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”.

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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?