So the Prime Minister, her party far behind in the polls, the media constantly attacking her and wondering when she’ll be dumped for Kevin Rudd, spent the week in western Sydney talking about fixing two problems that don’t exist — the rorting of 457 visas and the surging crime problem in western Sydney.

The result, perversely, may well be successful in the short term.

After a dreadful start to the year in which all of 2012’s hard work was undone, if Julia Gillard had persisted with business-as-usual politics she might as well have packed her things and invited Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott round to the Lodge for a cuppa and a chat as to which of them would like to move in first. She needed a circuit-breaker, and she needed to find a way to route around a press gallery that had concluded she was finished and was point blank refusing to report what she was saying.

So, first she switched to campaign mode. That negated some of the capacity of the press gallery to block the Prime Minister’s messaging; she spent the week aiming at the evening news bulletins in Sydney, and scored stories every night, even if they weren’t always positive. Then she switched topics: that we’ve just spent several days discussing 457 visas and gun crime is testament to a rare success on Labor’s part of shaping the political conversation.

It doesn’t much matter that media types (like me) were pointing out the implicit xenophobia and lack of substance to the attack on 457 visas, or that backbenchers were privately complaining about how disgraceful the campaign was (“the death spiral of a suicide cult”, said one). That sort of nuance is filtered out long before the message reaches disengaged and uninterested voters.

Indeed, if one didn’t know any better, one would suggest the Prime Minister had reached into the bag of tricks of John Howard, who would rhetorically embrace populist positions full well knowing the ensuing fury from the Left would sustain the issue on the national agenda for days at a time. To watch Abbott having to defend 457 visas — and he didn’t do a bad job in terms of his messaging — was to be reminded of Kim Beazley perennially being forced to react to yet another gambit by John Howard.

Another issue, in Queensland, is ripe for similar treatment. Last week, Wayne Swan immediately spotted the potential to attack the Queensland government’s new health policy around the privatisation and outsourcing of health services. “Patients don’t really care who delivers their services,” Lawrence Springborg declared at the time. Maybe, maybe not. But patients don’t vote. Voters vote. And they hate privatisation, with a passion, especially in Queensland. Ask Anna Bligh.

“The Prime Minister has so far this year articulated an economic strategy that accepts the challenge posed by a high currency in an open economy …”

Then the Newman government released part of Peter Costello’s Commission of Audit report, a highly expensive document that concluded the government should privatise everything it could, the sort of suggestion that can’t be made by just any overpaid consultant, but which requires a former Treasurer and, ahem, lobbyist to make.

Used effectively, privatisation could be an invaluable campaign weapon for federal Labor that might nullify any swing against the government in Queensland, given Queenslanders are already unhappy about Newman’s assault on public services and the Moonlight State-type level of governance that has rapidly emerged under the LNP.

Coincidentally, the week also saw an “orderly transition” in Victoria. One man’s midnight assassination is another’s etc etc. Plainly, at least according to Abbott, Ted Baillieu woke up on Wednesday and didn’t feel like being premier any more and advised his partyroom accordingly; they regretfully accepted his resignation and elected another leader. No factions, no poll-induced pressure, no long-awaited revenge for snubbed powerbrokers, nothing in any way to suggest any parallels of any kind with Kevin Rudd. Or, for that matter, Labor “accepting” the vote of Craig Thomson while he was under investigation for rorts before he entered politics; that’s not at all like accepting the vote of Geoff Shaw, the aggressive Christian fundamentalist under investigation for rorts while he’s been in politcs.

Voters may not see that truth, unfortunately. The net result may well be that any Liberal hopes of knocking off Darren Cheeseman, Mike Symon or Laura Smyth in Victoria are dashed.

That just leaves Tasmania, where Labor is at risk of losing one or two seats, and NSW, where western Sydney is the key. The logic of Gillard’s western Sydney campaign makes ever more electoral sense.

But even if successful, the Prime Minister’s strategy this week carries a major risk. It may generate short-term gains in the electorates where Labor needs them the most. But what is the long-term cost? By adopting a populist, xenophobic line on an aspect of immigration, what message is Labor sending to traditional support bases like ethnic communities and progressive voters? And what message is Labor sending more broadly about its commitment to an open economy?

The Prime Minister has so far this year articulated an economic strategy that accepts the challenge posed by a high currency in an open economy, and in doing so the government has presented its best, most coherent economic message since it was elected. But indulging in the sort of populist rhetoric we’ve seen this week, even if it works in the short term, might have serious repercussions in years to come, both for the party’s support and for its very identity.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey