I’ve been rather more heavily engaged than usual in moderating threads over at LP since Julia Gillard became our PM. Whereas the big purple blog normally only has one or two threads a week that get up over 200 comments, since #spillard there has been thread after thread after thread attracting hundreds of comments. The level of personal vituperation against Gillard for spilling Rudd has been high and often expressed in extraordinarily hyperbolic terms; “the congealed blood of Rudd still under her nails” was a personal WTFavourite. It was repellent, to say the least. It’s a pattern that’s been repeated across discussion forums on blogs and MSM articles around Australia. Yet it would be wrong to dismiss all that anger against the new leader as simply a misogynistic response to the reality of a woman finally running the country.
I don’t generally have a problem with organisations taking votes of no-confidence in leaders who have lost their support (although actually taking such a vote instead of just announcing that it wasn’t necessary due to totting up behind the scenes would have been a much better look for the public at large), and I certainly don’t buy the faceless apparatchiks rhetoric, but it’s hard to deny that the general public impression is one of the ALP’s numbers men (apparently there aren’t any numbers women) reasserting their control over the party in the face of an overly presidential PM (indeed this is how the ALP attempted to sell it themselves), and the general public don’t much like that. The reframing of what was presented as a positive only two years ago – that Rudd was not a typical cog in the party machine – reframing that as an unacceptably negative attribute that needed to be urgently purged seemed to just pop up out of nowhere, and this is seen as a disturbing display from the ALP as a body.
There’s a large part of the electorate that either just isn’t buying that a presidential-style PM was such a terrible thing really (after all, his personal popularity was still quite high, even though not as high as it once was), or is simply raising an extremely jaundiced eyebrow about the rapid switch from spinning his presidential-style oversight as a good thing to slagging it as a bad thing. Nobody expects politicians to be fully honest with the voters (a damning indiction in itself, really), but the electorate doesn’t appreciate being treated as if we can’t even remember last week’s dishonesties before we’re hit with this week’s.
Don’t get me wrong – I for one fully accept that a PM’s office taking on presidential-style oversight of all aspects of government administration instead of coordinating oversight through the Cabinet is not actually a good thing. I’m not keen constitutionally or semiotically on selling a Westminster system PM as a presidential-style leader – the creeping of it into our national discourse over the last decades has long been a peeve – but I do understand why people who’ve bought into that rhetorical flourish over the increasingly presidential prime ministerial progression through Hawke-Keating-Howard-Rudd are deeply disturbed to suddenly be reminded (or to realise for the first time) that that is not how our Australian system of national leadership works at all, and that the one PM who tried to seriously treat the office as they’ve been sold on it has been summarily dismissed.
To attempt to dismiss their perception that Labor has been lying to them about how their party works as just ignorance that can be disregarded as irrelevant would, I think, be most unwise. Many of these people feel as though they have been lied to not just in the last election, and not just by Labor, but essentially lied to by every major party over the last 20 years about what their vote exactly means in terms of determining the leadership of this country, so now they are applying a higher level of scrutiny to absolutely everything they hear from Canberra. Underestimating the perspicacity of that scrutiny just because it’s relatively naive about the inner workings of policy formulation would be a big mistake. It should also be appreciated that many people who are actually fully cognisant of the Westminster system and Cabinet-level machinations are nonetheless highly critical of the lack of transparency in the processes involved in this leadership change, and they too are scrutinising everything much more closely than usual.
While my wonkish side is partly thrilled to see so many people critically engaged with public policy for once, for them to come to it from a place of disappointment, suspicion and resentment over a previously incomplete understanding of the system is far from ideal. Much like the surge in the polls for the ALP immediately after the deposition of Rudd, it also probably won’t last, although it may mean more scrutiny than usual of policy for the months leading into the next election and possibly for the election itself. But none of this means that the newly attentive are wrong to be critical of PM Gillard’s skilful but somewhat cynical manoeuvres to clear the decks of various divisive debates before pushing on to announcing the next election, and especially to be critical of how at nearly every point the rhetoric is pandering to the right.
Since she became PM, Gillard has announced Labor Party policies as:
- Marriage Equality (the community is not ready, apparently)
- Emission Controls (they can wait until 2013)
- “Political Correctness” (avoiding pejorative language is such a chore)
No Support For
- Mandatory Internet Filter
- “Border Control” (but where will it happen?)
- continued deployment of Australian troops in Afghanistan
Strong Support For:
They’ve been coming so thick and fast I may have missed a few as I wrote the list above. Feel free to add in comments. Then of course there have been the lesser disappointments such as the watered-down miners tax deal.
Many hoped for so much more on the progressive front, but as Annabel Crabb noted on Monday, we probably were not being all that analytical when we did so (emphasis added):
Julia Gillard is no more “elegant”, “commanding”, “authoritative” or “masterful” today than she was two weeks ago, when she was a senior figure in the Rudd Government, quietly engaged in making the sorts of decisions she is now – at a noticeably greater volume – engaged in dismantling.
[...] Anyone who still thinks that this Prime Minister is going to resurrect an emissions trading scheme or miraculously effect a “Feed the Five Thousand” approach to asylum seekers should park their dreams at the door.
To put it bluntly, the Prime Minister is not the Messiah.
She is a fiendishly agile negotiator; a robust and attractive person of quick wit.
She is extremely good at politics, and she would want to be, having advanced this far.
But let us not fall into the same pattern of premature beatification that made Kevin07′s eventual fall from grace so memorably bone-crunching.
Our dreadful habit in the media, in particular – of over-congratulating politicians when they are doing well and then over-killing them when they are doing poorly – seems to be cranking up once again, and it cannot be good either for St Julia or for the country.
Sometimes, a woman in the top job is just a person in the top job.
My only quibble with the above is that I don’t actually see much Rudd policy dismantling happening: the ALP’s perceived “lurch to the right” under Gillard is actually pretty much just more of the same as we have seen from them over the last decade. The rhetoric may have changed, but the policies really have not changed hardly at all. Gillard isn’t taking us anywhere new. It’s OK to be disappointed that she isn’t taking us anywhere new, but it’s not OK to vilify her as if she has personally betrayed us all.
Gillard remains an admirable woman for the reasons Crabb lists: a skilled political negotiator and communicator with an entertainingly quick wit. That doesn’t mean that I am going to approve of everything she finds politically necessary, nor that she is going to push my first-preference vote towards the box marked ALP, especially when I’ve been highly critical of them for many reasons for many years now. It just means that … it’s complicated.