Red head to blue rinse, Gillard’s evolution
WHEN calls came in the lead-up to Australia Day to remove the British ensign from our flag, the idea was slapped down. Australians had fought and competed under this one, the Government said in an argument more often deployed by monarchists.
When the idea of putting the republic back on the agenda came up, this time from Attorney General Robert McClelland no less, it too got short shrift from the leadership when asked publicly. Perhaps this is unsurprising from the socially conservative Rudd Government. But the agent of both of these off the cuff rejections, was not Kevin Rudd, but rather, his deputy, the left-aligned, Julia Gillard.
There is a growing body of evidence that ``Red Julia’’ as some on the Right have derided her, has been busily repositioning herself to be in contention for the Labor leadership should Kevin Rudd’s star fade. I’ll come back to that shortly.
Once the scourge of conservatives everywhere, and pilloried for everything from her flame red-hair, her childlessness, her perceived feminism, and even her stark kitchen with an empty fruit bowl, the long-time warrior from Victoria’s Socialist Left faction is these days associated with some of the more liberal and even conservative decisions of the Rudd Government.
Regarded as too left-wing to be leader back in 2006, her pragmatic response was to lend her support, and the majority of the numbers needed, to the conservative and less internally popular Kevin Rudd. Thus the dream team ticket was born and Kim Beazley consigned to history.
As deputy leader, her election-year demolition of WorkChoices was a masterful display of focus, and targeted messaging.
But if left wing unions thought they had installed an ideological insider in the top of Rudd Government, they were wrong. Building unions in particular remain incensed that she has effectively retained the much-loathed building industry watchdog, albeit under a different name.
Even her replacement legislation for the despised WorkChoices laws has attracted left criticism for retaining too many aspects of the previous system.
Of course, the most dramatic recent example of the new Julia Gillard is the controversial My School website. Bringing transparency and enhancing consumer choice in the education sector hardly seems controversial in these times. Yet as we know, it would be difficult to overstate the offence it has caused among teachers - a key bloc of labour movement political power.
Faced with a choice between protecting those feelings or appealing to the mums and dads of suburban Australia, Ms Gillard didn’t hesitate.
While critics continue to portray her as a kind of godless feminist lefty, the reality is she has established herself in the centre-ground of Australian politics. She is now the undisputed successor to Rudd.
This is important because, ultimately, it is Kevin Rudd’s popularity with voters which keeps him where he is. If that changes, and it would be premature to conclude that is the case just yet, Kevin Rudd’s grip on the numbers in Caucus would also evaporate.
Put another way, very few Labor MPs are what you would call close to the PM. His currently unblemished support inside the party comes not from any deep conviction or personal ties but from his ability to deliver them unto office.
This is different from say John Howard, whose class of 1996 stuck with him lemming-like as he led them over a cliff. Kevin Rudd’s internal base by way of contrast, is better characterised as being a mile wide but only an inch deep.
And that shallowness may be about to be exposed. There are concerns that things are changing in voter-land.
MPs watched the PM’s awkward performance on the ABC’s Q & A on Monday night addressing young people with a degree of alarm. Twelve months ago he would have been treated as a star by the young audience.
But this time he quickly became just another politician. His inability to communicate simply - especially when invited to talk about the idealism of youth, which should have been a gimme for any visionary politician - ensured he lost the audience almost from the start.
There is now a palpable sense that the electoral mood is shifting. This is partly a result of the collapse of green politics - think Copenhagen, the defeat of emissions trading, embarrassing mistakes in the UN science. But it is also down to Tony Abbott whose approach has been to draw a straight line through middle-Australia to the Lodge and go straight at it.
He is having his own honeymoon and at this stage, the Government thinks it has Abbott’s measure. But in truth, it is banking on him making enough mistakes to shake confidence in him as an alternative.
It is already clear Kevin Rudd is hoping to make the 2010 poll a kind of re-run of the 2004 election. Back then, the incumbent PM, John Howard, declared the election to be about one thing: trust. It was extremely effective because once voters become unsure, they stick with the known - ie the incumbents - and with Mark Latham, well, it wasn’t hard to nurture those doubts.
That’s what all the attacks on Barnaby Joyce are really about - establishing the case that Abbott and his team are a risk. Risk is being mentioned a lot and will continue to be. It’s a fruitful line of attack because by any measure, the ill-disciplined Joyce is a political risk. Moreover, his selection for such a critical job does suggest Mr Abbott can get ahead of himself and over-do the whole boldness thing.
The more softly spoken Nick Minchin would have been far better, and would have given the under-powered economic team a deal more rigour - not to mention political experience. Abbott should make the change soon and put the issue behind him.
But risk can work both ways. The debacle of the home insulation program, and the fact that Kevin Rudd has spent some of his own trust account this week shoring up his minister, Peter Garrett, raises trust questions too. Questions like, who do you trust to manage big spending programs, and who do you trust to pay off debt?
The next few opinion polls will be critical. Labor is along way from panic stations just yet but if the gloss is coming off Kevin 07, some Labor MPs might begin to look for a new answer to the question of who do you trust to get you over the line? And they might start to answer, Julia Gillard.
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