CANBERRA OBSERVED: by national correspondentNews Weekly
Labor government 'drowning, not waving'
, March 16, 2013
When the tide is running against you in Australian politics, there is very little you can do about it — as Julia Gillard, to her great dismay, is fast discovering.
Camping out west of Sydney at Rooty Hill for a week is the latest in a series of stunts deployed in an effort to turn around voters disenchanted with Labor. It follows the Prime Minister’s misogyny speech in federal parliament, and her surprise move to announce the election date almost eight months early.
The September 14 election date strategy was designed to unnerve and outmanoeuvre Tony Abbott and provide the contrast of “governing, not campaigning” against Abbott’s supposed impotence as Opposition leader.
Yet this has been followed by Ms Gillard doing exactly the opposite, by actually campaigning, not governing, on the stump at Rooty Hill for a week in an attempt to win back the seats in Sydney’s west that currently look so precarious.
It should be noted that Labor’s patronisingly telling people living in the western suburbs of Sydney that they should not be viewed as second-class citizens is unlikely to win them over. The vast majority of people living in western Sydney are happy living where they live, are there by choice not by predicament, and the thought that they may be special victims does not enter their heads.
In fact, the issue of western Sydney is only a symptom of Ms Gillard’s problem.
The great rump of Australian voters is a peculiarly disengaged and stubborn mob. They rarely change governments; they pay attention to politics sporadically, mostly only close to election time; but once their collective mind is made up, it is hard to turn them around.
Paul Keating found this to his exasperation in the lead-up to the 1996 election. No amount of hype about “reconciliation” with indigenous Australians, the floating of a proposed “minimalist” republic, or a precedent-setting treaty with Indonesia negotiated in secret over 18 months, was able to turn around a sullen electorate.
During that campaign John Howard was able to diffuse Keating’s republican push by promising a constitutional convention; but more generally and successfully he adopted a small-target policy strategy.
Fast-forward 11 years and then, as Prime Minister, Howard faced the same predicament.
In the extraordinary election of 1996, he had won over “the battlers”. However, after a few years in power, Howard (backed by his Treasurer Peter Costello) made the ill-fated decision to test that trust by introducing a market-based American-style industrial relations system.
It took many months for Howard to concede that WorkChoices was electoral rat poison; but once he did so, nothing he did afterwards could turn the people around.
Rolled out in 2007, the final election year of the Howard Government, were the big-gun policies of multi-billion-dollar water reform and the federal government’s “intervention” in the Northern Territory, masterminded by the then Indigenous Affairs Minister Mal Brough.
In part these were designed to divide and antagonise Labor and state Labor governments; but Labor’s then Opposition leader Kevin Rudd did not oblige by reacting. Rudd, learning from Howard, rolled himself into a ball and waited for the people to deliver the verdict.
Now Julia Gillard faces the pent-up wrath of the electorate. Potentially, the outcome could be worse for her this year than 1996 was for Keating.
First, it has taken until now for Labor to actually acknowledge that PM Gillard is on the nose with the electorate.
So blinded are Labor by their visceral hatred of Tony Abbott, they actually thought he was the unpopular one. It seems to be turning out instead that Abbott has earned a grudging respect in the community for his consistency, work ethic and discipline and adherence to a cohesive world view.
Second, the electorate has not forgiven Ms Gillard for taking out Kevin Rudd, misleading people at the last election over the carbon tax, and entering into an alliance with the Greens.
Third, there seems to be no plan to get Labor out of trouble.
Treasurer Wayne Swan is understandably uneasy about bringing down a tough Budget in an election year.
However, he can scarcely do less if he is serious about laying the fiscal foundations to pay for the “Gonski” education reforms and a National Disability Insurance Scheme.
Ms Gillard and Ms Swan are banking on these “Labor” reforms to get people to return to the fold. Labor has overcooked these two policies.
The Gonski plan is simply an elaborate funding model. It is not a plan to lift education standards.
The disability scheme is designed to remedy the patchwork of inadequate services and funding currently provided (or inadequately provided) by the states and territories. The NDIS is a blank cheque for future governments.
It is far from clear whether anyone other than the dwindling number of Labor’s “true believers” will view the reforms as having any impact on voters.
The way things look at the moment for Labor is that Ms Gillard is “drowning, not waving”.