To paraphrase Labor’s campaign slogan in 1972, it’s only a matter of time. Politically, Julia Gillard is a dead woman walking. The Prime Minister may dismiss the latest polls, but the trend is clear. With a trio of polls all pointing in the same direction, they spell her certain demise.
If it doesn’t happen at the hands of her colleagues, it will happen at the hands of the Australian electors in September. Her colleagues may talk of it being a communication problem, but it’s much more than that. The Prime Minister is too low in the esteem of Australian voters to survive. Even her advantage over Tony Abbott among women voters has been eroded away.
Some Australians might admire her steely strength and her negotiating skills, but her propensity for political stumbles have seen her repeatedly fall flat on her face. The September election date and the resignation of Nicola Roxon and Chris Evans were just the latest of them.
More importantly, she has provided no clear direction as to where she is leading the country. As Paul Keating might say, the ”vision thing” is missing. This has not been entirely her fault. As leader of a minority government, she has had to spend more time managing the bilge pumps and less time on the bridge. She knows how to steer but not where to steer.
The dominating issue of her government has been the carbon price. Although she was steadfast in her implementation of it, she did not convince Australians that she was personally committed to cutting carbon emissions. It wasn’t helped by stories of her having argued against the implementation of a carbon price when Kevin Rudd was prime minister. Nor was it helped by the measure only being introduced because of an electoral deal with the Greens.
With the carbon price in place, the government should be earning kudos from the many Australians who care about the environment and are concerned about human-induced climate change. But the carbon price is more than offset politically by the government’s uncritical support for the coal and the coal seam gas industries.
And the contradictions don’t end there. When in opposition, Julia Gillard attacked the Howard government for its heartless, punitive policy towards asylum seekers, but then introduced much more punitive policies herself. What does she really believe on this issue? As on so many other things, the electorate has been left wondering. Apart from the harm and the cost, it’s not calculated to impress the voters in either trendy Balmain or western Sydney.
The Prime Minister has also disappointed many Australians with a foreign policy that is not discernibly different from that of John Howard. She kept the troops in Afghanistan and has thrown Australia open to American bases. She has rejected another referendum on the republic and keeps the portrait of the Queen at naturalisation ceremonies.
The only policy on which she has showed any passion has been education. And that was personal. She’d got ahead because of a good government school in Adelaide and wanted to improve the education system so that others could follow in her footsteps. Then, after commissioning the Gonski report, which showed how those improvements could be achieved, she has shrunk from implementing them.
On the question of jobs, the Prime Minister has left the running to Tony Abbott. Almost every night last year he appeared on the television news alongside workers in a factory or a shop bemoaning the policies of the Labor government and promising to create more jobs. Although his proposed sacking of public servants and harsher industrial relations policies would not be good for workers, Julia Gillard has not shown sufficient commitment to protect Australian workers. She seems content to have unemployment at about 5 per cent, to have about 15 per cent of school-leavers without a job and to punish unemployed workers with an unfair Newstart Allowance.
Indeed, despite the barbs about Rudd’s background, Julia Gillard has turned out to be less of a Labor leader than her predecessor. And on some limited measures relating to family allowances and foreign policy even less of a Labor leader than her Liberal predecessor, John Howard.
For the first 18 months or so, she rarely mentioned the fact that she was leading a Labor government and was pushing progressive policies because that’s what a Labor government does.
Her admirers like to tell us that in private the Prime Minister is warm and funny and kind to her staff. But few get the opportunity to see that side. Although it certainly helps, electors don’t have to like a politician to vote for them. However, they do have to feel that the Prime Minister cares about their welfare and they need a clear sense of the direction in which the PM is leading the country.
Kevin Rudd is in a sweet place. He has been humiliated twice by Julia Gillard and his caucus colleagues, once when he was swiftly deposed and again last February when he was forced to bring on a challenge before he had secured the numbers.
Now he can wait for the knock on the door if caucus forces the Prime Minister to go. Or he can wait for the bitter-sweet satisfaction that will come when Julia Gillard leads Labor to a humiliating defeat.
David Day is an honorary associate at La Trobe University and has written biographies of three Labor prime ministers. He is currently writing a biography of Paul Keating.
Photo: ALEX ELLINGHAUSEN