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Shrinking the values debate

Date

Editor-at-large, The Canberra Times

View more articles from Jack Waterford

Gillard has been a long time positioning herself on social issues having (for some) a moral dimension. She is no enthusiast for liberal reforms - on racism, discrimination, rights, equity and equality - which many Labor supporters see as moral issues.

Julia Gillard cannot be squeezed through holes whose shape she does not fit.

Julia Gillard cannot be squeezed through holes whose shape she does not fit. Illustration: Pat Campbell

It was somehow no surprise to see Julia Gillard and Nicola Roxon reject any idea of drug law reform out of hand last week, even if a new Cabinet minister, Bob Carr, was to be allowed, for historical and personal reasons, to be the one Labor politician permitted to express a different view.

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''Reform'' on anything which is seen by some voters as having a moral dimension does not carry a Gillard Labor trademark. Honestly, she might say, does Labor need more baggage with voters already intensely suspicious of her and it?

Being soft on drugs - or being able to be accused of being soft on drugs - is not on her agenda. On gay marriage, even if that comes - which thanks to Tony Abbott's refusal of a conscience vote to his colleagues will not be soon - the reform will not be seen as her fault.

Gillard has been a long time positioning herself on social issues having (for some) a moral dimension. She is no enthusiast for liberal reforms - on racism, discrimination, rights, equity and equality - which many Labor supporters see as moral issues. But crime and sex are especially problematic. She wants to be seen as a traditionalist, without much time for ''progressive'' stuff. She wants voters to understand that she is not going to spit in their faces, or ''diss'' their values. If that disappoints some of Labor's traditional constituencies, tough luck; it is part of the price of clinging desperately to power.

Even when she is on the record with a liberal view, one senses that her message is that she would not dream of forcing her idiosyncratic view on the public at large.

The message, loud and clear, is that Labor does not have a moral or a social agenda. As a proclaimed atheist, for example, she has gone out of her way to praise the Bible as literature and as a fundamental part of western culture - the sort of thing with which every Australian ought to be familiar. Her views, generally, about education are pitched so as to be traditional and conservative, and, if somewhat devoid of practical implication, manifestly impatient with views coming from teachers.

On such ''values'' matters, Gillard and her advisers know that those who respond to such pitches tend to buy the whole packages of those who promote such views. Even in ordinary times - and these are not - voters in the middle want assurance about issues such as order, stability, respect, loyalty and sanctity - matters that the left of centre (more focused on fairness, equity, and tolerance) think less important.

Thus she signals that refugees have a damn nerve coming here expecting a welcome, permissions people to speak of their fears on immigration and refugees in indelicate terms, and gives excited squeals when being patronised as an uncritical ally of the US (and Israel) in the US Senate. Coercive policies towards the underclass head back to the workhouse, and she champions aspirational virtues such as getting up by the alarm clock.

Gillard has been consistently hostile to what Paul Keating once described as the ''Balmain basket weavers'', John Howard as the ''chattering classes'' and others as the Latte Left, inner-city trendies, the ''intelligentsia'', middle class lefties, and Labor luvvies. For shorthand, perhaps, those with views held by the majority of voters in the ACT (if ones rarely publicly espoused by their federal Labor representatives).

She has never expressed concern that a third of Labor's traditional supporters, most deserving such labels, have abandoned Labor for the Greens. On most issues except the carbon tax - where, in any event, there are basic differences between Labor and Greens aspirations - she is seen as having views different from the Greens. Often the problem with that is that the Green position - on, say, indigenous advancement is not only superior to Labor's but actually irreconcilable with it. For some, indeed, morally irreconcilable. One who agrees with the Greens on indigenous affairs, for example, has no reason to prefer Labor's policy on the subject to the coalition's, and some reason to suspect the coalition has better instincts.

Such difference has ceased to be one of degree, or of product differentiation. Indeed Labor's policy is almost without reference to Greens policy: it is incident to a belief that ''aspirationals and battlers'' have had enough with moral and rights-centred Labor ''reforms''. Howard's battler, wrested back by Rudd five years ago have now again lost the faith. Labor research a decade ago showed that these voters were comfortable with many of the images, instincts and impressions being peddled by Howard - an ''ordinary'' decent man. They trusted him more than beneficiaries of Labor patronage and nepotism, such as Kim Beazley and Simon Crean (each from Labor dynasties) and even Mark Latham, whose path into politics had been infinitely smoothed by Labor patronage. Even when voters sensed that Howard was tired, Labor believed they had not rejected his values. Rudd was a winner because he projected the same sort of values. His ''small target politics'' and ''me-tooism'' concentrated the battle in areas where the coalition was seen as out of touch. Earlier, unsuccessful small-target policies of Beazley had been reassuring but had not offered change which gave a positive reason to choose Labor.

Gillard was one of the strategists with Rudd. But much as she knows the theory, she cannot naturally project herself as a moral conservative like Rudd (or Howard). Nor has she that radical streak which ''natural'' possession of such a temperament so often empowers. Put bluntly, she's been too scared to use such authority as she has. Her legislative and infrastructural achievements have never much caused noticeable change or alarm.

As calmer of apprehensions, she is still rather in the position of a Mitt Romney in the US. He must, until a Republican nomination is assured (which is not yet), pretend he is more conservative than his record or his temperament would suggest. Almost as awkward and uncharismatic as Al Gore in 2000, he has proven even more wooden, gaffe-prone and unconvincing as a supposed convert to the nuttier side of the Republican Right.

The risk that Romney runs, of course, is that the very words he has used in attempting to appease Tea Party zealots, the extreme Christian Right, and the smaller government lobbies, will be used to great effect against him as he has to do battle with Barack Obama. Obama, in normal circumstances, might be fighting to rally and re-inspire old supporters; but the Republican alternatives might make his task far easier, especially if angry, disappointed and ''disrespected'' conservatives stay home.

But American races are not only about different candidates, but apathy and engagement. One must earn one's support and galvanise supporters to get out and vote. Here we must turn up at the polling booth. But this may not entirely dispense with problems of lack of enthusiasm from once-natural Labor supporters - feelings which may be aggravated by a tough budget next month.

As it happens, polls suggest that the reassurances and blandishments sent out to battlers by the strategy have not proven alluring either. Labor and Gillard cannot be squeezed through holes whose shape they simply do not fit.

Jack Waterford is The Canberra Times' Editor-at-Large.

68 comments

  • Julia isn't afraid to use her authority, she is more than willing to do anything to pursue her real priority which is to hold political power. Being a dedicated careerist apparatchik she simply has no real purpose other than exercising power for its own sake. The fact that she has never developed a personal life outside of politics is indicative of the intellectual and emotional sterility that divorces her from the lives of the ordinary people she wishes to organise and govern.

    Commenter
    SteveH.
    Date and time
    April 11, 2012, 8:23AM
    • Of course a major priority of this Government and every single Government in the history or the world is to retain power. You don't think that it is the highest priority of the Coalition to gain government? You don't think it is the highest priority of a Coalition government to retain power? No life out of politics? Gillard was a working lawyer before entering politics. If you don't consider that a life outside of politics, then you must say the same about Howard, Costello, Abbott, Fraser, Menzies, in fact an entire swathe of politicians on either side.

      And of course we have the champion in recent times of clinging to power for the sake of it. John Howard himself, who refused to read the writting on the wall and refused to honour is agreement (there's that trust thing) to Costello to stand aside. A pointless post.

      Commenter
      The Redman
      Location
      Canberra
      Date and time
      April 11, 2012, 10:20AM
    • No need to eat your shorts Redman its only a personal observation. Obviously all politicians desire to govern and I agree Howard stayed too long. The difference however is that Howard was consistently doing what he believed in (whether you agreed with it or not is another issue). Rudd got in promising to be a younger version, which of course he wasn't, but he still managed to fill in his days dreaming up schemes he believed in. He just wasn't very good at implementing them. Gillard does none of these things because beyond the art of political fixing and gaming there is nothing there, her persona is all facade hiding a vacuum. She didn't even own a dog until the TV series gave her the idea.

      Commenter
      SteveH.
      Date and time
      April 11, 2012, 12:16PM
    • Steve, excellent and concise summary of Gillards position.

      She is merely one of the more spectacular examples of the awfulness that infects our body politic. She is more obvious because she is PM. The real danger is that there is almost universal application of this criticism to all politicians - managerialists - everyone of them. We are sheep to be herded - manipulated - divided and then conquered. Politicians actively act as agents of the big end of town - they despise the ordinary Australian. Costellos piece in the Age today is such an example of that. Taking great umbrage at a church representative even mentioning the fact that miners and bankers may stink, that they may be acting contrary to the broader community interest. We only had some stooge on radio this morning claiming that the RBA should never be subject to criticism. Unbelievable rubbish.

      Commenter
      Boris Johnson
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      April 11, 2012, 1:08PM
    • Redman,

      "And of course we have the champion in recent times of clinging to power for the sake of it. John Howard "

      Too true. When asked what was his proudest achievement as PM, John Howard did NOT answer, as one may expect "Introducing the GST", or "giving my spnsors unfettered power over Australian workers with 'Work Choices', or even "turning Australians against each other with my racist slurs and sitortions of history". He replied "winning the election". In other words, Howard's ONLY reason for entering politics appears to have been to become Prime Minister. A review of his total failure to introcude ANY meaingful reforms in eleven years of power suggests that his plans for the future culminated in his elevation to The Lodge (where, of course, he refused to live, at ENORMOUS cost to the Australian taxpayer).

      ALL Labor PMs have the same goal: to promote the Social-Democratic programme of the Labor Party. And, as anyone who knows anything about politics can tell you, you cannot govern from opposition. Retaining power is a MEANS TOWARD AN END for Labor PMs, while it is the END ITSELF for Liberal PMs.

      That is, and always has been, the major, defining difference between Labor and the Tories (Rum Corps, UAP, National Guard, Liberal Party - whatever they choose to call themselves).

      Commenter
      v
      Date and time
      April 11, 2012, 2:11PM
    • SteveH, your comment sums up Gillard perfectly, I think you have pegged her and this is why she has a problem with the Australian public who don't know who she is, her herself doesn't know who she is! this is why we had the Julia and real Julia during the last election, all the chardonnay socialists will gag on their unwooded as they read your comment

      Commenter
      Grouchy Oscar
      Date and time
      April 11, 2012, 2:32PM
  • Apart from clinging to power at any cost, just what does Gillard stand for?

    Commenter
    liklik
    Location
    sydney
    Date and time
    April 11, 2012, 8:25AM
    • Two things off the top of my head:
      * Taking responsibility for Australia's high per-capita emissions and taking action to reduce it (i.e. taxing polluters to pay innovators, as opposed to taxing households to pay polluters).
      * Ensuring Australia has a world-class telecommunications network for decades to come (i.e. the NBN as a long term unified solution, as opposed to a short-term patch).

      While we're at it, any takers on the question of what Abbott stands for apart from gaining power at any cost?

      Commenter
      David
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      April 11, 2012, 10:27AM
    • John Howard clung to power at any cost. In fact, at the cost of an election loss and the loss of his seat. Your point being?

      Commenter
      The Redman
      Location
      Canberra
      Date and time
      April 11, 2012, 10:29AM
    • Oh, but Redman, it's okay for the Cons to accuse the left of "desperately clinging to power"...they were born to rule, after all. Howard desperately clinging on until the death (causing his party's defeat) isn't the same...didn't you know that?

      A bit like "lying"...it's okay for them to do it, via "non-core", "if it ain't written down in blood", etc, etc. But if a lefty changes their minds....watch out!

      Talk about useless hypocrites...

      Commenter
      They're pathetic
      Date and time
      April 11, 2012, 12:45PM

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