Gillard’s Government Balancing Act

As 2011 opens, Labor is going to face that Julia Gillard’s biggest problem is a crisis of legitimacy.
Not the sort of legitimacy Tony Abbott was talking about in the weeks after the election: a government formed in a hung parliament is a valid government, and Gillard is as much a Prime Minister as any other prime minister.
But Julia Gillard commands neither influence over her colleagues, control over the processes of government, nor direction of the media cycle. In the months since taking the leadership, she has utterly failed to stamp the Government with her brand or even made clear her philosophy of government.
Everybody has noticed that the Gillard Government has no vision, but increasingly you have to wonder whether it has any purpose at all.
Kevin Rudd had an awful 2010, but his control over all these things in the first 18 months of his government shouldn’t be forgotten.
It was just the way Rudd achieved that control – the endless parade of announcements and policy revolutions that spectacularly blew up this year – that eventually did him in.
By contrast, Gillard’s leadership was precarious from its first moment. The leadership spill did more than install a new Prime Minister; it appears to have undermined the internal coherence of federal Labor’s parliamentary party.
The Greens have received the credit for the recent debate over gay marriage, but it wouldn’t have been possible if not for the erosion of Labor’s internal discipline in the wake of the spill. Gillard’s strong claim that she doesn’t support gay marriage did nothing to halt dissent from within her own government. She may have even stoked it.
It’s no longer fashionable to do so, but I still blame Rudd for Gillard’s problems.
Much was made of Gillard’s claim in an interview from Brussels that foreign policy was not her passion – education was. Yet education has been stubbornly out of the Prime Minister’s orbit since.
Rudd left so many balls in the air that Gillard’s first few months has been entirely focused on tackling them one by one.
Take the politics of asylum seekers. Rudd’s dithering between toughness and compassion throughout 2009 and his last months in 2010 left the Government with no coherent message to counter Abbott’s simple mantra.
Rudd then threw a bomb at Gillard in his penultimate press conference, incoherently and confusingly claiming that the leadership question was whether the Government should “lurch to the right” on asylum seekers.
Once she got the job, Gillard grasped a badly underdeveloped East Timor solution which didn’t seem to have left the whiteboard stage. (It’s only last week that East Timor received a document outlining the plan – five months after it was announced.)
And she struggled to demonstrate that her East Timor plan was at all different from the Pacific Solution her party had spent a decade condemning.
It’s not much better across the policy portfolios. The lavish Henry Tax Review has ended with the resignation of its author and a mining tax going into its third iteration. Gillard tried once to wrestle the mining tax down once before, but the drama looks to intrude well into the New Year.
Or a price on carbon. Gillard is committed to ambitious climate reform, we’re told. She’s just not entirely sure what that reform is yet. Perhaps it depends on Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor.
Gillard has struggled to balance these huge policy battles (you could also include health and water reform) with her avowed belief that Labor lost its way in July. She doesn’t want to abandon the appearance of reform zeal which Rudd cultivated, but knows those attempts at reform were the sources of the Government’s problems.
It leaves her government hesitant, cautious, and ever so slightly intimidated by its own policies.
The Government is deeply uncomfortable in its own skin, led by a Prime Minister whose principal qualification for leadership was being agreeable to union bosses and ALP heavies who felt neglected under Rudd.
That’s not to say Julia Gillard couldn’t have been a good Prime Minister – or even a great one – or that she couldn’t be one in the future. Right now there’s no reason to suspect this government won’t be able to survive a full term. She has time to grip the wheel of leadership.
But one thing is clear right now. Kevin Rudd’s problem was never just communication, although it must be comforting in Labor circles to imagine it was. Gillard’s struggle over the last few months surely has shown how much a fallacy that belief is: changing the messenger hasn’t helped at all.
It’s only become worse for the ALP. Tony Abbott is if anything much more electable than he was while Kevin Rudd was leader.
Hence Gillard’s legitimacy crisis. One by one, the justifications for July’s leadership spill have collapsed: the Government is less popular than it once was, it is no better managed, its suite of policies are no more coherent, accepted, or closer to implementation.
In 2010, Gillard was given the role of Prime Minister. In 2011, her goal must be to own it.