Shrinking the values debate
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.