The (little less) popular Ms Gillard

Tuesday, 15 September 2009 

Never promise a post in advance. Back in June the idea was to do two posts, “The Unpopular Mr. Rudd” and “The Popular Ms Gillard” looking at why the media was so much less enamored with our hugely popular Prime Minister than his less popular deputy. Unfortunately, after the first one, events intervened and the political landscape changed or, more accurately, revealed the reality underneath.

Ute-gate finally ended the media delusions that Turnbull would lead a recovery in the Coalition’s fortunes, the Hu arrest exposed the myth of Rudd’s ‘Middle Power’ diplomacy.

As far as the media was concerned, Ute-gate generated a new respect for Rudd. Needing to avoid having to explain Turnbull’s collapse by facing the real state of the Liberals, suddenly the media discovered a new found ruthlessness in Rudd, which, in fact, had always been there.

Yet while Rudd has gained at least something in the media’s eyes, a little of the shine seems to have gone from Gillard. To understand why, it first necessary to look at the role Gillard plays in this government, which is often misunderstood. One of the ways you can tell this is the bizarre leadership speculation that has accompanied her deputy leadership. It is not just that the idea of replacing Rudd seems so strange coming so soon in his leadership and a very popular one at that. It also under-estimates how critical Rudd is to Gillard even more than Gillard is to Rudd.

The Rudd/Gillard partnership repeats the duality that has been a feature of the leadership of the last three governments, which embodied a contradiction within them. So we had the previous Labor government bringing the unions in for their most important role (Hawke), before dealing them a mortal blow (Keating). We then had a Liberal government that carried on as though a right agenda still had validity (Costello) but led by someone who was better at riding the vacuum than being the conviction politician that some comforted themselves by believing he was.

Now we have a Prime Minster who sets himself against the political class, but has come to power helped by it. It is Gillard’s role within the ALP, and to a degree against the Liberals opposite, that has given Rudd the space to become the anti-political globe trotter that commentators said would never be accepted by the Australian electorate.

The strength of the Rudd/Gillard leadership rests on its ability to manage the exhaustion of the old political system. Rudd does it by setting himself against it and tapping into the strong dislike of the political class in the electorate, Gillard does it by using the political class’s exhaustion against it.

The main issue that has allowed her to achieve that is Workchoices. The Workchoices pantomime allowed both sides of the political spectrum to pretend that the industrial relations battleground, that had defined them for over a century, still had relevance. It allowed the unions to pretend that they were engaged in a fight for survival when their relevance had died years ago. It allowed the Liberals to pretend that their anti-union agenda still had some purpose.

The campaign against Workchoices has been especially convenient in allowing the left and the union leadership to avoid the unpleasant fact that this Labor government is introducing the most anti-union program in its history by reinforcing the end of collective bargaining, to be replaced by enterprise bargaining and individual contracts that pre-dated AWAs and that most employers continued to prefer over the Howard years. The anti-union agenda of the Rudd Labor government is not even a surprise as the left likes to complain usually happens when Labor comes to power. Gillard spelt it out clearly for anyone willing to listen even before assuming office.

The trouble for Gillard now is that having dismantled Workchoices, her ability to use it against her own side and the Liberals is coming to an end. So, to a degree, is her effectiveness and her weakening grip over the parties is partly shown by the faltering in her performance in Parliament that has been picked up by some commentators.

Workchoices’ usefulness is not completely exhausted, of course. As seen by Gillard’s attempt to make a mountain out of Turnbull’s comments and by Abbott’s performance in Parliament yesterday, both sides have an interest in keeping the pantomime going on as long as possible. But ultimately it is a sham. If Workchoices had any resonance in the electorate it was only because it tapped into an insecure workplace environment that has been a fact of life for nearly two decades and is seen by the flexibility with which earnings have been cut through reduced hours over the last year. It is possible to see Gillard being caught up in an increasingly irrelevant political class that she once mastered in a way that made her such a media darling, while Rudd distances himself further from it. There might then come a time that rather Rudd needing to fear Gillard, the threat could become the other way round.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Tuesday, 15 September 2009.

Filed under Political figures

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5 responses to “The (little less) popular Ms Gillard”

  1. Ad astra on 15th September 2009 12:10 pm

    An interesting piece TPS. I never did understand the media line that Julia Gillard was a threat to Kevin Rudd. I read it as just another beat-up to create interest and conjecture, and relieve the boredom with which some press gallery journalists seem to be afflicted. Your assessment of Rudd as remote from the political class and anti-union seems correct. It has done no harm to his popularity in the electorate.

    After the events of the weekend it looks as if Gillard intends to use the hint of a revival of WorkChoices, or parts of it, to continue to damage the Coalition in the eyes of the electorate. I cannot understand why Malcolm Turnbull, Joe Hockey and then Wilson Tuckey handed Gillard such an opening. You question whether WorkChoices is still the potent electoral poison is once was. That’s a tricky call. It was very powerful in the last election. Has the public forgotten already? Although the IR changes Gillard has introduced feature aspects that are unattractive both to unions and employers, and logic would suggest this would provide ammunition for the Coalition, this matter is not suitable for analysis using the rigours of logic. It is an emotional matter as far as the electorate is concerned, and will likely stay that way. Unless something unusual happens in the IR field before the next election, I can see a re-run of the anti-WorkChoices campaign, this time insisting that the Coalition never gave it up, declared it dead to kill off further adverse comment, and has now breathed life into it again to once more threaten the workers of this country.

    While some commentators have insisted that some of the shine has been rubbed from Gillard’s exterior, having watched QT during the last couple of weeks, I saw her as giving as good as she got. Shine is increased by burnishing, and she surely has had plenty of burnishing.

    Regarding who should fear whom, I read the Rudd-Gillard relationship as mutually supportive and symbiotic. They seem far too smart to allow a wedge to be driven between them.

  2. The Piping Shrike on 15th September 2009 3:42 pm

    Thanks for your thoughts. Gillard clearly wants a revival of the Workchoices threat and the Libs keep taking the bait as it gets caught up in their ‘values’ search despite the electoral harm it does them.

    But in my view that electoral harm does not come from Workchoices itself which was always an insignificant part of the industrial relations landscape but because 1) it taps into the insecurities from the realities of the workplace that the last Labor government help set up and the current one is reaffiming as in Shepparton and;
    2) more importantly, for the last election, it highlighted the irrelevance of the Libs that they are banging on about an anti-union measure that even employers don’t really need. The danger is for Labor is sticking up for union rights could make them (or Gillard) look irrelevant too, which was why Rudd toned down Beazley’s anti-Workchoice campaign when he took over.

    I see the fate of Gillard having less to do with her talents, which are significant no doubt (as in many ways are Turnbull’s), but the political position they find themselves in. I see it will be less a case that a wedge will be driven between Rudd and Gillard but that Rudd may need Gillard less than Gillard needs Rudd. The point is that Rudd represents something new, Gillard is, at the moment, still caught up in the old (which is why the media prefer her).

  3. Ad astra on 15th September 2009 6:11 pm

    Point taken.

    Labor seems at present not going out of its way to support unions over business. I noticed that on last night’s 7.30 Report Paul Howes and Heather Ridout both seemed satisfied that the Government was handling its IR changes in a balanced and fair way. I agree that Labor should avoid giving unions overt support, as that would be seized upon by the Coalition to stoke up its ‘Labor is dominated by unions’ campaign.

  4. Graeme on 24th September 2009 9:55 pm

    Mmm. Shrike, I follow you up to a point.

    But there is no ‘post-partisan’ politics without parties. We don’t have a presidential election system, or pissweak US party structures.

    The one thing the Liberal hedgehog knows is that Rudd will one day fall foul or internal party politics. To not recognise this is to not realise that the ALP isn’t quite the empty party that the Liberals always have been.

    I’m not saying Gillard is an inevitable successor. But to label her ‘Union-Old-Hat’ and Rudd some kind of ‘internationalist-nationalist-recreating-politics’ is a step too far.

  5. The Piping Shrike on 24th September 2009 11:31 pm

    Just to clarify what I am saying, I am definitely not arguing Gillard is ‘Union-Old-Hat’. In fact, the authority she has is based on calling time on it (which is why some in the Left don’t trust her). The problem I am arguing she has is that it is a dead end game. As the end of the IR and faction debate works its way through she is in danger of losing her authority.

    She may very well change tack, but at the moment there is a dynamic that is less favourable than, say, a year ago.

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