Gillard’s recycling but the environment’s not friendly
If Julia Gillard’s “national crusade” on education has a familiar ring to it, that is because as a political concept it is not exactly new.
US president Bill Clinton in 1997, in a State of the Union speech, used the very same “national crusade” to promise better education standards in the US by the turn of the last century.
Clinton, however, was also using a recycled theme.
He borrowed it from his best mate, the UK Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair, who pioneered the great “national crusade” against the British education system in 1995, using exactly the same terminology to promise academic standards for the next generation of young Brits.
By all accounts, people in the US and the UK aren’t any smarter now than they were before the revolution began. But that is not the point.
Labor strategists call this stuff “values politics”.
There can be little doubt that Gillard got this idea for an Australian led “crusade” from the people she takes the most advice from – who just happen to hail from the UK and Blair/Gordon Brown Labour.
Gillard’s in-house advisors John McTernan and Tom Bentley, who both worked in the Blair and Brown governments as advisors, know this stuff well.
Gillard is said to also still regularly seek counsel from the former UK Labour Minister Alan Milburn, and apparently values his advice over anyone else’s.
The idea of turning commitments into legislated targets into the future comes straight from the playbook of the Blair Government.
There is tested political wisdom behind it. And it worked for Blair for 10 years. The question is whether you get found out down the track when the targets look unlikely to ever be reached.
The ideas had merit but were ultimately doomed by the time Gordon Brown took over and turned the targets into guarantees, because in the words of one Labor MP, they turned out to be “bullshit”.
They created headlines but were unsustainable in the long run. The risk for Gillard’s education targets, which followed two other big announcements over the past few weeks – namely the NDIS and dental health - is that no-one believes them from the outset.
It is more so because the Government hasn’t worked out yet how it is all to be paid for.
One Labor MP said that instead of taking advice from Milburn, the PM could have watched a recent episode of West Wing, in which President Bartlett squibs it on a speech to announce 100,000 new teachers after realising there was no money to pay for them.
There is no question that Gillard believes in the principles behind the reforms – bearing in mind that reform is change with improvement rather than change just for the sake of it.
But the politics behind this frenzied need to talk about anything else than carbon tax or asylum seeker boats, appears all short term.
You just know a Government is heading for trouble when its own MPs can’t even keep up with the pace at which new policy announcements are made by its leader.
And here is the point.
The PM has a potentially escalating internal problem around her leadership as the end of the year gets closer. Kevin Rudd has not gone away.
Gillard’s team knows that she must keep hold of what little recent gains she has made in restoring Labor’s primary vote, not just to get Labor back in the game but to keep Rudd at bay.
The Government is desperate to keep the political conversation away from topics that are electorally toxic and will hope that she can turn the political battlefield to territory she would rather be fighting on.
As one of her supporters said: “We would rather be talking about this stuff than boats or carbon”.
Despite the Prime Minister’s protests that she has no interest in the published polls, this appears to be exactly what this frantic reform agenda is all about.
If there was any doubt, the August 21 poll numbers showing an improvement for Labor were apparently included for the first time in what are known as “Round The World” briefings to Ministers and Parliamentary Secretaries.
These are the talking points from the PM’s office to Ministers dictating the messages and subjects they are allowed to speak on during the day if they are doing any media.
Until the primary vote hit 35 per cent, the polls had never been included in the RTWs, for obvious reasons.
Not surprisingly this has inspired a joke among a certain group of Labor MPs that suggests that the one drug you can no longer buy from a Canberra chemist these days is Prozac - because they’ve run out of the stuff.
This isn’t meant as an offense to people who actually do suffer the conditions for which it is prescribed. It is meant to suggest that a collective poll-driven mental disorder has taken over the Labor party room.
One week the polls are up and the caucus is buoyant. The next they are down and a pall drifts over the mood of the party room.
The next polls may well dictate the mood of the caucus but they may also inform the PM about whether punters believe this latest venture is about substance rather than stunt. It will be a crucial test for the PM.
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