Julia Gillard is shaking this election campaign up and unleashing the “real Julia”, who has apparently been trapped by stage-managed press appearances and perfect sound-bites. Her first new Real Julia policy announcement focused on education, the essential Gillard portfolio.

But how exactly does Real Julia compare to old/fake Julia? The commentariat seem collectively unimpressed.

Getting real? Michelle Grattan is rolling her eyes: “As Julia might say, ‘give us a break’.”

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Less talk more action, pleads Niki Savva in The Australian: “It’s all very risky and messy to admit more than two weeks into a campaign that you have mucked up everything and haven’t been yourself but someone else, and it’s time to start over again. It would have been better if she had just done it rather than talked about it.”

Phillip Coorey is tiring of the apologies. “Changing strategy is one thing. Telling the world about it is another. It is the third time the government has apologised for itself this year,” he writes in the Sydney Morning Herald.

We’ve reached an important moment in Australian political history, says Annabel Crabb: re-enacting scenes from The West Wing. “After six weeks of Ms Gillard’s prime ministership, after a repetitive feast of ‘moving forwards’ and ‘more governing to do’ and ‘a good government that lost its way’, we have finally arrived at: ‘Let Gillard be Gillard’,” writes Crabb.

But Gillard desperately needed to get real. “It was what she had to do as leader. It’s her job, her future. And she’s facing the prospect of being reduced to a novelty prime minister in history, while her party could be out of office for years,” writes Dennis Shanahan in The Oz.

What does ‘real’ mean, asks Grattan in The Age? “Well, she did yesterday sound a bit rougher in accent than earlier in the campaign, and perhaps looked a little less buffed.”

According to Families Minister Jenny Macklin, “the real Julia likes to hug school kids,” says Dennis Atkins in The Courier-Mail.

Who was Julia beforehand? “For the first half of the election campaign, in short, there had been a Fake Julia flying around the country, the puppet of behind-the-scenes strategists,” writes Tony Wright in The Age.

Abbott is freaking out, says Malcolm Farr: “He’s looked actually frightened when he has fronted cameras, terrified he might start sounding like Tony Abbott. If the real Gillard turns up, maybe a genuine Abbott will appear,” writes Farr in The Daily Telegraph.

Voters need to look past ‘real Julia’ to see the real issues, says Jennifer Hewett: “…beyond the battle of personalities, the empty rhetoric over issues like sustainable population and the desperate appeals to swinging voters, there actually are some major policy differences between the parties.”

While previously Gillard was against having more than one leaders’ debate, it seems Real Julia supports them. Gillard accepted an invited from the Seven Network to have a debate on Sunday night. “I’d be happy to be in it. I want it to be about the economy. That’s at the centre of this campaign — jobs, the cost of living, the investments we need to make for the future,” said Gillard.

However, that is the night of the Liberal Party campaign launch, which of course Abbott must attend. Abbott seemed unimpressed by Gillard’s turnaround: “The prime minister repeatedly refused to have the three debates Labor committed to when she was ahead in the polls… I don’t see why I should abandon plans to visit electorates around Australia because the prime minister’s campaign is in trouble and she now thinks that she might be able to rescue it by personally targeted attacks.”

A debate on the economy makes for a welcome change, says a grateful Lenore Taylor: “The government will use an interest rate rise that won’t happen to talk about a recession that didn’t happen because of its stimulus policies during the global financial crisis and the thousands of jobs that weren’t lost.”

Perhaps it’s not surprising that Labor wants to debate the Coalition on the economy. According to The Australian‘s George Megalogenis: “The Coalition’s election costings documents have holes in them that would not have survived the policy-focused debates of the late 1980s and early 90s. This isn’t the media’s fault, by the way, but Labor’s. Only strong governments can make the opposition the issue.”

Gillard is moving the focus back to her old stomping ground of education. Under a Labor government school principals will be more autonomous, controlling the hiring of staff, budgets and funding allocations of their school.

It’s a smart move following on from the MySchool website, where “principals felt stung at having all responsibility and no power”, writes Justine Ferrari in The Oz. “Granting schools greater autonomy is the missing link in Julia Gillard’s education revolution.”

It’s no surprise Real Julia concentrates on education, because “when histories of school education reform are written, a whole chapter will need to be devoted to Julia Gillard,” writes Jennifer Buckingham in The Oz. “Not all of it will be glowing — the Building the Education Revolution program is a low point — but it cannot be denied that the prime minster is a reformer who has made headway in tackling education policy.”

The Oz editorial cleverly supports Gillard’s Empowering Local Schools program, while dissing most of her policies: “Labor, while taking Australia backwards in most spheres of government, including industrial relations under Ms Gillard, service delivery, protectionism and stalling on economic reform, has a good record of reforming education.”

Let’s not rush to applaud her, says Kevin Donnelly in The Oz:

“…Gillard’s record as minister for education proves that her epiphany is more about political opportunism than conviction.

“It also smacks of catch-up politics when the ALP releases a policy giving principals power over their schools just weeks after the Tony Abbott-led opposition promised to give school leaders control over school infrastructure spending — a policy condemned by federal Education Minister Simon Crean. During Gillard’s time in charge of education, even though schools are a state’s responsibility and the commonwealth government neither employs teachers nor manages schools, all roads led to Canberra and, as a result, classrooms have been paralysed by a command-and-control model of education.”

Speaking of Abbott, who seems remarkably absent from much of the media commentary; Tim Colebatch says in The Age that Abbott has changed dramatically since becoming opposition leader. The straight talking, honest Abbott has disappeared and “instead, we now have Abbott the populist, who tells swinging voters whatever they want to hear”:

“Day after day, the man who was such a creative wordsmith now repeats mind-numbing mantras such as ‘great big new tax’. He is now focused solely on winning votes. And to do so, he has dumped policy after policy he supported when he was guided by principle.”

At least we’re talking about policy again.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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