Australians are hopelessly torn between an Opposition Leader who opposes everything and a Prime Minister who stands for nothing.
At least that appears to be the brutal assessment of many voters uncomfortable with Tony Abbott’s approach to politics, but struggling to understand the agenda of Gillard Labor.
Part of the problem rests with the Prime Minister herself. Despite initially promising to move the nation forward, the Gillard prime ministership has been associated more with policy u-turns than forward motion.
While Abbott’s “relentless negativity” has earned him the tag of ‘Dr No’, Gillard is surely the ‘Dr Who?’ of Australian politics, as two years into her prime ministership voters still don’t really know who she is or what she stands for. The reasons behind this are worthy of examination.
Without doubt Gillard is an enigmatic and contradictory figure in Australian politics. She is the loyal deputy who ultimately brought down her leader. She is the member of the Labor Left who won her position with the support of the Right. She is both radical and conservative. She is an atheist who champions the Bible. She opposes off-shore processing, then she proposes it. And the list goes on…
In many ways Gillard is a postmodern politician who had the potential to transcend the old divisions of the left and right. Her business-like emphasis on “getting the job done” and acting in “the national interest” reflects this.
The problem is that while politics may not be as ideological as it once was, it is not just about raw process; values are still at its core and through failing to clearly articulate those of her party, Gillard has compounded the public’s confusion and disenchantment with Labor.
The atmospherics of the hung parliament have also not helped Gillard. By their very nature minority parliaments require a more consensual form of politics. While a postmodern politician was perhaps best equipped to bring different parties together, in her public presentation Gillard has often failed to reflect this new reality. Presumably in an effort to assert her authority she has shown a tendency to announce her policy intentions in emphatic terms (eg: “we will get this done”).
In this frame that Gillard herself has set, the inevitable compromises of a hung parliament are all too often seen as a “back-flips” or policy “failures.” The result has been an undermining of the Prime Minister’s authority and charges of inconsistency from her opponents.
It does not follow however that Gillard is solely responsible for Labor’s current electoral woes. While the public’s disenchantment with the ALP appears to have been compounded under her leadership, the problems facing her party are not merely presentational, they run much deeper. In this sense, Gillard is a symptom not the cause; both a symbol and a product of Labor’s long term identity crisis.
Gillard fails to articulate a consistent set of Labor values precisely because these are no longer easy to identify. She simultaneously advocates both conservative and progressive positions as these embody her party.
The cause of the Prime Minister’s dilemma is twofold:
Firstly, Labor’s embrace of the economic rationalist policies traditionally associated with the conservative side of politics (during the Hawke and Keating years) robbed the ‘party of the workers’ of its central mission. Like many parties with social democratic traditions, Australian Labor has struggled to identify its raison d’etre in the new economy.
Secondly, following the more polarising nature of the Howard years, sharp differences have opened up within Labor’s constituency on a range of policy issues. This has meant an increasing tension between the voters of the progressive middle-class and its traditional working-class support base. The former are increasingly drawn to the Australian Greens and the latter are increasingly drawn to the Liberals.
In attempting to articulate a message that will resonate with both consistencies, Gillard has all too often descended into the banal. The “we are us” oration and her constant assurance, “I’m for jobs” are cases in point.
Gillard is an intriguing figure within national politics, embodying the contradictions that exist within her own party. Unfortunately for the ALP, if the polls are correct, Gillard Labor is a puzzle many Australians have given up trying to solve…
This piece was first published on The Drum Opinion on the 16th July 2012.