This column represents my take on attitudes towards her within the Labor Party . . .
THE BIGGEST (ELECTION) LOSER
It’s pretty hard to identify anyone who won the election a fortnight ago. But a loser? Well, that’s easy. It’s Julia Gillard.
At the moment no one in Labor will dare utter publically what most are already privately convinced of, and that is that their leader seems incapable of avoiding political blunders. For some, the latest disaster was the way she courted the independents last week. The television cameras caught the PM as she attempted to bow and scrape her way into the three unaligned MP’s favour. She offered them specially bound folders, supposedly demonstrating how much Labor was contributing to their electorates. The image perfectly caught the tawdry spirit of her party’s entire campaign, which concentrated on building rail-lines through marginal, western Sydney electorates, instead of attempting to tie-together a coherent message spelling out exactly why Labor needed to be re-elected.
It was the motto Gillard took to the election: “don’t bother asking what you can do for your country, vote for me because I’m the highest bidder”.
It was a desperate attempt to reassure a few voters that plumping for Labor was in their own personal interest – and it (more or less) worked. Just as in the South Australian election earlier this year, it’s now become apparent that the party was able to concentrate the most virulent swings in its safest seats. That’s why a massive collapse in Labor’s primary vote didn’t translate into a similar loss of electorates. The party apparatchiks should be congratulating themselves, because the weapons used to shore up the vote in particular seats actually worked a treat – what went wrong were the unexpected losses that turned tactical victory into strategic disaster.
As in Melbourne and Denison. The seat of Melbourne’s been held by Labor since 1904; Denison (inner-city Hobart) has been held by Labor for the past 23 years in a state that, this year, swung to the left. Yet there were amazing swings of, respectively, 10.1 and 16.4 percent away from the ALP in these seats. These voters plainly didn’t like the platitudes Gillard was spouting and, given an alternative, decided they were going to refuse to vote for her. These independents didn’t win by inspiring the electorate . . . rather they surged to victory on a wave of disapproval. Preferences demonstrated that a decisive majority of the voters wanted anyone – anyone – but Gillard as PM. She failed to inspire us with a vision.
If just a few voters in these previously ‘safe Labor’ seats had done what they did last time (preferencing the ALP after lodging their protest) the government would’ve be returned and we’d be talking about Labor’s cunning machine-men who’d established the brilliant formula allowing the party to hold government. But the voters didn’t. Instead, they consciously placed Labor last, a choice that’s resulted in a hung parliament.
The strike extended across the country. It was reflected in the highest proportion of Green votes ever recorded, the biggest informal vote ever, and a further massive number of people who couldn’t be bothered to get their names marked off the rolls, even at the risk of a fine. This reflects alienation on a massive scale. People might not have been inspired by Tony Abbott, but they were even less enthusiastic about the prospect of returning Gillard. Because, remember, this was her campaign. Remember when she proudly proclaimed her intention to “step up and take personal charge of what we do” and unleash the “real Julia”. Well, it turns out that people didn’t like this façade any better than they liked the old (presumably fake) Julia.
Gillard’s brand is trashed. The only thing that’s preventing her party from dragging her name through the mud is the prospect that somehow she can find a way to do a deal with the independents that would allow her to cling onto government. This explains her desperation on display in the recent negotiations – this isn’t simply about being PM, it’s about her own future. Because, unless she can cut a deal, Gillard is finished.
It’s no wonder she’s attempting to lay the blame for the many mistakes of the campaign on Mark Arbib and Karl Bitar: after all, they’re not going to answer back, are they? But this is simply a self-serving explanation that will not bear examination. Is she really attempting to say they failed, and she had nothing to do with the catastrophe? The true explanation is much simpler. It’s also far more confronting in its deadly implications for Labor’s future.
Forty-seven years ago last weekend Martin Luther King stood in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington and electrified the audience of some 200,000 people with the words; “I have a dream”. There was no detailed road-map laid out in the concept he sketched – of a united and equal America, where a black person was as valued as a white – but nobody faulted his vision. He inspired his listeners and his vision created a new reality. He was a leader.
Gillard, on the other hand. Yes, well, it’s difficult to know exactly what Gillard represents without the benefit of focus group findings to provide a guide to her innermost thoughts. How could anyone who really believes in global warming seriously consider off-loading policy to some kind of pretend citizens assembly of 150 people? And how about her disastrous attempt to foist a new refugee processing centre onto the East Timorese?
Don’t forget it was Gillard herself who decided to stab Kevin Rudd, and not anyone from the shadowy ‘machine’. She claimed she’d been provoked into action because Rudd had sent his chief-of-staff around to take soundings of people’s loyalty within the party. And that was enough to make her snap? Really? Gillard then claimed the party had “lost its way” but she spectacularly failed to place it back on track. That’s why she had to rush to the election, because band-aid solutions were rapidly coming unstuck. She decided on the timing and orchestrated the campaign.
Gillard failed to inspire voters and that’s why we’ve arrived in our current state of indecision and confusion. Labor’s serried ranks are still arrayed behind the leader and bound together by a rigid discipline. Watch how that changes if victory should happen to slip from their grasp.