On the surface of it, it’s inexplicable that a government pushing through as many pieces of legislation as this one, some 200 plus, could be regarded as incompetent and its leader treated with an almost universal lack of respect. There was a good piece on the Political Sword a few weeks ago detailing some of the Gillard government’s achievements and questioning why the media is so ready to prophesy Gillard’s demise.
If you’ve seen any of Gillard’s more recent press conferences maybe you’ve noticed her demeanour. The PM is grim-faced, tight-lipped, and exudes an air of defensive hostility towards the press pack. Even in one to one interviews she appears braced for attack, aware that she is not liked. In a recent interview with Leigh Sales on the 7.30 Report, Sales ended the interview with “Thank you Julia Gillard.” There were voices raised in annoyance: why did Sales not say “Prime Minister?”
Then there’s the mean tweets that appear now and again from journos you’d think would know better than to express personal sentiments against the PM on Twitter and I’m not talking about the Tele’s Joe Hildebrand, from whom one expects little else.
So what is this about?
The engineers of the coup against Kevin Rudd did Julia Gillard no favours. As Deputy PM , Ms Gillard appeared a steadying and common sense influence beside the sometimes overly exuberant Rudd. Her comments were restrained and measured, and for some reason, at that time her voice caused no offense. She appeared loyal, and capable of giving as good as she got in Parliament. I liked her a lot in that role. I thought she’d probably be a very good PM one day.
Then suddenly there she was announcing that the government had lost its way and she was going to get it back on track. This was news to everyone including the media, who I suspect have not yet forgiven the ALP for catching them so totally unawares. They’re now reactively trumpeting leadership challenges every second minute in order to avoid another embarrassment, and to pay the government back for so totally shutting them out.
In a sense the media are right to feel such indignation. The most stupid thing the so-called “faceless men” could have done was to conduct their coup in total secrecy. What they should have done was let it be known there were difficulties with Rudd’s leadership. They should have done more to confront their leader. It has never made sense to me that apparently nobody seriously confronted him, they just let him bully them. If they had the numbers to chuck him out, they had the numbers to take him to task, so why didn’t they do that? It’s not as if they feared execution for dissent.
They should also have conducted at least some of their business in public, thus preparing us for what was to come and demonstrating that Rudd was impossible, if indeed he was.
Instead literally overnight we lost one PM and gained another, without anybody, even the media, knowing there was anything seriously wrong. This led to a sense of disempowerment in the electorate, who’d given the ALP a mandate based largely on a Rudd-focused campaign, even though only those in his electorate got to vote for him. It was a presidentially conducted election campaign in a Westminster system that led to an illusionary sense of public ownership of the PM. Then before he even sees out his first term, they’ve taken him away without so much as a whisper of what was to come, and the political landscape takes on the hue of a banana republic in the throes of a profound political uncertainty, about which nobody outside a very small and exclusive circle had the faintest idea. Australians don’t like that. We don’t like that kind of conspiratorial elitism. We won’t take it lying down, and we haven’t.
Out of this alarming turmoil there emerges our first female PM. In retrospect, who would have wanted the job? If ever there was a poisoned chalice this was it, and as is the way in politics, they gave it to a woman who was suitably grateful and over-awed to get it.
There was an outraged, resentful and suddenly very insecure electorate trying to deal with immense shock at the turn events had taken. There was a knifed former PM weeping on the telly with his wife holding his hand and rubbing his back, and his stricken kids in the background. The new PM immediately offered us absolute chaos in terms of asylum seeker policy, not to mention the ETS she’d apparently persuaded Rudd to drop, the carbon tax she would never introduce, and her increasingly strident claims that she would get the country back on a track we didn’t even know we’d fallen off.
Gillard appeared to have lost overnight her calm and sensible persona, and morphed into a power-drunk leader making stupid statements about detention centres in East Timor and how she’d never allow gay marriage. There was and continues to be far too much “I” and not nearly enough “we” in the PM’s public conversations. It’s hard for a man to get away with this much ego, but for a woman it’s a death sentence.
It’s always difficult for women to convey authority in public life. Gillard did it extremely well when she was deputy to a man. Unfortunately in our culture what is seen as authority in a man morphs into a perception of mere bossiness in a woman, and it takes an exceptionally strong woman to find an authoritative voice that isn’t going to be condemned as bullying and hectoring. This isn’t Gillard’s fault, it’s the fault of the culture, however Gillard hasn’t found a way to negotiate this. It’s unfair that she or any woman should have to negotiate such prejudices, however the reality is, we do, and there are women who manage it. Gillard isn’t one of them.
Instead, she has become increasingly strident, increasingly hostile and increasingly defensive. In her interviews these days Gillard fairly bristles, ready to jump down the throat of any one who casts the faintest whiff of doubt on her policies and actions. She’s become trapped in a vicious cycle of mutual hostility with the media, and there’s no way out.
Gillard got a rotten job in completely unacceptable circumstances. She wasn’t experienced enough or psychologically savvy enough to read the mood swings of a very upset electorate, and a very hostile media who don’t take well to big stuff happening behind their backs. Perhaps nobody could have found a productive way to deal with those circumstances, but I’d argue it’s twice as hard for a woman, particularly if she’s touting around a burden of guilt about how she got the job in the first place. There’s nothing makes one defensive as quickly as guilt.
The state the government finds itself in isn’t wholly Gillard’s fault. It’s largely the fault of the so-called “faceless men” who brought this situation about, and thrust her into premature leadership in chaotic and urgent circumstances. Gillard needed more time to learn and mature. She was in the ideal position to do this as Deputy PM. She may or may not have developed into an excellent PM, but now we will never know.
Instead she’s become the face of a party that didn’t even get a mandate in the last election and had to cobble together a government by, among other negotiations, apparently back-flipping on the carbon tax. This left them open to accusations that they did this not out of conviction, but because they needed the Greens onside. This, more than any other issue, has inflamed electoral hostility against them, on top of the aggro already in place.
All of this is gold for an opposition led by a feral fighter such as Tony Abbott. He knows the government stands on very shaky foundations after the Rudd debacle. He knows he’s got the media on side, if only because that media is so reactively hostile to Gillard. He hardly has to try.
It is really unspeakably sad. Casting my mind back to that night in 2007 when Rudd got the ALP so spectacularly over the line and we realised we’d been mercifully spared anymore of the Howard government, I shake my head at how it has all played out. All that squandered political capital. All that trashed good will and hope. Facing a future in the wilderness while an Abbott-led coalition government sets about undoing every good thing the government’s managed to accomplish.
It’s enough to make a strong woman cry. But I can’t help thinking in one tiny part of my mind that much as I don’t want the almost inevitable outcome, the government bloody deserves it, because they didn’t have the courage, the intelligence, the political savvy and the commonsense to deal with a recalcitrant Rudd in any other way.
As David Horton points out in this piece, it may yet not be too late. If they can find the bottle they can at least go down in a blaze of glory, and maybe rescue themselves from the mire of disrespect and outright contempt into which their stupidity has led them. If only.