Gillard’s long-term bid to overcome a damaged brand
Julia Gillard says she for one was not surprised by the closeness of the August federal election result, maintaining with an `I-told-you-so’ tone that she’d always argued it would be close. But why? Had the Government not successfully steered Australia around a massive global crisis, keeping people in jobs and businesses trading?
Her ready resignation to a cliff-hanger result at best raises fundamental questions: What’s gone so wrong with the Australian Labor Party that voters are deserting it in droves. Why is that even competent governments (the pink batts fiasco notwithstanding) cannot seem to muster enough support and enthusiasm to form a majority?
Take the federal poll about which Ms Gillard proved correct. Despite the leadership change, (or perhaps because of it) Labor fell well short of the 76 seat minimum needed to govern in its own right.
In South Australia earlier this year, it was a similar story where the Rann Labor Government was all but run down by a lack-lustre Opposition, suffering huge swings in safe seats and only surviving in the end due to some deft marginal seat campaigning and a big slice of luck.
The Tasmanian poll conducted on the same day in March was similar - a virtual dead-heat with the Liberals forcing Labor into a coalition with the Greens.
Even in the Labor stronghold of the ACT, Labor relies on Greens for its majority.
In NSW, outright defeat is expected in March next year - its charismatic premier, Kristina Keneally batting against huge odds as her party literally crumbles around her.
In Queensland, the once popular Anna Bligh faces a likely mutiny from voters in 2012 with voters once again waiting on their verandas with base-ball bats to belt Labor.
Perhaps Labor strategists should have taken more notice of what happened in WA in 2008.
There, Labor voters simply bled away without making a fuss but they did so in enough numbers to end the competent but typically opportunistic Carpenter government - the then premier’s decision to race to the polls early to catch the Opposition off-guard as it changed leaders, backfired.
Like the subsequent results in the states and at the national level, the WA result was not widely picked ahead of time.
But what is clear now is that Labor’s full-house dominance of every state and territory parliament is ending not with a bang but a whimper.
The common theme is of close results often leaving the question of who takes the reins to be sorted out through post-election negotiations rather than on election night.
The dominant characteristic in many of these elections is voter equivocation. Where governments have survived, they have generally done so only by a whisker.
Tony Abbott says the Labor brand is toxic.
``What voters are increasingly understanding is that governments that are more talk than action, that are more announcement than delivery, that are more spin than substance, will be rejected by the Australian people,’’ he told Parliament yesterday.
``We see today, the absent prime minister, (she wasn’t absent actually) in Sydney, making the announcement that she’s just discovered that the year 2011 should be all about decision and delivery, well that’d be a day Mr Speaker, wouldn’t it, that’d be a day from 2008, that’d be a day from 2009, that’d be a day from 2010, but Mr Speaker, shouldn’t every year, shouldn’t every day from every week from every month be a time when governments should be about deciding and delivering and it is precisely because this government can’t decide and can’t deliver that Labor is on the nose right around Australia right now.’’
Abbott’s argument, and it is one that has been used to great effect around the states, is that these governments have become overly professionalised spin machines. Slick media dominating outfits which look good for a term or two but which eventually are exposed as more marketing than product.
It is tempting to immediately dismiss the Abbott critique as self-serving. Clearly it is. But smarter ALP strategists see the danger federally and recognise that true or not, it is an argument that has already cut through to voters.
And this is why Julia Gillard has moved into action mode - well if not action mode then certainly to the talking about it stage (shades of the real Julia announcement perhaps?)
By nominating next year as the action year on key reforms, Ms Gillard hopes to buy some space, at least between now and then. To her credit, she is trying to play a long game, a game in which she hopes voters will come to see a much narrowed gap between promise and delivery.
But her long game strategy includes factoring in new dynamics as well such as a Greens-controlled Senate from next July, and, funnily enough, fewer unpopular state Labor governments to apologise for.
She cannot say so publicly, but like John Howard did before her, she will actually benefit politically if Labor’s once unbroken edifice of wall-to-wall state governments is replaced by a Liberal one.
After all, one of the dead weights on Labor in the federal election was a pair of state ALP governments well passed their use-by dates. Dud state governments did the brand no favours in Qld and NSW. In this sense, last Saturday’s result in Victoria may represent a bullet dodged by Gillard. By 2013, if John Brumby had survived in Victoria, he’d be on the nose as well as Victorian Labor approached its 15th straight year in office.
By contrast, when she goes to voters in 2013, there will likely be no state Labor governments on the eastern seaboard to worry about.
John Howard did very well out of the fact that Labor controlled the states. Gillard, while no doubt embarrassed by the defeat in her home state, may however benefit from a reversal of fortune in the longer term.
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