Moving forward mantra Gillard’s biggest mistake

In retrospect, Julia Gillard’s big mistake wasn’t calling the election so quickly, or negotiating with the miners, or even announcing the climate assembly.

It was using the phrase “moving forward” 20 times at her election announcement.

The sense that Gillard is stage-managed and unreal has lasted almost through to polling day. You can tell the Labor Party is still concerned about it, and the Coalition is convinced Gillard’s public image makes Tony Abbott look very good.

It accounts for – although does not really explain – Labor’s bizarre decision to pretend Gillard’s campaign launch speech was off-the-cuff. That backfired when the press cunningly took a photograph of her typed speech on the lectern.

Off-the-cuff-Gate is completely inconsequential. But the fact that, as late in the campaign as the campaign launch, the ALP thought it had to deceive for Gillard to be seen as passionate shows just how damaging this initial impression was.

After all, it had been a good two weeks since ‘real Julia’ took over.

If Abbott initially struggled because the Liberal Party had spent the last twelve months preparing to defeat Kevin Rudd, Gillard suffered because it appeared ALP strategy consisted of the phrase “moving forward” underlined twice on the back of an envelope.

Perhaps as a consequence, the Labor policies announced in the first few weeks were gimmicky and easily ridiculed. Not just the climate assembly – an insult to the national intelligence, even considering the carnival atmosphere of the global warming debate – but also the $2,000 trade-in payment for gas-guzzling cars, which comes with its own derogatory nickname, cash-for-clunkers.

That’s not to say there haven’t been strong ideas from the Labor side.

Gillard’s education proposals are easily the biggest and most substantial of the campaign. It helps that they’re actually good too. Performance pay for teachers, devolving greater budget and hiring powers to principals, bonus funding for schools showing the greatest improvement – these are policies which push us closer to a dynamic and competitive education system. And, dare I say, a bit of a “market” one as well.

You get the impression Gillard is genuinely energised by education policy.

That, and WorkChoices was bad.

For a short time last year the causes and consequences of the Global Financial Crisis sparked a passionate ideological debate in Australia. But the sparring between Malcolm Turnbull and Kevin Rudd over the role of the government in the economy is a distant memory.

Abbott and Gillard were barely participants in the debate over the stimulus.

The two current leaders’ views about government aren’t that different. On many issues they converge. Abbott is a big government conservative. Gillard is a market-leaning social democrat.

The attempts during this campaign to revive the stimulus debate have seemed hollow. Abbott, for his part, is much more comfortable talking about pink batts and school halls than Keynesian fiscal policy.

And Gillard has struggled to fully adopt Kevin Rudd’s policies as her own. Moving forward provides little opportunity to look back. Not only the stimulus: we’ve heard very little about Labor’s expansive health reform plan.

One notable side issue of this campaign has been gay marriage.

Neither major party has altered its position at all, of course. But the consistency with which gay marriage has been pushed at the candidates at every stop shows it is now a mainstream question.

Both Gillard and Abbott have had to fall back on reminding listeners that their governments have made substantial progress removing lots of other discriminatory policies against gay people and gay couples. They’re right, but marriage has gained almost totemic status in this campaign.

It’s hard not to see Election 2010 as a turning point. The case against same-sex marriage is looking weaker and weaker, and opposition to it looking more like stubbornness than principle. International experience suggests that gay marriage can be legalised without complete social and moral disintegration – after all, doing so makes it legal, not mandatory.

Gay marriage is unlikely to swing many votes. But Julia Gillard’s atheism makes her hostility to altering the Marriage Act look somewhat insincere – a bit too politician-like, a bit too focus-grouped.

For better or worse, that’s not a charge you could level at Tony Abbott.

Abbott is a self-described weather vane, sure. But when he changes his mind on policy, even for purely political reasons, he’s the first to tell you about it. Abbott has always treated his political career as an opportunity to share his feelings and grow. It’s very odd. But it’s disarming.

All year, the Liberals had been planning to depict Kevin Rudd as a poser who was more interested in polls than effective governing. Abbott was to be the opposite: the more-real-than-real candidate.

Who’d have thought that plan would work just as well against Julia Gillard?