CANBERRA OBSERVED: by national correspondentNews Weekly
Can Julia Gillard re-invent herself?
, February 5, 2011
The biggest question facing Julia Gillard over the coming year is whether she can truly throw off the shackles of the first troubled Rudd Labor Government, re-invent herself as prime minister and map out a clear new agenda.
There is a growing perception that Ms Gillard may have in fact "peaked" in popularity and that the electorate is not entirely comfortable with her as leader of the country.
A prime minister who comes to power in controversial circumstances - as Malcolm Fraser discovered in 1975 - always has to deal with a certain odour of illegitimacy.
It is not easy to recover from this and there are still many Labor supporters who remain unhappy with the way Ms Gillard became prime minister.
Ms Gillard would need to win the next election comfortably to shake this off, and she knows this will be the true test of her time in politics.
In the meantime, she has her work cut out to build confidence in her credentials as a national leader beyond her obvious formidable skills as a parliamentarian and hard-nosed negotiator.
John Howard was also initially not popular in his own right. However, through a combination of grinding determination, shrewdness and good policy, he built a persona about himself derived not in small part from his daily morning walk, which eventually drew respect for him as a politician from even his harshest critics.
Opinion polls suggest a certain public ambivalence toward Ms Gillard and she has been unable to shake this off after participating in a coup against Kevin Rudd, only to succeed in securing the narrowest of victories in the election last year.
The Gillard Government itself faces a series of tough decisions, not least of which is setting the forthcoming May federal Budget on a course back to surplus.
It will not be easy for Ms Gillard to build a relationship with the Australian people when programs are being trimmed across the board and attempts are being made to wind back middle-class welfare, reform nursing-home financing or rein in the exploding disability pension system.
Treasurer Wayne Swan will also be looking at a raft of Kevin Rudd-inspired spending initiatives to see whether they deserve ongoing funding.
There have been reports that serious consideration is being given to a levy (read new tax) to pay for the Federal Government's portion of the Queensland post-flood reconstruction program - and the mining tax controversy has still not been resolved.
Adding to the mix is the electorate's concerns that the Gillard Government is beholden to the whims of the Greens who will assume the balance of power in the Senate come July.
As the Greens' true social agenda, rather than their environmental façade, becomes apparent through the push for same-sex marriage and euthanasia, Ms Gillard has to find a way of demonstrating that the tail is not wagging the dog.
Senior colleagues have urged Ms Gillard to be "more prime ministerial" in her demeanour and speeches, but she has told the same colleagues in turn that she does not want to lose the common touch. Finding that balance is not easy.
2011 is also likely to be the year that more "red states" become "blue states", as New South Wales and Queensland elections result in changes of governments.
Premier Anna Bligh may have received a fillip from her emotional response to the flood disaster, but her increased personal popularity is unlikely to stop the tide of anger about privatisations and mismanagement.
If the four largest states (New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland and Western Australia) are conservative by early 2012, there will be an entirely new dynamic added to the political landscape.
In terms of the federal Opposition, Tony Abbott has already acknowledged he will have to switch his rhetoric from negative to positive as he searches for a policy agenda to win government.
It was sufficient and justifiable at the last election to blast away at the Rudd-Gillard Government's abysmal track record, but from now on Mr Abbott will be seriously seen through the prism of an alternative prime minister.
It will not be an easy year for Mr Abbott.
Any mistakes will be seized on and the media will start to pick holes in his leadership; Malcolm Turnbull is now playing a waiting game and is prepared to mark time for however long it takes for Mr Abbott to founder.
What Mr Abbott will need to do is build a philosophical case for a change of government based on support for small business and families, smaller government and a stronger nationalist (read pro-Australian) agenda.
Mr Abbott should be looking at improved policy work across the board, including health, industry support, family, defence and foreign affairs. Many policies presented at the last election were clearly "under-cooked", and there will be no such luxury should Mr Abbott still be leader next election.
He will need to make a series of speeches outlining his party's ideology in a bid to capture a bigger slice of the outer suburban and regional vote.
The electorate remains wary about both the major parties - a mood reflected in the national vote last year - but is likely to swing strongly next election. Both leaders are still on notice with the Australian electorate.