PM's dog and pony show a lost cause
Prime Minister Julia Gillard launches the Penrith Digital Economy Strategy at Penrith Library. Photo: firstname.lastname@example.org
Julia Gillard has concluded a week's electioneering in the western suburbs of Sydney without any obvious signs of having achieved any sort of public relations triumph. All the more so perhaps because virtually every event she attended had been carefully stage-managed and choreographed, with hand-picked audiences, focus-group-tested speeches presented with her usual woodenness, and ''announcibles'' calculated to annoy at least some natural Labor voters as they were designed to lure back some of those disillusioned with Labor, and, particularly, with her.
There were, naturally, a few ambushes at which hostile women manifested hostility, and it seemed completely of a part with the campaign that she seemed flabbergasted every time.
The media is always as much a part of the public relations strategy, but, whether because of ill-management or ill will, was hardly helpful in creating any image of Gillard's going to the heart of critical constituencies that once were Labor. The commentary was entirely cynical, the more so with the analysis of carefully prepared slogans and announcements - whether about gang crime, freeways or ''crackdowns'' on visa rorters.
Analysis and criticism tended to show not only that the announcements were stunts, but ones that undermined the moral basis of Labor policies.
In this sense Labor accentuated, not diminished, the idea that it is out of touch with people whose support it needs. Those who hate Labor rejoiced at every piece of coverage and attention given to Gillard's performance - none more so than fundamentally hostile shock jocks such as Ray Hadley and Alan Jones. Those who cannot conceive of voting for any party other than Labor were reinforced in their sense of virtue and forbearance in great adversity. Those wavering about their voting intention - if there are any left - must surely have caught the whiff of madness and utter despair as the few remaining lemmings rushed pell mell towards the cliff.
If the luck is to turn Gillard's way, it could come only from without. It seems almost impossible that Labor itself can do anything to retrieve its fortunes. A change of leader might at best give it a short breathing space, before a resumption of the march to disaster. By now it seems, it's not only about Gillard and her leadership but about Labor.
Gillard, of course, has kept her nerve and hardly ever shown in her eyes, or hands, the pressure that is upon her. Just as significantly, she has retained the loyalty of her staff and the system (including, up to a point, the bureaucracy), and even, more or less the ministry. There may be many anxiously calculating the numbers, and some of her ministers are publicly identified as preferring someone else. But she is not being destabilised by leaks, by backbiting, or the anticipatory retaliations of those who ''want to set the record straight'' about their noble role in Labor disasters. Gillard has suffered only one significant Cabinet leak - over her support for Israel. The public service feels increasingly left out of the inner councils of government, but has been very disciplined, and, essentially leak-free.
She might compare her situation with that of Ted Baillieu, who must have known that the jig was up once the Melbourne Herald Sun began publishing tapes of conversations between minders and his own minders, with just the hint, with menaces, there there might be a lot more to come. Somehow the decent, but dull and boring man who unexpectedly became premier had exhausted the patience of some of his supporters. He was, within a day, out on his ear, if being being less obviously frogmarched than Kevin Rudd three years ago.
For Gillard, however, the occasion serves not so much as a reminder of her accession as a relief that those on whom she most basically depends are not yet contemplating life after her. If she is to be put away quietly, it will be by tap on her shoulder. More likely, it will be on the Richardson model of the assassination of Bill
Hayden, and, later, Bob Hawke, of death by 1000 cuts - blindsided by leaks and spectacular disloyalties, undermined from within and without, stabbed, pricked, calumnised and betrayed - and personally as much as professionally. If this is to be her fate, there will be some who will exhibit no sympathy or regret, since she once wielded the sword herself. Most likely the first signs will be by very personal and damaging leaks.
Yet it's not so clear how or why the idea of an invasion of the western suburbs of Sydney was programmed. It was, as so many of her drives to restore her image have been, as if designed to show her at her worst, rather than her best, to show her as an awkward stranger, not as an understanding friend. Gillard is good on her feet. She is right across the range of government activity, and can see quickly where someone is going. She may be a bit of a dag, but she's smart, and, when being natural, appealing and persuasive. She can handle large audiences without props or speech notes as well as small groups. So why is so much that is planned for her so contrived, so mannered, so organised and so palpably fake?
The poor presentation seems the more poor strategy because Gillard is at that stage of her political life where actual policies, programs, runs on the board, or mere achievements, have ceased to matter much. Labor is not going to win on its record, or its promises. Even if it deserves to. Nor is it any longer capable of manipulating and framing the debate so that the election represents a choice between competing visions of the nation.
Labor cannot be re-elected by the presentation of statistics, the recitations of past triumphs, or the constant reiteration of goodies to come, such as cabled households, disability schemes, or the abolition of gang warfare. She is engaged primarily in a beauty contest with Tony Abbott, and, on the evidence of the polls, she is well behind.
The beauty contest is about character and predisposition, and about trust. In part, it's also about ''knowing'' her and him, and, sometimes, though not necessarily, about liking, or at least, respecting, her or him. On the evidence, the electorate is not sure about the character of either, but, based on what they know from their public records and their personalities, they suspect the worst of both. Each, indeed, might serve as an example of why so many Australians are cynical and angry about politicians and the political process.
No one could doubt that Gillard gives it her all, and all of the time. Her sheer doggedness, and her capacity to carry on - even her unwillingness to lie down and die when she is plainly dead - attracts a good deal of admiration, even from her enemies. But, somehow, people have not got to ''know'' her, or, if they think they have, they have not warmed much to her. Her agony might inspire pity, but no desire to share her fate.
She has largely failed to develop any sort of female constituency, whether as the first woman to reach the top of the Australian greasy pole, or by the articulation of ideas or values that might resonate especially with them. Indeed her natural caution about making fresh enemies has made her seem a moral conservative hostile to fashionable causes, even as she has been, as her most acid critics have said, an atheist, an unmarried person living with a man and, initially at least, a strong leftist.
Even when Tony Abbott was feeling the heat, from her, for his alleged misogyny, or failure to ''get'' the modern woman, Gillard was attracting support from women only by default. It was plain that many agreed with Gillard about Abbott - Abbott's attempts to redeem himself by never-ending appearances with his daughters bears testimony about his efforts to redeem himself - but it did not seem to swing sympathies much her way.
All the more frustrating for those unhappy about the government's flailing is the feeling that Abbott was a somewhat ideal person to be in a character competition with. He is, after all, a person of many contradictions, accused of being fuelled by the war between his earthly and his spiritual ambitions with the less worthy side, at the moment, winning; ruthless, opportunistic, a brawler with a degree of nastiness; a spoiler, and a person rich with personal enemies.
The focus on his attack on Gillard has been in destroying her credibility and calling her a liar. But his own credibility, or reputation for telling the truth, has not much benefited from his success. If opinion polls suggest that he is marginally more ''trusted'' than Gillard, that is more a reflection on Gillard's incapacity to have people believe in her than any development of confidence in his straightforwardness.
A good deal of the time, indeed, Abbott appearances, statements, slogans or worried looks appear even more contrived and fake than Gillard's. Were Gillard not herself so compromised on immigration questions - with doubts about her increased by her unnecessary stunt with 457 visas - she might be now appealing to liberal constituencies about some of the extremists in the Liberal Party.
Abbott indeed is in that dangerous political period, half a year from becoming prime minister, of knowing that he could yet blow it. He must think ahead without taking election for granted. Mere caution about making promises or commitments may not be enough, least of all if some of the team start playing to their own constituencies, making confident pronouncements about the state of the world as they see it, or complacent remarks about the spoils will be distributed. All the more difficult a problem because of the tension between Abbott the leader - who does, more or less, want to be all things to all people - and those in his senior team who are determined to have some economic discipline, and who know how important it will be to keen some rein on the developed Abbott tendency to think that all problems of political hopes and expectations can be addressed with dollar notes.
A perfectly good example of such tensions in action can be seen from the re-emergence of loopy ideals about developing the north, turning rivers across mountains, and building channels so that water from the north can flow (perhaps by gravity) to water-starved regions in the south.
It is never surprising that there are constituencies for daft ideas, or that the National Party, whose very existence reflects a lack of belief in free market economics - has an uncommon preponderance of them. Naturally, a leader of a Coalition must do a certain amount of verbal juggling so as to allow a certain amount of National grandstanding when that party leaks its ''draft'' policies. But any Liberal leader who does not make it clear to much bigger constituencies that there is no hope in hell of such policies going forward is not only risking the collapse of the Liberal Party's support base, but perhaps, any perception of a moral right to govern. Pandering to nutty pressure groups can go only so far.
A skilled government - were there one - would be exploiting such tugs of war in an opposition. But who has heart for the counter-attack while trenches are still so shallow, own bodies so exposed, and the enemy artillery so accurate?