Today marks the first anniversary of the 24 hours that led to the deposition of Kevin Rudd. Yesterday Canberra correspondent Bernard Keane and senior journalist Paul Barry plotted out how Rudd unwittingly trashed his own power base with such astonishing swiftness that when his public popularity collapsed, so too did his prime ministership … Today Keane and Barry contrast Prime Minister Gillard’s success in Parliament with her possibly fatal failure to communicate.
For all that Julia Gillard is now synonymous with dire polling for Labor, her prime ministership began auspiciously. Under Kevin Rudd, Labor’s primary vote as measured by Essential Research had dropped as low as 35%, but had recovered to 38% by the time he was removed. Gillard, with an impressive opening press conference and the fanfare of Australia’s first female Prime Minister, pushed it above 40% for the first time since early May. When she called the election on July 17, Labor’s vote sat at 41% and Labor held a more-than-comfortable 55-45 2PP lead. The decision to dump Rudd for his deputy looked vindicated.
But Labor’s lead barely lasted a week into the campaign and then evaporated.
Go forward several months: at the end of 2010 and over the summer, Labor’s vote stabilised in the high 30s. In February, Labor’s vote began to rise again, and briefly hit 40%, giving Labor its first 2PP lead in months. Then, Gillard announced her intention to pursue a carbon price. Labor’s vote has been heading south ever since. Currently it is on 32%.
Labor’s vote under Gillard is fragile at best, and now plainly at an unsustainable level. At 32%, Labor’s main competition is from the Greens, not the Liberals.
Much has been made of voter resentment towards Gillard about the circumstances in which she obtained the job. But as her initial polling indicates, this isn’t necessarily the basis for voter animosity. In any event, having political blood on your hands is the defining characteristic of most political leaderships. After all, Tony Abbott blew up Malcolm Turnbull to take control of the Liberal Party, Kevin Rudd and Gillard did the same to Kim Beazley. For that matter, Paul Keating knocked off Bob Hawke, who had himself pushed out Bill Hayden. And while John Howard’s direct route to the prime ministership involved no knifing, he had devoted much of the 1980s to wrecking the Liberal Party in his own contest with Andrew Peacock. Rare are the leaders who ascend without wielding the knife or benefiting from those who do.
Gillard’s problem, however, is that unlike other leaders, she has not given voters anything more to see in her than the knife she wielded against Rudd.
Like Rudd, Gillard has only been in Parliament since 1998. Like Rudd, she came to the prime ministership relatively unknown compared to their recent predecessors. Who Gillard is, what she believes in, where she wants to take Australia, are a mystery to many voters. Her priority should have been to send a clear and consistent message about who she was — indeed, she explicitly stated, in a notable speech in Adelaide late last year, that she needed to explain her vision for Australia, how it translated into an agenda for the government, and how that agenda was going to be implemented.
To remedy voters’ confusion about what their Prime Minister stood for and wanted, Gillard from the outset tried to emphasise a sub-Thatcherite focus on work, building on the single best-established aspect of her political persona — her interest in education — to establish the theme of her prime ministership. She elaborated this into an obligation to make the most of educational opportunities, by rising early and working hard, preferably via some form of manual labour — famously contrasting the brickie and the socialite in a speech that could have been condensed into the famous graffiti “Work. Consume. Be Silent”.
But for every step Gillard took to try to create a strong persona for voters, to remedy the lack of long exposure in public life, she seemed to undermine herself. The disastrous “real Julia” moment in the election campaign — an effort to reboot a campaign that had run smoothly for a week and then been derailed by the leaks and by her own disastrous climate policy — instantly raised the problem of just who voters had been getting beforehand.
Worse still was her commitment to a carbon price. It was not merely the perception that Gillard had reneged on her election commitment not to introduce a carbon price, it was how it confused the message about what Gillard’s vision and agenda were. As the person who most strongly urged Kevin Rudd to walk away from his CPRS, as the leader who spoke of the need for “citizens’ assemblies” to establish a consensus about climate change, did Gillard actually believe in taking action on climate change? Or was she simply doing it as a condition of Green support for her minority government?
The result is a Prime Minister whose knifing of her predecessor remains the standout characteristic with which voters associate her. Voters continue to raise the issue, MPs say, even a year on from the events of late June 2010. And the perceptions established during the election campaign — of the cynical reliance on focus groups, of a campaign and policy orchestrated by incompetent party officials — remain fixed in voters’ minds.
The irony is that Rudd’s CPRS is now the basis for the deal Labor is now trying to reach with the Greens and the independents in its vehicle for climate change, the Multi-Party Climate Change committee (an initiative not of Labor but of Christine Milne). But then in some important ways, little has changed under Julia Gillard’s prime ministership. She retains the power, secured by Rudd and reluctantly endorsed by caucus after the 2007 election, of directly appointing her frontbench. And there are persistent complaints that the lack of consultation with cabinet and with caucus that marked the Rudd era continues.
After making a point of saying she would restore a full cabinet process following Rudd’s reliance on the Strategic Priorities and Budget Committee, Gillard launched policies such as the citizens’ assembly (which Labor backbenchers themselves criticised during the campaign) during the election campaign without cabinet agreement — indeed, apparently with some ministers unaware that the idea was under consideration.
And while the citizens’ assembly debacle could have been excused as part of the demands of modern election campaigns, the lack of consultation continues, angering MPs. “Where was the consultation on the Malaysian solution?” one complained. “When did caucus get to discuss it?”
The tight control of the Rudd era remains in place, too, albeit without the relentless focus on a single message that made Rudd question times exercises in count-the-clichés. A key difference, however, is that while Rudd’s office had a communications strategy, albeit a poor one, Gillard’s office appears to have no strategy of any kind. There is little or no co-ordination or planning around the key elements in the government’s agenda, no plan for where the government wanted to be and what it wanted to say at each one of them. The result is an unconvincing ad hockery that constantly surprises and annoys the government’s partners on the crossbenches.
The success of the Gillard government has been in Parliament, where it has continued to reel off win after win in passing legislation, defying conservative predictions that minority government would prove unworkable. Under Rudd, Gillard proved an effective negotiator with the Senate crossbenches, delivering major industrial relations reform against the desperate efforts of the opposition. She demonstrated her capacity to negotiate again after the election, out-manouevring Tony Abbott to secure the support of Andrew Wilkie and two conservative regional independents. Under her, Labor more effectively negotiates than it did under Kevin Rudd.
But while Gillard’s negotiation skills survived the transition to the prime ministership, her once-formidable communication skills did not. Having demonstrate a capacity for cut-through lines as deputy prime minister, Gillard turned into a Rudd-like reciter of talking point as leader, albeit without either her predecessor’s verbosity or verbal idiosyncrasies.
This sums up the government’s famous inability to communicate perfectly. Talking points and their monotonous recitation are now a permanent part of politics, but they have to stop at the door of the Prime Minister’s office. More than anyone else, more than a Deputy Prime Minister or a Leader of the Opposition, as national leader the Prime Minister has a special, direct relationship with Australians and a duty, as well as a political need, to communicate directly, personally and effectively with them. John Howard mastered the art of staying on-message while talking naturally to voters (a talent Lindsay Tanner used to regularly demonstrate). Gillard, like Rudd, resists moving away from her talking points, and a leader confined to rehearsed lines is no leader at all.
Occasionally, when angered, the old Gillard emerges, and the contrast is remarkable — the wit, the cut-through, the blunt and effective delivery all return, only to be smothered moments later as she gets back on message.
The consequence is not so much that voters have switched off to Gillard, but rather that there is nothing to hear even if they are listening.
Barring a fundamental reappraisal of how the Prime Minister talks to Australians and how her government co-ordinates its reform agenda, Gillard’s prime ministership will remain a political failure. She has given Australians too many conflicting signals about her vision and political persona; in the absence of a clear understanding of just who she is and what she stands for, all voters really know about her is that she knifed Kevin Rudd to get the top job and the government is run by spinmasters and focus groups. That is not a sufficient basis for attracting their support and there will be no Labor recovery.
But like Rudd’s, Gillard’s prime ministership reflects Labor itself. This is a party unable to explain what it believes in and what it is doing, unsure of its core values, a party centralised and micromanaged without the benefits of either, a party in which managerialism and belief fight a daily battle with the odds always favouring the former. For all the flaws of Rudd and Gillard, these are Labor’s problems. The party can try to change its face, but the one looking back in the mirror will always be its own.
*This essay is a taste of what’s to come as part of the top-secret project from Paul Barry that Crikey subscribers will soon have access to …