Federal Politics


Talking up Australian way failing to budge our gloom

The PM can't sell a message, no matter how positive it is.

FOR a Prime Minister who once said that foreign policy was not her passion, Julia Gillard seems to have warmed to the task.

In the past week, she has fired off letters to the world's most powerful leaders on the importance of rescuing Europe, lectured Europeans on the merits of antipodean economics, and hobnobbed with United Nations head Ban Ki-moon, who appointed her to lead an international group dedicated to eradicating poverty. A group containing luminaries such as Donald Trump and Sir Bob Geldof no less - not bad for a lawyer from suburban Adelaide.

Grabbing the lion's share of the headlines was the missive to the leaders of the G20 and subsequent speech at that body's meeting in Los Cabos, Mexico, in which Ms Gillard declared: ''Our policy response can be an important sign of the right way ahead. That is why, in the coming days, I'll be urging my European friends this: take note of the Australian way.''

Whether Europe will embrace this advice remains to be seen. The Australian way requires a specific combination of resource wealth, low debt and a historically well-regulated banking system. These are difficult conditions to emulate in, say, Greece. But here in Australia there were plenty who did indeed take note. ''A government that has delivered the four biggest deficits in Australian history hardly has the credentials to lecture the G20,'' thundered Opposition Leader Tony Abbott. His shadow treasurer, Joe Hockey, branded it ''the height of arrogance''.

It's appropriate that the strongest reactions to Ms Gillard's remarks came from her own country, for the inescapable conclusion is that Australians were her target audience. The leaders of the G20 did not need a letter to inform them of exactly how parlous the world's economy is, and how important it is that the eurozone survives. Nor did they require a lesson on why Australia is going gangbusters. The only reason to do those things is to show off for the folks at home; the folks who are, coincidentally, the only ones in the world who don't seem to appreciate how good they've got it.


For the fact remains that no matter how positive the GDP or employment data, or how often they are told that the majority of them will be better off after the carbon tax comes into effect next month, Australians are overwhelmingly pessimistic about the economy.

Consumer and business confidence indexes remain low, and statistics showing that unemployment is falling are hard to believe when the front pages are dominated by news of companies laying off thousands of workers. Recent reports of the economy growing by a surprising 1.3 per cent in the March quarter were greeted not with enthusiasm but disbelief. A poll by the Climate Institute in May found that two-thirds of people thought they'd be worse off under the carbon tax.

This intractable gloom about the economy is puzzling, but no less real for that. Facing such stubborn scepticism at home, it is no wonder that Ms Gillard has turned to the world stage to spruik her message. ''There will continue to be, no doubt, further problems and potentially further stumbles on the road to global recovery,'' she said in Mexico. ''But throughout all of that, Australia, with its strong economy, will stand tall.''

It seems doubtful, though, that this rhetoric will be any better received for having been uttered 10,000 kilometres away. Ms Gillard's government is on the nose, and there continue to be rumblings about her leadership. She has found it notoriously difficult to sell any message, no matter how positive. A fortnight away from the introduction of an unpopular new tax, there isn't much patience for a Prime Minister big-noting on the world stage.

And another thing ...

IT'S NOT really a surprise that swimming is the sport Australians are most keenly anticipating at the London Olympics: after all, it has provided us with some of our greatest triumphs. Think Fraser, Thorpe and Rice. But we're not just gold-medal junkies: athletics, gymnastics and diving also rated strongly, disciplines in which we have historically not fared as well. Watching brilliance in anything is seductive. Add athletes from around the world, heightened emotions, and extraordinary physiques in tiny bits of Lycra … what's not to like? The Olympics is primarily an emotional experience - the popularity of the opening ceremony attests to that. In the case of gymnastics and diving, aesthetics also matter and the results partly depend on it. So yes, bring on the swimming, but then give us a triple back somersault with twist. Works every time.