Apr 4, 2011

Gillard’s extraordinary ordinary

There was a great deal we’d heard before in last week’s Whitlam Institute much-debated speech by the Prime Minister. In fact, we’ve been in this grimly Spartan territory on several previous occasions.

Bernard Keane — Politics editor

Bernard Keane

Politics editor

There was a great deal we’d heard before in last week’s Whitlam Institute much-debated speech by the Prime Minister. In fact, we’ve been in this grimly Spartan territory on several previous occasions. We already knew, for example, that Gillard was an almost Thatcherite proselytiser for the virtues of hard work. The phrase comes instinctively to her lips, either about her own government or about what the rest of us should be doing. And you sense the Prime Minister believes the value of work lies entirely in its moral invigoration, rather than extraneous details such as financial reward. As part of this, she is particularly taken with the notion not just of working hard, but of rising early to do so. In her first media conference as Prime Minister last June, she first spoke of Australians who "set their alarm clocks early". The line has recurred several times since, and featured prominently in her election campaign launch speech, when she spoke of how "it can be tough getting up every morning and going to work, setting the alarm clock early, getting the kids out to school". Virtually the same sentence cropped up last week. Since Gillard first used it, the phrase has been appropriated by British deputy PM Nick Clegg, who must get up very early indeed such is the vigour with which he is destroying the Liberal Democrat Party. Clegg pitched the coalition government and its budget cuts to "alarm clock Britain" in January, accused Labour leader Ed Milliband of "hiding under his duvet", and even strayed into Python territory by elaborating on a sort of hierarchy of early risers, lauding those who had to "set the alarm incredibly early", doing jobs "long before it’s even light". Luxury. Gillard also shares Labor’s belief in the virtue of manual labour. This is not unrelated to the continuing powerful role of manufacturing unions and conservative right-wing unions such as the SDA in the Party. But it’s ideological, too, or perhaps theological. The conviction that work yielding some form of physical output is ennobling and somehow superior to the "McJobs" of service industries has persisted even as the service economy has supercharged job creation since the 1980s. When Kevin Rudd declared that he didn’t want to be Prime Minister of a country that didn’t make things, he was placing himself right in the machine-beat heart of Labor tradition. His government was the most protectionist since Malcolm Fraser’s, and fetishised "tradies", a word uttered almost reflexively by Rudd, Gillard and Wayne Swan. While the Prime Minister didn’t use that word last week, it was "brickies" with whom she contrasted those sinister socialites. And it was manual labourers that Gillard invoked in explaining Labor’s central tenet of fairness in opportunity (who, one wonders, is in favour of unfairness of opportunity?) "From the moment of our inception our mission has been to enable the son of the labourer, the daughter of the cleaner, to have access to same the opportunities in life as the son of the millionaire, the daughter of the lawyer." The contrast between those examples fits, calloused hand-in-glove, with Gillard’s contrast between Labor and the Greens, (a party notoriously made up of service industry professionals such as teachers). They, Gillard insists, "will never embrace Labor’s delight at sharing the values of every day Australians, in our cities, suburbs, towns and bush, who day after day do the right thing, leading purposeful and dignified lives, driven by love of family and nation". Do the right thing. This sort of politico-moral cartography (and don’t you like Gillard’s nicely traditional geographic progression, from urban degradation to the purity of the bush) is peculiar in a speech reflecting on Labor history. Kim Beazley snr might have contrasted the "cream of the working class" with the "dregs of the middle class" -- indeed, that’s another, more succinct phrasing of Gillard’s speech -- but Labor has not, for generations, been a party for "tradies" alone. Urban, tertiary-educated, non-labouring voters have long formed a strong component of Labor, either via white-collar unions or via progressive non-union sections of the party. But historical or contemporary accuracy is not the point; the contrast is intended to reinforce the Labor brand by appealing to people’s sense of self, and the holiness of manual labour isn’t to be found at a workstation. While she is keen to distance Labor from the Greens, Gillard’s language is primarily designed to induce nods of self-identification from voters, from those who instinctively identify with "setting the alarm early" and "everyday Australians", who think they work hard, do it tough and don’t get their fair share. For the same reason, Labor flogged "working families" to death under Kevin Rudd, hoping everyone who heard it would self-select into that group. It’s language designed to appeal to people’s self-perceptions, their belief that they, too, are "driven by love of family and nation", in contrast to the construct of the lazy, the intellectual, the late risers, the non-conformists. Those who fail to Do The Right Thing. The problem for Labor is, the Coalition does this much better, because it has far more experience of defining and exploiting constructs for voters to define themselves against. At the moment, for example, both sides are targeting welfare reform. It’s an area ripe for the Prime Minister’s up-and-at-'em schtick, justifying it as about productivity and participation and the personal psychological benefits of employment. For many voters, though, and undoubtedly for party strategists, this is in essence about dole bludgers and people faking disability. And that’s the Coalition’s home territory, like its targeting of asylum seekers and Muslims. The Coalition is much more effective than Labor at constructing stereotypes for voters to define themselves against. Labor has occasionally tried to exploit asylum seeker stereotypes but its heart hasn’t been in it; instead, Rudd tried to whip up public anger against people traffickers as a diversionary tactic. Gillard settled for giving Australians official permissions to worry about asylum seekers. Trying to identify yourself with mainstream voters and values is hardly a new political trick. But the entirety of Australian political discourse now consists of our major party leaders pandering to voters’ conviction that they’re ordinary everyday heroes, a race-to-the-bottom-kissing between two parties desperate to explain to voters how wonderful they are and how they deserve a better deal. The same mentality informs the bipartisan pandering to voters’ conviction they face outrageous cost of living pressures or "mortgage stress", when the real pressure in a low-inflation, high-employment economy is self-induced pressure brought about by lifestyle choices. Still, this is what relying on focus groups gets you: two parties competing to find creative ways to reflect back at voters what voters themselves think. Political discourse was once much more than this. The Hawke, Keating and early Howard governments treated voters, to use Gillard’s praise of Gough Whitlam, like adults, capable of thinking beyond the next five minutes, capable of understanding more complex concepts than the malevolence of a carefully crafted, unAustralian other, capable of supporting economic reform that might have initial costs but would yield long-term benefits. Australians were receptive to such discourse, too. The reform wave of the 1980s was coupled with a sense of urgency, that Australia was slipping behind, that it had no choice but to open to the world if it wanted to halt the slide in its economic performance. Paul Keating’s deliberately alarmist "banana republic" line jolted the commentariat and voters and laid the groundwork for further rounds of major reform.  After two decades of economic growth and, now, a vast resources boom, there’s no longer such an accommodating public mood. The job of selling reform is accordingly that much harder. For a politician such as Tony Abbott, whose policy platform consists almost entirely of what he opposes -- no mining tax, no action on climate change, no asylum seekers, no NBN, no sturdy beggars and faking disability pensioners, indeed not even any industrial relations reform -- this is a perfect political environment, because he has no positive action to sell voters on. The political message of pandering, of explaining at length to voters how wonderful they are and how terrible people unlike them are, actively undermines the idea that there are significant reforms requiring support. Labor, on the other hand, still has something left of a positive agenda of which it has to convince voters. But its efforts to sell the need for a carbon price or an NBN or a mining tax run counter to a political debate crafted entirely in terms of just how extraordinary ordinary Australians are. What’s the pressing case for change when, by the government’s own Panglossian lights, Australians are quite perfect already?

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69 thoughts on “Gillard’s extraordinary ordinary

  1. shepherdmarilyn

    Why do the media continue on this line that policy has to be “sold” to anyone. It is mooted, drafted, sent to committees if necessary, debated in both houses and if the numbers fall the right way on both sides of the floor it gets the nod.

    They don’t try to sell education changes or anything else and the punters have zero say in the taxes they pay so why do taxes on mining moguls have to be sold and why does infrastructure have to be “sold”.

    It’s all a bit precious really.

    The claim is always that Howard sold the GST, but he didn’t. He actually lost the vote on the 1998 election by quite a margin because the punters didn’t want the GST. The Democrats though voted for it without fresh food and it passed.

    The Democrats as a party were destroyed.

    The So-called carbon tax is paid by the big polluters, the morons waving their stupid banners would know that if they bothered to read more than the tabloid hacks.

    And as for Gillards’ cheap shot a the Greens.

    Sarah is a young woman from Gippsland, a lawyer, properly married with one daughter who worked for Amnesty INternational while completing her law degree. She helped tear down the walls of Woomera when she was 19, campaigned for refugee rights in the streets with me at 20, marched against the Iraq invasion and has a strong moral position on human rights in the tradition of Doc Evatt and his universal declaration of human rights. So do the other Greens who continue to work tirelessly for no nukes, the environment, no refugee prisons, no wars, the rights of aborigines, gays and other minorities and they do it with a quarter of the resoources and staff of the main parties.

    Gillard is a lawyer, unmarried, childless, has indulged with at least one married man, has a live in lover and no appeal ever to human rights, she stifled the ETS and now says it is imperative, stabbed Rudd in the back and has never done as well as he did with the vision thing and for fuck’s sake she allowed armed cops to shoot at refugees.

  2. [email protected]

    When you reflect upon the fact in the news today that 8 million of us are bordering on the ‘Ignoarance is Bliss’ state, where there is no need anymore to be numerate or literate, or to even be able to hold a pen and put it to paper legibly, then you can sort of see where the PM is trying to come from and go to. These people are voters too, even though they be not like you or I. They actually might positively identify with the characterisation the PM was trying to reflect. To them Life IS Work, and Work IS Life, except on the weekend when you play sport, have a BBQ or go to the Club. These people are increasingly defined by who they are in their little world of work and family, and the PM, I think, gets that, and is trying, if somewhat clumsily, to say that they are important to the ALP, it is just not a party for the Latte Left and the Unions, they don’t exclusively belong to the Coalition, and if you follow the ALP they will actually look after your interests better than the Coalition, who, at the end of the day, despite their superior ability to appeal to these people and their prejudices, are not on their side in a clinch like Labor are.

  3. Had Enough

    Cool winds of change are blowing through the ALP corridors. The public anger over carbon tax, the issues with NBN and the likely blow out, the trust starting to emerge over the BER, the massive issues with illegal immigrants, the increases at Australia Post (18% in 20 months) and its impact on small business parcel services.

    The wheels are falling off.

    Now reports today that we wont be cutting foreign aid, so as to not awaken KRUDD, whose career / legacy will be build on getting some UN Post etc etc

  4. Matt Hardin

    The difference of course, [email protected], is that Chifley talked of the light on the hill, Whitlam the desk and the lamp and now Gillard about the every day Australians. The first two were truly aspirational; to show that there is a way to get better, to be better, to be part of something larger. The ALP should not be for ordinary Australians, they should be helping and inspiring everyone to be extraordinary Australians.

    Gillard’s speech seemed to suggest that wage slavery and getting up early was an end in itself: that the “economy” was the only reason to get out of bed. Hardly a progressive stance and certainly not one to rush to the barricades for. If the best that the party of the workers has for workers is “set your alarm clocks early” then what does the ALP stand for? Who DO they really represent?

    And they wonder why they are having troubles…

  5. Frank Birchall

    Excellent piece, Bernard! Gillard’s swipe at the Greens, accusing them of not sharing “everyday” Australians’ values, is offensive to many non-Green voters and is strategically stupid.

  6. Jimmy

    Had Enough – Gee the govt must be terrified, public anger at the carbon tax seems to be pretty well matched by public support which will only increase once people realise they will get a tax cut to cover any extra expense, some made up cost blow out’s for the NBN that will apparently occur some itme in the future and a few dollars increase in postage that no one cares about, oh and “the trust starting to emerge over the BER” which I would of thought was a good thing.

  7. Socratease

    We already knew, for example, that Gillard was an almost Thatcherite proselytiser for the virtues of hard work.

    I said when Gillard took over from Rudd that I hoped she wouldn’t morph into Thatcher.

    I now await a “I’m not for turning” speech …

  8. Had Enough

    @ Jimmy

    The only people getting a tax cut are those on welfare and social security!! Further, the ‘tax cut’ will only compensate less than half of the increases or less, cause it will impact everything, not just petrol, but every food items, every non food items, cause they are all transported by trucks.

    I meant truth starting to emerge over the BER.

    People do care about postage increases. You mighn’t as someone else may pay for your postage.

  9. Peter Bayley

    I suspect this tendency is to be found in Julia’s early upbringing – she’s old enough to have absorbed a feeling for the British (Welsh) class system from her parents. However, I think the old idea of the “working class’ is becoming less and less useful. We all of us work, and many who would traditionally be “blue collar” are, in reality, small businessmen, concerned with all the issues imposed in running a business. We are all of us literate; increasingly informed and able to make good decisions. Besides, everyone enjoys a good coffee so the latte thing is not a useful signifier.

    I feel the pollies are chasing a chimeric “bloke” and “sheila” that no longer exist – at least in great numbers. The fact is, it is more pleasant (and in fact cheaper) to live in a society which cares for its members and in which most of its members are relatively happy – so we pay into the pot to ensure the society functions smoothly. This impulse has nothing to do with unionism and if the government properly ensured the people are given a fair deal and a proper right to negotiate, there is not a great deal of need for unions in the traditional sense any more.

    In fact, I think many of Labor’s problems stem from having too many members from what have become anachronistic class-based institutions. So I find myself somewhat adrift, looking for voices that speak for me. I am very suspicious of NSW’s new Opposition leader John Robertson – he represents exactly the union extreme the ALP could well do without – he appears totally self-serving and would be better suited to the sad Greedocracy the US has become. I can’t take Tony Abbot’s destructive “Noh” play seriously and I hope Turnbull and Hockey will be allowed another chance at enunciating a gentler liberalism. The Greens have some attractive ideas – but also some loony ones, especially in NSW – so they will continue, I think, to be fringe-dwellers for some time. So – what’s left? – perhaps we need another Don Chip to surface and create something afresh.

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