up her numbers that she is even prepared to abandon members of her frontbench who were once her supporters.
Special Minister of State Gary Gray is being threatened by a union campaign for effectively advocating government policy on enterprise migration agreements, yet Gillard has sided with the unions that are opposed to her own policy.
Without doubt, Gillard has damaged the Labor brand, perhaps irretrievably.
The Labor Party needs to weigh up the unpleasantness associated with changing leaders once more, with the high likelihood that, with Gillard as PM, it is heading towards an electoral annihilation from which it may never recover.
Ross Fitzgerald is the author of 35 books, including his memoir My Name is Ross: An Alcoholic’s Journey and the political satire Fools’ Paradise.