The Prime Minister’s speech yesterday was reminiscent of John Howard in his glory days.

That’s not, or not especially, a reflection on its content or a snipe at Gillard. Until voters literally switched off him in 2006, John Howard had a talent for communicating effectively with mainstream Australia, reflecting middle Australia’s values back at them, couched in language they understood and reflexively agreed with. He had plenty of help from Crosby Textor’s polling to achieve this feat, but part of it was instinctive, born of his long political experience and his own quest for a workable political identity. His famous line in the 1980s was “the times will suit me” but in fact Howard changed himself to better fit the times.

Kevin Rudd was, briefly, also adept at this, but it was always more studied, less natural than his predecessor, as though it was another of his many political personalities adapted for each occasion, and it slowly gave way to a communication style that mixed equal parts crass media management and verbiage.

Julia Gillard is already showing that she can effortlessly match Howard in her capacity to articulate mainstream concerns. Like Howard, she cannily played the free speech card.  The idea that Australians were somehow holding back in their views on asylum seekers, constrained by vague notions of what was politically correct, is no more true now than it was in the mid-1990s when John Howard cast himself as the liberator of Australians’ right to express themselves however they liked.

Nevertheless, it’s always a good look to portray yourself in such a light, even if the mainstream media in this country works to ensure that views that might actually jar with conventional narratives are kept tightly under wraps.

That wasn’t the only straw man set up to be knocked down by Julia Gillard. In fact she started yesterday with two of them, in effect declaring her intention to set her course through the middle between the two poles of the asylum seeker debate, Julian Burnside’s contempt for ordinary voters and Tony Abbott’s indecency and “evil”. Both, she suggested, were unAustralian — Burnside in labelling his fellow-Australians as racists, Abbott for in effect suggesting we let women and children drown, or at least endanger our Defence personnel, as part of a “turn back the boats” policy. “Our nation would not leave children to drown,” Gillard said, presumably contrasting us with other countries where children would indeed be left to drown. “We are Australians and our values will never allow us to embrace this kind of evil.”

To the extent that she has caught Tony Abbott out in his absurd claim that he would turn back the boats — albeit with the giant asterisk “where possible” — Gillard was correct to emphasise the point, but her real intention was to lock herself into the middle of the mainstream and portray her political opponents — her literal opponent in Abbott, and her opponents on the Left in the form of Burnside — as raving, unAustralian extremists, who lack legitimacy in national debate.

In fact, much of yesterday’s speech was a merry gathering of straw men. She offered as basic principles:

That hardworking Australians who themselves are doing it tough want to know that refugees allowed to settle here are not singled out for special treatment; that people like my own parents who have worked hard all their lives can’t abide the idea that others might get an inside track to special privileges.

No wonder Alan Jones likes Gillard. You almost expected her to refer to Struggle Street. No amount of evidence will ever convince those fervent forwarders of chain emails about refugees making a motza from taxpayer handouts that it is not the case. Like much of the asylum seeker debate, these beliefs exist at a sub-rational level. Instead, Gillard co-opted them, almost legitimising them by suggesting – without any of what her predecessor would have called “detailed programmatic specificity” — that she would take action to eliminate any “special privileges”.

In fact, by the end of her speech, the commitment to wipe out such privileges had morphed into a version of mutual obligation.  “The rules are the rules. We will ensure refugees shoulder the same obligations as Australians generally.”

It was values that Gillard ended on, “values that Australians share – values of fairness, respect for the rule of law, tolerance, compassion and responsibility.”

I speak today cognisant and proud of these values, and before the end of this year I will seek our people’s endorsement so that we may all move forward together.

Our new Prime Minister doesn’t just speak more clearly than her predecessor — and that’s not much of a challenge anyway. Instead she’s co-opting what Australians think of as their core values and making them a central part of her bid for election. She’s communicating with deadly intent.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey