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Labor’s persuasion problem

9 September 2014

Was the Gillard government more competent than its critics claimed? Frank Bongiorno reviews a new appraisal


Competence is the least of it: a supporter of Julia Gillard in front of Parliament House a few days before she was replaced by Kevin Rudd. Alex Ellinghausen/Fairfaxphotos

Competence is the least of it: a supporter of Julia Gillard in front of Parliament House a few days before she was replaced by Kevin Rudd. Alex Ellinghausen/Fairfaxphotos

The Gillard Governments: Australian Commonwealth Administration 2010–2013
Edited by Chris Aulich | Melbourne University Press | $34.99

The angry white men haven’t softened in their attitudes to Julia Gillard. I recently found myself at an event that brought together in one morning a greater number of aged Tory men than I’d normally encounter in a decade, and in the company of a fellow described to me as a “clubman.” He told a group of us how much he’d enjoyed the beginning of the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption, at which Ralph Blewitt, an ex–Australian Workers’ Union bagman, had just testified. Blewitt was a man described as “a crook” by his own sister; Gillard herself called him a “complete imbecile” and a “sexist pig.” Our clubman, on the other hand, merely looked forward to the day when Gillard would be found guilty of a criminal offence and thrown in prison.

For the men like this, Gillard’s political demise is insufficient. She must be humiliated and criminalised. Only then, perhaps, will they be able to put behind them the dreadful, castrating experience of being governed by a female Labor prime minister.

News Limited is also clearly enjoying the royal commission, relishing the Abbott government’s willingness to put taxpayer dollars to work in a public-spirited quest to clean up the union movement by investigating a twenty-year-old scandal. Needless to say, no one at News, despite years of digging and many sensational headlines, has yet presented a scrap of evidence that points to criminality on Gillard’s part. Glenn Milne, a senior journalist at the Australian, managed only to trash his own reputation when he published a false claim that Gillard was living in a residence supposedly paid for by the embezzled gains of her then boyfriend. But according to Hedley Thomas, also of the Australian, and still in pursuit of Gillard, “the ABC and many in the Canberra press gallery chose to run a protection racket of the PM when these matters were in plain view.”

The sittings of the royal commission and the hysterical — as well as hopeful — response they have elicited from some journalists are a timely reminder of one of the salient features of recent Australian politics: the intense personal hatred that Gillard’s government and prime ministership evoked. The vivid, even pornographic, nature of many things said, written and published about Gillard since 2010 — some by men sufficiently well-placed in the media or politics to reach a large audience — means that more balanced and reasoned analysis of her government has so far been difficult to discern. This context affects the defence of Gillard, as well as attacks on her, for even sympathetic commentators have so far found it difficult to move beyond gender, personality and the rivalry with Kevin Rudd to explore more elusive matters of policy, administration and statecraft.

And so The Gillard Governments is to be welcomed as an early effort to provide a balanced assessment. It is about the Gillard governments — plural — because there were indeed two of them; one that extended over a few weeks in the middle of 2010, in the lead-up to an election in which Labor lost its majority; the other a more drawn-out business that ended with Kevin Rudd’s displacement of Gillard as prime minister in June 2013. The book also deals with the second Rudd government, whose lifespan was of similarly short duration to that of the first Gillard administration.

Largely (although not exclusively) the product of academics based at, or associated with, the University of Canberra, the book is the latest in a long-running series on Australian Commonwealth administration stretching back to the early 1980s. It’s more an essay collection than a coherent or comprehensive study; there are areas of government, such as health, Indigenous affairs and the arts, that are ignored or dealt with only in passing. In a chapter on the economy, Anne Garnett and Phil Lewis devote just one page to industrial relations and do little more than repeat the complaints of the Murdoch press and business lobby about lack of labour flexibility. Jenny Chesters’s account of the Gonski reforms reads at times a little like an extended government press release, yet she does make the telling point at the end that the Gillard government failed to present its National Plan for School Improvement in a way to persuade electors that fairer funding would help close the gap in student performance associated with socioeconomic status. The idea of education as a “race” in which Australia was falling behind, she suggests, was also unattractive to voters.

The Gillard government’s inability to present its policies as part of a “narrative” about where it was trying to take the country is a recurrent theme of the book. It figures in the chapter on climate change in which the authors, Andrew Macintosh and Richard Denniss, suggest that the government didn’t ever succeed in conveying to voters what it was trying to achieve. Did it want to reduce carbon emissions at the least cost possible? Or was it aiming to effect a rapid transition away from carbon-based energy generation towards clean energy? Some authors point to the continuities with previous governments, such as in rural and regional policy, with Linda Courtenay Botterill and Geoff Cockfield emphasising the resilient force of the agrarian myth — the special place of farming in the national psyche — alongside the seemingly inexorable shift to market liberalism and self-reliance. The themes of continuity and inheritance are also present in the chapter on the economy, where Garnett and Lewis show clearly enough that bad taxation policy under both Howard and Rudd has produced a major structural problem for governments on the revenue side; they’re simply not collecting enough tax to do the things voters expect them to do.

The Gillard government’s “chapter” in the sorry tale of Australian refugee policy is recounted by Mary Walsh, who reminds us that the Coalition couldn’t bring itself to support the Malaysian solution because it was “a cruel deal for boat people,” as Tony Abbott put it — thereby demonstrating, once and for all, that there is no shame in politics. At every moment in the tortured twists and turns over asylum-seeker policy during the Gillard years, the opposition’s actions were based on the quest to squeeze as much political advantage as possible from an issue that has always been a winner for it. It insisted on a Nauru-centred “Pacific Solution,” for instance, because that would have represented a symbolic capitulation by Labor to the offshore processing policy of the Howard era. The Coalition’s pretence of concern about drowning asylum seekers stands exposed as a complete sham by its unwillingness to countenance the Malaysian scheme when it had an opportunity to provide the government with bipartisan support. But the very last thing that the opposition wanted under a Labor government was a refugee policy that worked.

The aggression of the Abbott-led opposition towards the Gillard government lingers like a bad smell in virtually every chapter in the book. Yet Abbott’s style was poorly adapted to the challenges of dealing with the independents — Andrew Wilkie, Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott — whose support he needed to form government. His efforts were probably doomed from the start because even if he had been able to form such a government, he would have been sorely tempted to call an early election in the hope of turning a minority into a majority. The independents, having the balance of power, recognised this possibility, and wanted none of it.

Gillard’s interpersonal skills, moreover, were on display in her successful negotiations with the independents during those eventful seventeen days in 2010. Abbott’s inept handling of the same task might help explain why there is a persistent lack of confidence in his political judgement in Coalition ranks even after the 2013 election victory. He seems to have carried considerable bitterness out of this failure, which found expression in a political vocabulary that represented the Gillard government as illegitimate. It was not simply that its policies were wrong-headed, or that their implementation was incompetent; the government, Abbott implied, had no right to exist. Gillard’s integrity was impugned at every turn, an effort reinforced by the blatant anti-government campaigning of a large section of the media, Rudd’s strenuous efforts to undermine her leadership, and an undercurrent of sexism that eventually exploded into the bitter misogyny of the talkback radio airwaves and the blogosphere.

The gender issue — and especially its handling in the media — is explored by Sally Young and Matthew Ricketson. They place Gillard’s treatment in the context of the international literature on media sexism. In this telling, Gillard’s treatment was both “shocking” — because “it was frequently obscene and belittling” — and “predictable,” since it largely conformed to an international pattern in the media’s treatment of female political leaders.

It is a virtue of this book that its authors don’t allow themselves to become distracted by the immense noise that surrounded the government. Some 561 pieces of legislation were passed during Gillard’s prime ministership, many more than under the previous Rudd government, and even a few more than the last Howard government managed — and it had enjoyed a Senate majority. All of this occurred during a period in which Gillard was dependent on the support of the independents to get the government’s bills through the lower house, and on the Greens to pass the Senate.

The achievement is magnified by Abbott’s adversarialism, which saw half of all bills that went before the House of Representatives contested by the opposition. There is a valuable chapter in the book by Gwynneth Singleton exploring the government’s impressive legislative record, and another by Brenton Prosser and John Warhurst casting a cool eye over the contribution of the independents. It is suggested that they exercised only a moderate influence in shaping public policy and reforming the political process, and certainly far less than suggested by some of the loftier rhetoric and aspirations in the immediate aftermath of the 2010 election.

There are other favourable judgements in the book, such as Andrew Carr’s that “the Gillard government was less ambitious, more pragmatic and more successful than the Rudd government” in foreign and defence policies. The “Asian Century” initiative, he suggests, while never quite working as the narrative the government desperately needed, did help to draw together its policies across a range of areas. Carr finds more coherence, as well as “competent and professional administration,” in Gillard’s foreign policy, a field in which she had no great expertise, and for which she professed no particular passion at the time she came to office. In a chapter on the public service, meanwhile, Bill Burmester and John Halligan detect a welcome retreat from the policy-on-the-run of the Rudd government, and a more orderly approach to the public service and policy formulation. Yet the regular chopping and changing of departments and portfolios continued under Gillard. During the last year or so of the government, your average public servant couldn’t quite be sure who her minister would be when she arrived at work in the morning, any more than she could predict what her department might be called next week. The acronyms became increasingly comical, an alphabet soup of government fickleness.

The broad impression I gained from the efforts of these scholars to evaluate the performance of the government and its prime minister was of a mediocre outfit that scored some limited policy successes but which invariably failed to capitalise politically on its modest achievements. Its economic management was uninspiring, and especially so its foolish promise of a budget surplus it was unlikely ever to be able to deliver. Here, it admittedly inherited a large deficit from the global financial crisis and the Rudd government’s efforts to deal with it through stimulus spending.

Some of its other initiatives, such as the mining and carbon taxes, were poorly designed and unable to achieve their goals. Gillard, of course, suffered politically from the perception that she had promised not to introduce a carbon tax and had then gone ahead and done so under pressure from the Greens. But political failure and policy failure went hand in hand; poorly designed taxes could not deliver revenue that the government needed for its spending initiatives and to bring the budget back to surplus. The government was again, in these areas, to some extent a captive of the gross political and administrative failures of its predecessor (of which Gillard was, of course, a leading member), yet the Gillard government’s efforts to deal with the fall-out of the Rudd government were hampered by the new and difficult political circumstances following the 2010 election.

Above all, the government seemed unable to persuade enough people that it was doing a good job, even when it was, in fact, doing a pretty good job. Perhaps the fairest judgement is delivered in the book’s final chapter by Mark Evans and Brendan McCaffrie: “governments can be more competent than they appear.” It is in this insight that some of the origins of the present government’s problems lie. Just as Tony Abbott sought to assail the Gillard government’s competence through smart-aleck comparisons with the Whitlam government (“I used to think it was the worst government since Whitlam, but that is very unfair to Gough Whitlam”), the wheel is already turning as Abbott’s government plunges in the polls and lurches from one political disaster barely in time to mismanage the next.

But the issue of competence is the least of it. Having implied through his unrelenting condemnation of Gillard that a Coalition government would uphold the very highest standards, in the aftermath of the 2014 budget he now finds himself accused of brazen dishonesty and low cynicism. And once negative impressions of this kind take hold, they have a tendency to cling to you like a limpet to a rock. Just ask Julia Gillard. •

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None of the above: former British PM Gordon Brown speaks during a “No” rally in Glasgow last Friday. Andy Rain/EPA

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