CANBERRA OBSERVED: by national correspondentNews Weekly
Julia Gillard's fragile grip on power
, February 19, 2011
After a very shaky start by Julia Gillard as the new federal Labor leader last year, some commentators argued that what was needed to boost her stocks was "a crisis" in order to prove her mettle as leader.
Putting aside the fairly irresponsible nature of such urgings, that crisis came sooner than expected in the form of the Queensland floods.
Ms Gillard's response was both unexpected and predictable.
It was unexpected in the sense that Ms Gillard appeared uncharacteristically uncomfortable in the role of national leader as she toured flood-affected areas and spoke with affected families, and she was completely put in the shade by Queensland Premier Anna Bligh. Opposition Leader Tony Abbott bluntly described Ms Gillard's appearances as "wooden".
But her response was also predictable in the sense that Labor's knee-jerk answer to the clean-up was to impose another new tax.
It has been widely noted that the federal Coalition also imposed a myriad of levies, as well as the very unpopular superannuation surcharge, during its period in government. And the Gillard Government argued Mr Abbott was being hypocritical and mean-spirited by opposing it.
However, the problem for Ms Gillard is that Labor's recent track record on waste and profligacy, particularly in the pink batts and school building programs, has been woeful and has left tax-paying voters with a low tolerance level of Labor program management.
From the taxpayers' point of view there appears still to be a lot of federal money from other programs which might have been diverted toward flood reconstruction - for example, the multi-billion dollar National Broadband Network (NBN) spend.
The fact that Ms Gillard has appointed former NSW Liberal premier and Howard Government finance minister John Fahey to supervise Labor's post-flood rebuilding efforts is testimony to Labor's poor reputation in this regard.
Ms Gillard has now issued a warning to all her ministers that no more program mismanagement and waste will be tolerated - an edict which will be enormously difficult to enforce given the huge array of federal government programs currently underway.
Meanwhile, ABC television's Four Corners
devoted an entire program to analysing what exactly Julia Gillard stands for - an extraordinary proposition for someone who has been elected Australian prime minister.
The program was entitled "The Real Julia", and it concentrated on Ms Gillard's ruthless pragmatism and hollow policy perspectives.
In particular, the program laid bare Ms Gillard's spectacular volte-face on the treatment of asylum-seekers while in Opposition and then in Government, and her triple switch on climate change.
On the latter policy Ms Gillard has had four positions in around 12 months, including supporting Kevin Rudd's Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, successfully urging Mr Rudd to shelve it for three years, promising the Australian people there would be no carbon tax at the last election, and then pledging to introduce one in 2011 as a result of reaching "consensus" with the Greens.
One of the most potent images during the Four Corners
program was the cosy relationship Ms Gillard has with Greens leader Senator Bob Brown, who has been granted weekly meetings with the PM to discuss policy and the Government's legislative program.
Labor hard-head Graham Richardson told Four Corners
that Ms Gillard had been overwhelmed by the job and "needs time to build confidence".
Public support is also evaporating, with Labor's primary vote just a shade off the all-time low reached during the Keating Government.
Clearly, Ms Gillard needs to start carving out an agenda soon.
Ms Gillard has nominated locking in the benefits of the mining boom as the first item on her policy agenda.
There is also one suggestion that she may ditch Mr Rudd's half-pregnant hospital takeover in favour of a crash-through-or-crash direct funding proposal of hospitals.
Under Mr Rudd's hospital reform the Federal Government was to take over two-thirds of hospital funding via a claw-back of state GST revenues. Western Australia refused to co-operate, while the new Coalition state government in Victoria and presumably the government-in-waiting in New South Wales were showing indications of following suit.
But Ms Gillard could walk away from the entire deal and adopt a take-it-or-leave it approach on direct hospital funding.
All the states would be vehemently opposed to such a policy, but would arguably be more powerless to stop it than the overly complex Rudd plan.
Ms Gillard remains a prime minister in search of an agenda, and unless she begins to articulate some clear long-term policy goals her leadership will start to come under pressure.
Among those watching Ms Gillard's every move include former prime minister Mr Rudd, Treasurer Wayne Swan and Assistant Treasurer Bill Shorten. All three have serious leadership ambitions.
Mr Rudd has no realistic chance of returning to the prime ministership in the next few years, but cannot be excluded over the long term. However, if things were to fall apart for Ms Gillard, anything is possible in a multi-candidate contest.
At the moment the party and the people have adopted a waiting brief on Ms Gillard to see if she can prove herself.
If she cannot, it is inevitable the rumblings will begin about finding a replacement.