Threads of Doom and the lurch to the right

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:

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.

Categories: culture wars, ethics & philosophy, parties and factions, social justice

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16 replies

  1. This!

    Labor have given up on even trying to appear relevant to progressives, let alone (as you have said) changing their actual positions from the already right-leaning Rudd policies.

  2. tigtog, one interesting point in terms of your argument about the quasi-presidential system is the way Julia Gillard has gone about distancing herself and the government from KRudd. Her manner off proceeding, and the way it’s been discussed, has been precisely aimed to suggest that a new leader implies a new policy direction, and to gloss over the continuities with ALP policy under Rudd which you discuss (although I do think it’s significant that the rhetoric has moved rightwards so quickly). The expectations among people that policy would shift in areas like same sex marriage and the net filter also fit neatly into the presidential box.
    I also think the Timor kerfuffle demonstrates that “consultative” leadership is not the panacea that many claimed it was. We can see that from the fact that the decision was obviously taken quickly, the ground not prepared, and dominated by conceptions of political strategy and spin (as with her remarks about so-called political correctness). Waiting for a “consensus” to emerge on climate change is also a recipe for inaction in the short term and disaster in the long term.

  3. I totally agree that not all of the critical stuff about Gillard is simply articulating a misogynist perspective – that there’s more going on, about the nature of leadership in the Westminster system etc – but I am perturbed by how misogynist that articulation has been. And I do think that there’s a greater tendency to see her ‘betrayal’ as somehow much much worse than a man’s would have been (and has been, in the past!). The blood under fingernails comment, plus those about Lady Macbeth just make me seethe; it’s a more implicit form of misogyny than the clothes/partner/hair discourse, so it’s kinda harder to call out.
    That said, and as much as I appreciate Gillard as a PM, for all the reasons you list plus the fact that she’s the first woman to have managed to maker her way through politics to that top job, no mean feat, I am utterly dismayed by the lurch to the right. It’s not even that I *expected* her to be better, but I *hoped*, and that hope wasn’t entirely baseless: she was a politician born out of lefty student politics, once upon a time, and was still characterised, in the last election, as the lefty that made the PM-deputyPM pair so powerful…
    I am especially WTF-ing over the filter thing, because I just think that she’s managed a far more considered approach when articulating her position on other policies. In relation to refugees and asylum seekers, she acknowledged, at least, concerns about their welfare, in a way that complicated the discourse and rhetoric we’ve seen in the past, especially that so well established during the Howard years. In relation to the filter, she played the child pr0n card like it was the only way to think about it; absolutely no opening out of the discourse on it at all. And I really have to say, I’m a bit over conservative governments using children as a way of hanging on to policies that are horribly problematic, and which simply do nothing for the children they’re apparently so concerned about (yes, I’m referring to the Intervention which… fucking hell, Labor, why the hell is that still even HAPPENING?!). Argh. Grr. Politics.
    Must go lower blood pressure…

  4. No support for:
    Support for:
    Mickey-mouse education “initiatives” designed to punish “underperforming” schools (read: public schools catering to disadvantaged populations) and provide the tabloid media with an unending set of wonky statistics to bash same
    Bonus: support for scabbing!!!!!!!!!
    (Note US readers = strikebreaking by nonunion workers, or in this case, PARENTS!!…by a *Labor* then education minister *Speechless*)

  5. Hi tigtog
    As you know, I have been among the most robust defenders of Gillard. The misgivings you raise above about particular policy positions she has articulated since becoming PM are justified. But the context of a PM in her first year of a 3 year term after a decisive electoral victory is a luxury – decadence even – Gillard does not have.
    The move against Rudd in favour of Gillard was based on several key pieces of data, which confirmed disquiet about patterns in Rudd’s political nous, leadership style/ability, and electoral appeal.
    Gillard has a few months before an election. Her ONLY goal here is to settle electoral volatility towards Labor. Two of the most effective ways of achieving this are distancing herself from Rudd and at least appearing to be decisive.
    She IS a brilliant communicator; she IS a consensus politician; she IS peculiarly gifted (like Bob Hawke) to take the electorate with her in new policy directions.
    She is also sufficiently savvy to know the difference between governing and election campaigning. She has no choice but to accept reality. She became PM during the latter.
    Let’s keep our powder dry and hopes still high for the months AFTER the election win.

  6. Note the er, unusual source for that first link – something I wouldn’t normally link to in a pink fit – luckily all HOyden links have “nofollow” as default.
    (I’m still wondering how the Counterpoink crew allowed this socialist pinko to spread her dangerous pro-Public education memes on their program!)

  7. And I do think that there’s a greater tendency to see her ‘betrayal’ as somehow much much worse than a man’s would have been (and has been, in the past!). The blood under fingernails comment, plus those about Lady Macbeth just make me seethe; it’s a more implicit form of misogyny than the clothes/partner/hair discourse, so it’s kinda harder to call out.


  8. Actually, I’m seeing it less as a lurch to the right as a lurch toward cosying up with the mainstream media in the run-up to an election everyone is dreading. Let’s face it – the Australian media ownership situation is massively concentrated (and always has been) and the big family companies which own the majority of the Australian mainstream media are (understandably) right-wing at the core. The big media companies also have their own priorities, and this is something we should never lose sight of. And how do we learn about the various political entities in our country? That’s right – through our mainstream media.
    This means a presidential-style party (such as the Liberals) where the policy pretty much emanates from the Party Leader, and everyone else toes the line has an easier time of things than a consensus-style party (such as the traditional ALP and the Australian Democrats – anyone else remember them?). A presidential-style party means there’s just the one person to convince about the “rightness” of things the way the corporations want them. A consensus-style party means you have to convince a lot more people, and that takes more time, more money, and a lot more leverage (it’s notable that a lot of the satire of the Australian Democrats, for example, painted them as indecisive and wishy-washy, simply because their party processes involved getting feedback from a wider base than just the cabinet or the parliamentary caucus).
    In the end, it’s more acceptable for the mainstream media to keep portraying the Australian system of government in an inexact fashion (as being much more like the US system than it actually is) because this means their corporate goals can get accomplished much easier if they just keep pushing the notion that we have a Prime Minister with the powers of a President (which we don’t – if we’re looking at a Presidential analogue in our current system, it’s the Governor-General) and thus get people to turn away from the “confusing” party structure of the consensus parties (the ALP, the Australian Democrats, the Greens etc) and toward the more “straightforward” structure of the presidential-style parties (which generally happen to be the more right-wing, authoritarian parties in general).

  9. @ossie
    Communicating, gifted? Yes and Yes. But consensus politician? Is there such a thing in times like these? Her border protection policy was hardly the stuff of consensus. I don’t think she has had enough time to be deemed one way or the other. The big issues (Climate, Economy, Health) all require some consensus building and that can only happen away from the electoral cycle, if the ALP win a 2nd term.
    In regards to the presidential style, the executive in Australia has grown and grown in recent years. The events surrounding Rudd show that Australian politics is it’s own beast, but perhaps a more collective presidential style has evolved in Australia, as opposed to centralised power in the role of the PM.

  10. Tigtog, I would have thought that only a minuscule part of the anger at the Gillard ascension could be dismissed as misogyny. A good friend of mine (a 56 year old woman) put it very well: for her, the single worst aspect of the leadership change was that she’s been waiting all her life for a female PM, and now that it’s finally happened, she’s been robbed of the euphoria she should rightly have felt by the way it was done. I suspect that this sort of reaction enormously outnumbers any driven by misogyny.

    • Snorky, that makes a certain amount of sense in terms of a general attitude amongst voters. I was speaking more particularly of some extremes I’ve seen around the blogs and MSM forums, since that’s where the loudest and most blatant misogynists hang out.

  11. ’the way it was done!’
    Why shouldn’t Julia have behaved like a man?
    Why should her win have been thoroughly square,
    The first of its kind, historically fair?
    Must she win our approval and get a back pat?
    Should our PM be a woman like that?
    Why shouldn’t she do what all the blokes do
    And show that she knows how to use her head?
    Why must she behave like mothers used to,
    Why weep ‘cos she’s more like her father instead?
    Why not simply be glad it’s not just her hair that is red.

  12. While not very bloody happy with a half-cocked notion of offshore processing (though let us not forget that Fraser as the last Australian prime minister seemingly able to lead the electorate where he would on this issue used the same tactic with processing centres in Malaysia, and the Philippines), I’m a little perplexed at the notion that Gillard ascension represents either a break down in democratic process or a further shift toward a presidential style.
    Unless things have changed mightly, by the time a piece of proposed legislation has been through both houses, committees, horse trading, back to committee and then perhaps back to the Senate, it is often a very very different beast than the original bill. The bluster and nonsense of what passes for Question Time hides the reality that most legislation is modified, hopefully improved, and generally pulled into shape by a consultative usually pretty even tempered process involving most elected members. (That the Liberals acted in the most appalling bad faith over Emissions Trading, breaking decades of principled adherence to the Westminister process of negotiated legislative machinations seems to have slipped young Tony’s mind.. given this, the ALP have to either ask for and claim a clear mandate in this coming election of the issue or watch yet again as the Coalition holds to an insane policy position at the behest of vested carbon polluting interests, miraculously gaining both campaign funding and an ant hill to cling to. Raise your glasses to a Greens held balance of power in the Senate)
    Bad policies such as the MySchool nonsense manage to make their way through from crap policy to even dopier implementation because what laughingly calls itself an opposition supports the notion of hairshirts for all school teachers and is quite happy for the media to dance the macabre with the notion of quality public education. Kinda cute really – Howard’s years gave schools a flagpole; Rudd + Gillard gave them capital works funding and “it’s all just wasted”. What I’m perplexed about is why the hell the ALP are letting Tony’s troops set ridiculous policy agendas that they know they could not introduce if they were in power – and then running ’round like headless chooks trying to out-muscle the lunancy. And meanwhile, committees continue to meet, witnesses are called, reports are written, sober and reasonable decisions are made….

    • I’m a little perplexed at the notion that Gillard ascension represents either a break down in democratic process or a further shift toward a presidential style

      I share much of your perplexity – I meant there only to offer a description of what I’m seeing in expressed attitudes in discussions around the traps.
      There has been a definite shift towards more presidential rhetoric about national leadership (and how that can be effected via legislation) from Australian Prime Ministers (and people who want to be Australian Prime Ministers, which includes most of the front bench and half of the back bench on either side) over the last few decades, I suspect mainly because it “plays” better on TV and radio. Of course it’s just soundbites rather than reality of governance, but what most voters see/hear is just the soundbites.
      It does make for a rather spectacular own-goal though, if one has spent years building up the perception that a PM can play fix-it easy-peasy by passing a few new laws just-like-that, to then be unable to push actual real legislation through the detailed consultative process you describe – it makes it easy for the shockjocks and tabloid hacks to hoist one by one’s own presidential-rhetoric petard to paint one as an ineffectual, wishy-washy backflipper. Actual analysis of what the consultative process is stalling on, what those who are stalling it might have to gain, whether what they want to gain would be a public good or a public detriment; now that would be waaaay too hard, obviously.

  13. Snorky:

    I suspect that this sort of reaction enormously outnumbers any driven by misogyny.

    I suspect you are very wrong. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of Anti-Feminist Bingo but you’re playing it here. So you know one woman who happens to have expressed a view which supports your own view? So what?

  14. Actual analysis of what the consultative process is stalling on, what those who are stalling it might have to gain, whether what they want to gain would be a public good or a public detriment; now that would be waaaay too hard, obviously.

    Exactly. Exactly, exactly,exactly. And if the Fourth Estate continues to present Sideshow Tony and his loony friends as the process of governance, it behoves the slipstream to take up the cudgels and explain the processes, the nuance, the dreary boring grind of committee, meeting after meeting, how god damned P&C governance often is. I’ve certainly had more than my share of rhetorical flourish whilst blogging but as we seem to exist in a media environment who also believe that the hyperbole of the blogger belongs on a news or analysis page, bizarrely does it then become OUR responsibility to do that which the media ought?

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