Prime MinisterBernard Keane Wednesday, 02 May 2012
Julia Gillard is Australia's Prime Minister, and ostensibly our most powerful individual. But until she shores up her place in the top job – which is now unlikely to ever happen – her ability to use her position is significantly hampered.
Few people inside the Labor Party believe the Prime Minister will lead Labor to the next election. Indeed, she may not make it to Parliament's winter break – the fortnight of sittings at the end of June will be a crucial period for her leadership. She is a terminally weakened leader, with few options for recovery and little room for bold policy. Indeed, there is now talk of policy retreat on key areas of her agenda, such as the carbon pricing package.
That is why she's now No. 2 on The Power Index's list of the most powerful people in Canberra, putting her behind Wayne Swan. In addition to his record as Labor's Treasurer since 2007, Swan has the power and standing within Labor to determine how and when Julia Gillard's Prime Ministership is finished. More on that in his profile tomorrow.
The enduring cliché of Julia Gillard's time as Prime Minister is her lack of belief – not her oft-mentioned atheism, but her lack of core convictions.
The criticism of lacking ideology is a peculiar outcome for a woman demonized as a "communist" and "socialist" by the Coalition and media critics prior to Labor's return to power in 2007. Gillard has gone from left-wing firebrand to value-free political cynic in less than five years.
And despite her current predicament, Gillard's done a lot of things right during her time in politics.
The defining characteristic of Gillard's Prime Ministership has been her capacity to negotiate outcomes. That is how she secured power for Labor in the aftermath of an indecisive election. That is how Labor has secured a legislative record the equal of a majority government. The predictions of gridlock and chaos so common in September 2010 have quietly vanished.
Such predictions were always suspect: Gillard's political record demonstrates a persistent ability to secure outcomes. She was the Rudd government's most effective negotiator, securing passage of high-profile legislation like the Fair Work Act through the Senate while other high-profile bills like the CPRS failed. After the 2001 election, it was Gillard who was tasked, in her first shadow ministry, with navigating a way out of the mess of asylum seeker policy John Howard had placed Labor in, with Gillard considerably toughening Labor's policy.
But as Prime Minister, while Gillard has added substance to the Labor's reform rhetoric it's come at the cost of effective reform: the mining tax and the carbon pricing package are deeply compromised policies; the transition to 9% to 12% superannuation will take the best part of a decade; the final health and hospitals funding package is a shadow of what Labor promised voters; the Murray-Darling Basin reform process has gone badly off track.
And along the way, Julia Gillard has struggled to explain her core convictions to voters. In a crucial speech in Adelaide in November 2010, Gillard identified hard work, education and respect as her abiding values. She has reiterated them since in other speeches.
Belief in education has indeed been an abiding theme of Gillard's time in politics. Her first parliamentary committee assignment, as a first-term MP, was the Employment, Education and Workplace Relations committee. And she took that portfolio as Deputy Prime Minister when Labor entered office in November 2007.
As Gillard herself acknowledges, her focus on education, and her belief in the near-sanctifying value of hard work, are the products of her migrant background. Gillard was born in the UK (like Tony Abbott) and moved here as a young child. Her values reflect, almost stereotypically, the migrant experience – parents who worked hard to enable their daughters to take advantage of the educational opportunities available in Australia.
It's the classic migrant story. The woman who more than any other leader has endured the meaningless epithet "unAustralian" is more profoundly representative of post-war Australia than any Prime Minister before her.
Gillard lands outcomes; the problem is the outcomes are always less than ideal. This is the price of minority government and the lack of a Senate majority, but it contributes to the perception of a lack of core convictions. That her flagship reforms as Prime Minister have been essentially the Rudd government program (and that where she has deviated from that program, on asylum seekers, she has failed) is also relevant to the way voters' perceptions of her have hardened.
And while Gillard has been able to achieve reform, she has fared poorly at selling it. She has failed in her self-appointed task of answering the key questions Australians ask of her.
Some communications issues have been outside the government's control. Gillard has been the target of remarkably sexist coverage: the Telegraph pictured her as a crone during the 2010 election; The Australian ran a piece mocking her ears; after President Obama's visit last year, a Herald-Sun op-ed compared her to a schoolgirl pining for the football captain. Such abuse, and encouragement by opponents and shock jocks (Alan Jones suggested she and Bob Brown be thrown out to sea), has legitimized some of the misogynist vituperation directed at her in the community.
And as government ministers point out, shaping the political agenda has been difficult when the government's first term was dominated by the GFC, and much of its second term by leadership issues.
Nonetheless, the Deputy Prime Minister who was notoriously lethal in Parliament, who inspired groans from Opposition MPs when a Dorothy Dixer brought her to the Dispatch Box, was replaced with a more anodyne leader keener on appearing "Prime Ministerial" than in cutting through, who only seemed to come to life when moved to anger.
One long-time colleague suggests this isn't only a consequence of elevation to the leadership, but reflects a long-term difficulty on Gillard's part of knowing, or being able to, switch on for the right audience, of finding the right tone. The "real Julia" moment during the election campaign encapsulated this.
But worse for Gillard, voters appear to have now stopped listening to her, primarily because they no longer trust her. Gillard has failed to build a durable relationship with voters that can survive the inevitable disappointments of public life. John Howard could survive "non-core promises" and "never ever" about the GST because voters had a long-term relationship with him; by that time, as Fraser's Treasurer, Opposition Leader and internal exile under Andrew Peacock, he had seemingly been around Australians politics forever.
Gillard, having only been in Parliament since 1998 and in the public eye since the middle of the last decade, has no deep roots in the Australian political psyche that can withstand public disapprobation.
As a consequence, Labor's major reforms – the carbon pricing package, the mining tax, reforms to financial advice – are in danger of being reversed by a populist Opposition positioned to win in a landslide. The reform task isn't complete until reforms become embedded in the Australian economy.
Gillard herself has borne the intense strain of minority government, the wave of public vilification and regular displays of disrespect from the media calmly and with dignity. She is a remarkably resilient woman. While some internal critics label this a case of not getting just how bad things are, it may also be testament to the lessons she learned as John Brumby's chief of staff between 1996 and 1998, when it was assumed Jeff Kennett would rule in Spring St forever.
Gillard has referred to the "fortitude" and "psychological toughness" she acquired working with Brumby. Victorian Labor, of course, famously edged out Kennett in 1999. But it was the charismatic, popular Steve Bracks who did it, not the dour, resilient Brumby.
Resilience will not be enough. Labor MPs are desperately trying to find a solution to their predicament, and none of those solutions now include Julia Gillard. They key questions now are the extent to which Labor can preserve the legacy of reform she has put in place – and the role that will be played in her ouster by her Deputy and Treasurer Wayne Swan – the man who is now the most powerful in Australia.