Sunday 21 August 2011

Snakes and ladders of Australian politics

PM's twin crises of legitimacy

20 Aug, 2011 12:00 AM

FACING OFF: Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Opposition Leader Tony Abbott during question time at Parliament House. Photo: ALEX ELLINGHAUSEN

FACING OFF: Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Opposition Leader
Tony Abbott during question time at Parliament House.

Julia Gillard must greet the first anniversary of the last election tomorrow wondering whether it was all worth it, and whether there is any chance at all of her being re-elected two years hence.

She has worked very hard, but she has struggled. Struggled for legitimacy in the eyes of an electorate whose suspicions of her focus on the manner of her vanquishing of Kevin Rudd nearly 14 months ago. Struggling too for another form of legitimacy among those who think that she did not deserve to be prime minister after the last election, and that she holds power by a trick.

There is a sexist edge to some of the things which people say about her and against her, but she is far from the first prime minister to be an object of deep hatred. Mostly victims are Tories. Public hatred of Malcolm Fraser, by about 20per cent of voters, from the time he downed Gough Whitlam in November 1975, was visceral - far angrier than of Gillard now. The pleasure some of those haters felt at his downfall in March 1983 will ever, I think, exceed any pleasure at the demise of Gillard, if that happens.
John Howard was likewise loathed by some and under-estimated by more, and some were forever deeply indignant that he held power, and could think only that it was by some sort of incapacitating fraud. For many it was an echo of Paul Keating, whose obvious melancholia was not so much disappointment that he was ultimately beaten, but shame, embarrassment and hurt that he had been rejected for someone he had so long underestimated and too much despised.
Some people, obviously, dislike Gillard deeply, if unfairly. Nothing that she can do can satisfy them. Any chink in her armour - including the opportunity to speculate about her private life - causes deep pleasure.
In a sense, however, it's not personal. Or really personal. It's that some people feel she should not be there. They feel instead that Kevin Rudd should be there. Or that Tony Abbott should be. Whichever - or both - she's an imposter in the wrong place and at the wrong time.

In this month's Independent magazine, Annabel Crabb - once of the Sydney Morning Herald, now of the Drum, an online ABC production - does better, I think, than anyone else in explaining her legitimacy problem. Especially so far as Rudd is concerned.
The polls still indicate that Rudd would make a more popular prime minister than Gillard - and that a return to him by caucus would cause an immediate rise in Labor's standing at the polls. Were an election to be held soon, the Liberals might still win, but, the polls indicate, the size of the debacle for Labor would not be so great.
With Labor able to hold an election at any time up to October 2013, it could still hope to retrieve its position. A return to Rudd might also increase the many difficulties being faced by the Leader of the Opposition, Tony Abbott. The same polls which show the Liberals well ahead of Labor show that Abbott is more unpopular with voters than his party is, and they suggest that the Liberals would do even better with Malcolm Turnbull.
 Abbott did a fabulous job in putting Labor on the ropes before the last election and he has done a good job since in holding Labor back, in making a change of government next time about seem inevitable.
Not only has he dominated the political agenda, but he has wreaked great damage on Labor confidence and in undermining any respect for Labor competence. Yet there are many in the electorate, and many in his own party, who doubt that Abbott is capable of governing, capable of steady and calm leadership and policy formation, or likely to hold for long the public's confidence as the leader of the country. His own peers worry that he is too erratic, too opportunistic and unprincipled, and too undisciplined. A few worry too that he at heart is too extreme - though that, so far, has not prevented a very pragmatic pragmatism.

But there is not much chance of Rudd's returning, and even less, I should think, of Turnbull's getting back into the leadership before an election. Caucus may respect Rudd's affinity with the electorate (or some of it), and may by now understand that some parts of his infuriating personality and manner of running things actually clicked with voters.
Yet they also remember the bad bits all too well, and understand all too well how much he had lost the plot by the time he was deposed. Perhaps, with all the wisdom of hindsight, they might regret the speed and ugliness of his assassination, the impression created that it was the work of party thugs, and, particularly, the way in which the changeover saw a relatively blameless Gillard splattered with Rudd's blood, unable, because of it, to disarm, to woo, to charm, or even to explain.
Crabb explains particularly well Labor's dilemma - that one cannot explain why without damaging the party even more than it is already damaged, without attacking and demeaning some first-term achievements, and without deeply undermining the collective responsibility shared by the whole cabinet, the whole ministry, the whole caucus and the whole party for the uncontrollable monster that Rudd had become.
And that's without having to put into any calculation the likelihood that if the truth were told - and if criticism, right or wrong, were made of Rudd - there would almost certainly be further damage as Rudd, or anonymous leakers, or both further undermined Gillard and the present Government. Or - just as bad - flounced off, leaving Labor to face a by-election that would probably see a change of government.

There are many things the Rudd government did well, or seemed to do well. But Gillard does not get much credit from voters for them - certainly not for the Apology, for good and calm management of the economy through a terrible crisis, or for considerable reinvestment in the national infrastructure, including schools. In some senses, Gillard does not even get public credit for the restoration of the industrial relations system, though that was particularly her achievement.
Gillard figures well - and enhanced her reputation as the loyal number two, indeed as a loyal deputy who when temporarily in charge could clear some logjams caused by Rudd. But she was not there long enough or prominently enough for the public to feel that they really knew her - and so, when people try to find things to know her by, they tend to fix on the coup, the assassination, the abrupt and unheralded process by which, without any public consultation, the man selected by the Australian people was thrown out and replaced by someone we'd scarcely heard off.
That made her an upstart, a usurper, and, with some judicious leaking during the election campaign, a person even on the back foot with the Australian people. All the more so when there was - as there continues to be - so much focus on the ''real Julia'' and its obvious counterpart - the seemingly unsellable unconvincing fake Julia. Old strengths - acquired in mastering briefs and acting for clients - have seemed credible when she herself has been the client.
So far as convincing the public that she is the real Labor leader is concerned, Gillard seems doomed if she does and doomed if she doesn't. All the more so, one might think, when her critics can say that her right to sit either in that position, or in the prime minister's chair, was not confirmed by the electors on August 21 last year. Labor had a majority, and, when it was all over, was three short of a majority. The Government was rejected by the people. It lost its right to govern - or so Tony Abbott says.

True, Tony Abbott did not win a any more seats himself. Instead voters chose six people - four independents, one independently-minded Western Australian National, and one Green in the balance of power.
As Abbott argues it, and as many inclined to see a coalition government as the natural order of things see it, at least four of these six come essentially from the coalition side of politics, even if they have proven themselves less than completely delirious about the coalition parties. That Gillard, not Abbott, was able to win the affections of four of the six may give her the legal power to govern. But Abbott, in his rage and frustration, has created the impression that he has never accepted that she has the moral right, or the political mandate, to govern.
By this theory, she's an imposter, a usurper. He's the rightful king, and while the Crown is withheld from him, he has every right to behave not as the leader of Her Majesty's loyal Opposition, but as the Pretender, the plotter, the wrecker, and the seditionist.
It's been a long tantrum, and, so far, a very successful one. Fourteen months in, Gillard has still not convinced some of the electorate that she has any right to be in the Lodge. On Monday, one will see further evidence, from orchestrated ''crusades'' into Canberra, of her struggle for acceptance. Yet there are signs too that suggest the worth of holding her nerve. Abbott needs people power to win the next election, not to overturn the result of the last one.
The difference, if Gillard sets the agenda, rather than responding to his, is her best chance of seeing him out.

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