Who are you Julia?
What does Julia Gillard believe in? Let’s start by considering her history as a guide.
Julia Gillard started her political career in student politics at the Labor Club at Adelaide University. After moving to Melbourne, she worked assiduously to rise to become the head of the peak student union body, the Australian Union of Students, by 1983. Unsurprisingly, given student Labor politics is largely characterised by more radical left-wing ideology than the mainstream Labor Party, Gillard was also secretary of the Socialist Forum at university. The parliamentary register of interests indicates that Gillard remained a member of this Forum until 2002, which included her first four years in Parliament.
Looking at this, you might be led to believe that Gillard strongly favours the left-side of politics. And it is true that Gillard had, at least up until 2009, been a member of the Labor Party’s left faction. But, in fact, when Gillard wrested power from Kevin Rudd earlier this year, she did so with the backing of the dominant right faction of the Labor Party, the hard left favouring Rudd.
A 2009 biography by Jacqueline Kent suggested that Gillard’s membership of the Left faction was “more organisational than ideological”. And in July 2010, eminent historian Ross Fitzgerald said, “… at least since last year Gillard has sought to reposition herself more towards the Labor Right”.
Perhaps the key to understanding Gillard is to be aware that she is a lawyer. Gillard has Laws and Arts degrees, and began work in 1987 with the legal firm Slater and Gordon, which was originally established by a Labor politician. She worked there in the field of industrial law and in 1990, aged just 29, she became a partner. She remained there until becoming chief of staff for the then Victorian opposition leader, John Brumby, in 1996.
It is a truism that to be a good lawyer, to win cases, it is essential to be able to argue all sides effectively. To become too emotionally involved in any one side of a case is dangerous since you might be arguing the other side next week. To be an effective lawyer, one needs to be a master debater.
Of course, Julia Gillard is regarded as being one of Australia’s foremost Parliamentary debaters. The Australian newspaper’s political editor Peter van Onselen has called her “the best parliamentary performer on the Labor side”. There is no doubt that she is a clever speaker and, perhaps even more importantly, has a teflon-like ability to withstand and deflect criticism. For example, despite the widespread criticism of the Government’s Building an Education Revolution scheme, implemented under her administration while Education Minister, Gillard seems to have accrued no blame for the disastrous implementation of this scheme whatsoever. And despite Gillard being Deputy Prime Minister and member of the so-called “gang of four” key ministers in the Rudd Government, Gillard appears to have been able to pin all the blame for the many failures and bungles in the previous Government squarely on former prime minister Kevin Rudd. It is a remarkable achievement.
In short, Julia Gillard is a consummate politician. Despite beginning her political career as a socialist, she now says she has always been a “fiscal conservative”. Despite being fully responsible for massive failures in her portfolio, she has walked away leaving a fragrant floral aroma drifting back behind in her wake.
So, what does Gillard really believe in these days? Probably not much.
“I came into politics predominantly to make a difference to opportunity questions; [and] particularly make a difference in education”, said Gillard recently while overseas, just after saying that “foreign policy is not my thing”. As an ex-head of the AUS, it is easy to believe she values education, but really it is hard to give much weight to this bland statement; virtually every prime minister describes education as being central to their administration’s goals. If nothing else, it is popular with the large number of voters who are also parents.
Another “opportunity issue” is industrial relations, which would seem to be Gillard’s area and, indeed, she was instrumental in rolling back the Howard Government Work Choices programme as Industrial Relations minister. But she seems to have lost touch with her union roots, since the new Fair Work Australia regime still retains many of the features of the one it replaced, including the union movement’s cause célèbre: the Australian Building & Construction Commission.
The other main “opportunity issues” would appear to be the issues of equality, especially the touchstone issues of gender and sexual preference. Gillard does not have a strongly expressed position on either issue. Regarding abortion, she is pro-choice but equivocates by saying she understands “the various moral positions”. With respect to gay marriage, she takes a notably unprogressive stance for an unmarried atheist, saying says does not support changing the Marriage Act because “marriage is between a man and a woman”.
She says she believes in climate change, but during the campaign she said she would establish a “Citizen’s Assembly” to consider the issue, thereby planning to defer any progress on perhaps the most pressing and controversial issue of our times for at least another year. These plans were, of course, short-lived because after the election she ditched this proposal and instead established a Parliamentary Committee to consider all options for fixing climate change. Of course, one of these options is a carbon tax, something she had specifically ruled out during the election. This change in policy was a cynical move made to bring the Greens on side and allow her to form Government.
On the main issue of national identity, the republic debate, she says is a republican, but that she isn’t isn’t interested in stimulating or providing leadership on the issue. Then, during the election campaign, she punted the idea into the never never by saying it shouldn’t happen until the Queen dies, whenever that might be.
It is hard to escape the conclusion that if Julia Gillard has any ideology, it comes from Essential Research, the Labor Party’s chief market research company. The ambivalent positions she publicly presents on climate change, foreign affairs and the republic, reflect the mixed feelings felt throughout the wider community. Similarly, her strong positions on education and asylum seekers – where she has signifcantly hardened the Government’s stance – are probably also a reflection of concerns expressed by punters to Essential.
In truth, it is hard to identify any area where Julia Gillard has been prepared to lead the debate and risk political capital because she believes a matter is of significant enough importance. Therefore, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that Gillard’s only motivation is to gain and retain power. To cynically find out what small groups of people behind glass windows tells researchers in market research sessions and then repeat those often trite observations back to the wider community ad nauseum “going forward”.
Unfortunately for Gillard, this uninspiring PR and poll driven small target politics – ”the NSW disease”, as it has become known – seems to rapidly be losing favour with the wider Australian community. Tony Abbott came to power with almost single figure approval ratings, but he managed to turn the Liberal’s fortunes around by presenting a strong and clear position on a range of issues. It was a move to the right, and a gamble, but it worked because the Australia people admire surety, clarity and leaders with the strength of their convictions. It was almost enough to gain him the prime ministership.
Australian voters deserted the Labor Party in droves at the last election and went over to the Greens because the Labor Party was dedicated to hugging the central position as expressed through market research. But this part of the bell curve has become thinner as Australian politics has become more polarised. Progressives are moving to the Greens and moderate conservatives are moving further to the right, hence the Labor positon almost became untenable and unelectable.
Gillard better start believing in something – or pretending to – and decide to lead rather than simply listen because, if she doesn’t, her single-minded pursuit of power for its own sake may cost her Government.
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