Was Julia Gillard among friends or enemies when she addressed the New South Wales ALP conference yesterday?

Either way, she can walk in such a gathering with her head held high. She may be one of Australia’s most politically inept prime ministers, but she has a reasonable list of reforms to her credit and her government’s economic management has been excellent. NSW Labor is not merely politically inept, it left our biggest state in a deep coma. Nonetheless, John Robertson, the self-serving opportunist who is filling in as state opposition leader for a few years until his party inevitably knifes him, had seen fit to lecture the Prime Minister about how “poorly structured” her agreement with the Greens was.

Friends of the “with friends like these” variety, perhaps.

Despite that, the PM was particularly generous to her hosts. She skipped, wholly unsubtly, over the party’s contribution to the decline in Sydney’s infrastructure, as if it hadn’t been in power for 16 years. “After almost 12 years of underinvestment and neglect from a federal Liberal government, Sydney strained at the seams. Now, after almost two years of complacency and short-sightedness from a state Liberal government, Sydney is straining at the leash,” she said.

And there was something sad about the announcement of extra cruise ships; one sympathises with the poor PM&C staffer tasked last week with finding something, anything vaguely announceable relating to Sydney.

Much was made of the Prime Minister’s lack of reference to the Greens. It was, nonetheless, an interesting speech, and more for what it said than what was absent.

Analysing speeches for their content risks missing the forest for the trees — if that’s not too Green a metaphor — but it is remarkable how focused the Prime Minister is on work, workers and working Australians. Workers rarely feature in Tony Abbott’s speeches, even if he recently declared rather creepily that he wants to be the best friend of all of them; he prefers to talk about businesses, and incessantly criticise the government. But yesterday’s speech was as straightforward a description of Gillard Labor’s strategy as could be.

We know, after all, how personally attached to the concept of work Gillard is, and the jaundiced eye she brings to bear on those not setting the alarm clock early to get up and go to work as much for the joy of it as anything else. That personal attachment is no confection born of some manufactured The Iron Sheila strategy; it comes from her own migrant experience, in which her parents and she herself have worked their way from 10 pound Poms (OK, 10 pound Welsh) to a comfortable life and, in her case, the highest job in the land. Gillard’s journey to the Lodge has always been about the hard yakka, if not the ideas.

But the government she leads has little credibility with voters. One of the few areas where it retains an edge on the Coalition is not on economic management per se — voters are unmoved by the best economic conditions in generations — but in economic management in the interests of working families. For all their lead in perceptions of economic competence, the Liberals, in the view of voters, manage the economy in the interests of corporations, not them.

This is why workers and working Australians — the “working families” phrase long since having been taken out the back and shot — recur so frequently in the Prime Minister’s domestic speeches; not merely on industrial relations laws (the other area where Labor still leads the Coalition) but on fairness. This is the one piece of Labor turf left to her from which she can launch an attack that stands a chance of being effective.

“[O]nly Labor stands for every Australian who works and every Australian who needs help,” Gillard declared. “Only one party in the history of our democracy has ever stood and fought for working people … I am too proud of what we have achieved for working people, to do anything else but fight … Our plans to spread the benefits of our strong economy and the boom to all: more dollars in the pockets of working people … “.

Gillard even alluded to the oft-expressed complaint about Labor not knowing what it stands for. “If they’ve started accusing us of ‘class war’ at least they’ve stopped accusing us of not knowing whose side we’re on,” she said.

It makes sense for a Labor prime minister to boast of her party’s achievements for working people, of course. And there’s substance to the boast: it was Labor’s stimulus packages that kept hundreds of thousands of workers in jobs after the financial crisis. It is Labor’s competent economic management that has seen unemployment and inflation remain low.

The problem is, merely saying you’re for working Australians doesn’t amount to a clear statement of direction. Every government says it is for working people. David Cameron’s government is for “hard-working Britons”. Stephen Harper’s government is for “working Canadians”. John Key’s government is for “working New Zealanders”.

And does it mean every policy is crafted with “working Australians” in mind? How does a carbon price serve the interests of working Australians? It’s a policy designed to benefit future generations, at the expense of the current generation. What happens when the short-term interests of working Australians clash with their long-term interests? Benefiting working Australians might mean protecting industries in the face of structural adjustment, or it might mean stepping back and letting the adjustment happen as quickly as possible, depending on your policy timeframe. And what happens when the interests of workers in different industries, or different parts of the country, or of different social views, clash?

“Labor is a cause, not a brand” was other theme of the speech, indeed its very title. Politicians don’t like the term “brand”, suggestive as it is that their calling is on a par with washing powder (putting aside, for a moment, that Australians likely trust washing powder a lot more than politicians, or for that matter journalists).

But like everything else, Labor is indeed a brand, as well as a cause; the two are hardly mutually exclusive, and indeed political parties are inevitably both. In Labor’s case, that brand is badly — very badly — damaged. Insisting that it is a cause will not repair that damage.

Labor’s cause is indeed “working Australians”. But that tells us nothing about what guides the party in government, or guides its leader in her role of Prime Minister. Labor might do well to think more about its brand rather than less.