Happy anniversary Julia Gillard. But you’ve still got a lot of work to do

Julia Gillard became Prime Minister on June 24th 2010. AAP/Alan Porritt

In the dying days of his own government, Gough Whitlam observed that Labor’s role in opposition was to win public support for the need for change, thereby raising expectations that would inevitably fail to be completely met in government.

That was true of the Rudd government and it is a legacy of disappointed expectations that the Gillard government has inherited.

There are many questions that can be asked about the Gillard government’s performance one year in. Arguably her and her supporters’ mistakes began with avoiding a caucus vote to demonstrate Rudd’s lack of support and with the botched explanations of the coup against him (whether he should have been replaced then is another question).

Strategic mistakes

Subsequent possible strategic mistakes include the timing of the 2010 election, the “real” Julia, the East Timor “solution”, plus the timing of announcements over the Malaysian “solution”, the carbon price and the advertisements supporting it.

Perhaps critics are right and Gillard really is a better parliamentary debater than policy implementer.

Selling the message

However, Labor’s key failing, in terms of being a successful government, has been its inability to continue to sell its case for change.

Indeed, one sometimes wonders if Labor would have won the 2007 election if the Howard government had not been so obviously past its use-by date and if the ACTU hadn’t run the campaign against Work Choices while Al Gore prosecuted the case on climate change.

Despite being in a so-called “age of spin”, Labor seems incapable of getting its basic messages across and Gillard has inherited the problem.

In the 2010 campaign Labor seemed unable to counter Abbott by conveying what an extraordinarily small percentage of GDP Australia’s government debt is compared with that of other key western countries. They didn’t explain that it was Abbott himself who had blocked action on climate change.

Failing to convey green policies

More recently, the Gillard government has seemed unable to convey its basic arguments. They haven’t argued successfully that carbon-dioxide contributes to climate change by trapping heat, or how a carbon price will change polluters’ behaviour. And they simply haven’t got the message across that only a small number of businesses and not the general public will be directly “taxed”. The public doesn’t seem to know about the compensation packages it will offer ordinary Australian households to compensate for carbon price cost flow-ons.

Indeed, the Gillard government has repeatedly failed to challenge how the opposition frames issues. Allowing a carbon price leading to an emissions trading scheme to be framed as a tax is a major example.

Splits and supporters

The government’s task is also made harder by socially conservative Labor politicians whose statements repeatedly reinforce Howard’s and Abbott‘s own framing of a split in Labor’s constituency. They highlight the difference between traditional working class voters’ concerns and the so-called inner-city, tertiary educated elite’s progressive social issues.

Labor has failed to convey that the Australian working class also contains women, refugees, immigrants and gay people.

Indeed, women, migrants and refugees are often amongst the most vulnerable of the workers which unions represent. And many unions have policies protecting gay and lesbian employees against workplace discrimination.

At least the Gillard government is finally facilitating a pay increase for low-paid female-dominated jobs.

Articulate your arguments

Above all, Labor has failed to adequately sell its argument that climate change will impact on working class lives and employment. They haven’t persuaded voters that Labor’s move to a modern, greener economy is designed to provide the jobs of the future, while transitional compensation packages protect present jobs.

The government hasn’t sold the message that climate change has been a Labor concern (not just a Greens’ one) since Bob Hawke’s day.

Relying on government-funded advertising campaigns, or hoping that Australian voters will discover the truth once (or if) a carbon price is introduced, risks leaving things terminally late.

Simple, catchy messages that cut through need to be relentlessly repeated by the PM and other Labor politicians now (learn from the master, Tony Abbott).

Opposition (official or otherwise)

Julia Gillard doesn’t just have Tony Abbott to deal with, but her own ability to get her government’s message across too. AFP/William West.

Admittedly the Gillard government has often faced a hostile national press. However, that doesn’t explain why Labor has repeatedly reinforced, rather than challenged, Liberal framings of issues.

Nonetheless, this failing goes back to Kim Beazley’s capitulation to Howard’s Culture War strategies.

Gillard is merely continuing a longstanding Labor tradition of appeasement. Her previous arguments regarding the culture wars, her subsequent dog-whistling on immigration issues during the 2010 election and her current policies on refugees reveal this.

Labor has done little to explain the horrors that asylum seekers are fleeing and has to bear some responsibility for both the lack of compassion and the electoral consequences that result.

A central narrative

Yet, accusations that the Gillard government has no central narrative are incorrect.

Just as Gillard’s underlying response to Liberal Culture Wars scare campaigns shows consistency, so does her basic reform programme.

Gillard has long argued for skills training and educational opportunity as the key to equity and for government to provide necessary infrastructure (such as fast broadband).

As PM, Gillard has also set out key policy agendas about ensuring that Australia is not just a mine for India and China but has a developed, technologically sophisticated, low emissions, 21st century economy.

Gillard also recognises the need to deal with a patchwork economy in which the very success of the resources industry has costs for other sectors of the economy and the nation.

The real vision

She does have a clear vision for the future. However, as Gough Whitlam also pointed out: “The way of the reformer is hard in Australia.”

Many issues are perhaps being unfairly sheeted home to Gillard personally as leader when they involve the government as a whole or reflect longstanding Labor problems.

After all, the Gillard government faces many of the barriers which previous Labor governments have faced. She faces opposition from business organisations, a hostile media and an obstructive opposition that will stop at nothing to derail the government (including playing the gender card against Gillard).

Hawke and Keating were lucky in that they had significant Liberal support for their economic rationalist reforms.

Keep your friends and enemies close

Gillard Labor also faces a difficult relationship with the Greens — who often combine uncompromisingly high principles with skilful electoral opportunism.

After all, who can say how different Australian politics would be now if the Greens had agreed to pass Rudd’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme with the support of the two Liberals who crossed the Senate floor?

But then Gillard might not be Prime Minister. Her chances to remain Prime Minister will be significantly influenced by her ability to retain the personal support of the Greens and the three key independents for her leadership.

After all, her greatest success was in negotiating the formation of not just a minority government but also of her own prime ministership in the process.

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