The long march: crazy, brave, and very Julia Gillard
Illustration: Simon Letch
CRASH through or crash. All or nothing for 227 days. Like my policies or lump them. Reject Tony Abbott's promises as platitudes or he'll be prime minister. You choose.
With the reformist zeal of a Whitlam, the symbolism of a Keating and the unpredictability of a Latham, Julia Gillard has made a crazy-brave attempt to maximise her minimal chances of a remarkable political comeback.
''I've done it in an unusual fashion'' is the understatement of her tenure.
Gillard's announcement of September 14 as the election date will divide the nation, just as her leadership has from the moment she unseated Kevin Rudd in June 2010 then reneged on her ''no carbon tax'' promise.
While robbing her of the surprise factor, the set date allows her to control the agenda and maximise the advantages of office. It delivers business and the community certainty too.
The best effect may be the promise of less ''petty politics'' and more policy. The early signs are not promising. Voters will quickly tire of an eight-month soundbite.
Still, Gillard has set in train a policy agenda the Coalition will find very difficult to counter, let alone dismantle.
''There are big things we need to do,'' Gillard said. ''I am going to get them done and submit them to the judgment of the Australian people.''
A day after securing Nova Peris as her Senate pick for the Northern Territory, Gillard has outlined a plan replete with traditional Labor vision. That's a risk, given the stench of the Labor brand in its heartland.
Gillard plans a statement on jobs within weeks then ''significant'' cuts to middle class welfare - problematic as to what qualifies but a calculated risk to display the government as a responsible economic manager.
The headline Labor reform - the Gonski proposals for equitable school-funding - will go to the states in April ahead of the federal budget - ''fairness can only be funded through economic strength''. And the big-ticket National Disability Insurance Scheme begins on July 1 - a ''model of Labor's vision'' akin to Medicare, universal superannuation and the aged pension.
Gillard's policy momentum will force the Coalition to offer fully developed and costed alternatives quickly. In a brief response to Gillard's announcement, Abbott welcomed September 14, insisted he had positive plans and said the Coalition was ''so ready'' that he was already campaigning on his Real Solutions strategy. He stressed the poll would be about trust; more tax versus less, more regulation versus less; less competence or more, less freedom or more.
But in a sign of things to come, Gillard took a dig. ''In the real world, 'Real Solutions' means understanding the modern world, developing serious policies …. and offering detailed costings.'' She stressed shadow treasurer Joe Hockey has the full resources of the new parliamentary budget office at his disposal and nothing stops him from detailing immediately how much the Coalition's policies cost and where the savings will come from. Abbott will need to explain how he can wind back the carbon tax and Gonski without losing the entwined benefits.
While Gillard has made a bold gesture, the risks are huge that Abbott's team will rise to her challenge. If Abbott does - and the opinion polls don't improve for Labor - the nation's first female prime minister may well find herself gazumped just as Bill Hayden was by Bob Hawke in 1983. Rudd could rally backbenchers and challenge before Gillard visits the Governor-General on August 12.
Gillard has, however, surprised before. Many wrote her off in 2010 and many warmed to her after her misogyny speech against Abbott last year. She has endured attacks on her character, background and factional support. While Labor is behind in the polls, Gillard is still more popular than Abbott.
Leadership is not a popularity contest. Nor should it be about political skill. The nation needs a positive, affordable policy vision. Gillard and Abbott have almost eight months to outline one.