Wednesday, August 31, 2011


A fortnight ago the parliament returned after the winter break. Labor backbenchers still hoped that the clear air might provide a chance for Gillard to turn things around. Two weeks later it's obvious she can't.

The transition, the switch, the 'transfer' will occur, it's simply a matter of time. . .


The Gruen Transfer is an ABC television programme seeking to reveal the way advertisers encourage us to prefer their particular product. Every Wednesday night a panel of experts tries to dissect what's appeared on our screens, with humor, and sometimes vigorously debating the ethics (I use the word loosely) of the industry.

The drama comes from a weekly spat between two add-men: Russel Howcroft (who embraces modern materialist society in all its consumerist glory while wearing a tailored suit - no tie, of course) and Todd Sampson (dressed in black T-shirt and presenting an ideologically sound critique of the manipulative techniques of the industry).

The problem for Todd is, of course, that he's trying to pretend something can be what it's not. He wants the good parts of advanced industrial society without the negatives. Each week his idealism clashes, futilely, against Russel's economic realism with its insistence that if something 'works' it must therefore be right. This provides the drama. It's a formulaic panel show, but one for a sophisticated audience. The ineluctable consumer dynamic that drives our society is revealed. But the show also allows us to feel called about ourselves, because we understand how we're being manipulated. By the time the half-an-hour is up, a warm glow of superior knowledge is positively radiating from the television set.

Nevertheless, seems as if we don't much care for an informed critique any more. Although the program is still rating well, it's lost more than 350,000 viewers over the past year. The last season's final show came second in its timeslot; but now it's averaging sixth. Is the problem the formula? Has it suddenly become tired and lost its way? Or can the faltering ratings be blamed on the slowing economy and a growing feeling of concern about the future? Perhaps we are just less “relaxed and comfortable" as a society and less prepared, as a result, for a bit of hard introspection.

It's hard to be certain; perhaps it's a bit of everything. Adapting to the mood swings in our society is a tough job whether you're an advertiser, television producer, or political party. You've got to have a good product. Selling something (and getting repeat business) requires more than just “branding", because no one can shape-shift forever. But striking the right note is vital, especially in politics. It often takes ages before anyone can find out if the politicians have actually delivered what they promised and that's why we place such reliance on the integrity of the individuals who we elect to public office. If we can't trust what they say today, why should we believe their deliberately embroidered vision of a glorious future will turn out to be anything more than a chimera?

Unfortunately Julia Gillard is demonstrating a consistent propensity, whenever she has a choice, to pick the wrong alternative. Back when Kevin Rudd was, surprisingly, uncertain about whether to take his Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme to a double dissolution she urged him not too. Then, during the election campaign, she could have used weasel words to allow the eventual possibility of a carbon tax but instead chose to rule it out. Absolutely. That was the sort of thing the real Julia wasn't going to do. Then it turned out she would after all, because she was playing “make a deal" with the independents. In the advertising industry this sort of flip-flopping is called “trashing your brand". But it still wasn't fatal.

Armed with the advantages conferred by incumbency Gillard should have been able to resurrect her prime ministership. She's failed. Utterly. The sort of skills that enabled her to eventually (third time lucky) get preselection for a left-wing parliamentary seat weren't the same as the ones she needed to communicate with the broader electorate. A woman who everyone insists is lively, personable and engaging in private comes across as wooden and rigid in public. It's as if she's unable to reveal her genuine personality to anyone she doesn't already completely trust. This simply creates more barriers, leaving her lonely and besieged.

Now her attempt to counter the assault on backbencher Craig Thompson has left her sullied with her own future inextricably intertwined with his. Gillard had a choice as the sordid details of the affair emerged. She could have distanced herself from him, but instead of using space she turned to the instinctual habits of student politics. Shrilly and with confected outrage the Prime Minister began spraying counter-accusations at the opposition. Even over the weekend her former lover, Craig Emerson, was pressing the case that there was something disreputable about the way the Liberals had prosecuted the case against Thompson.

But something has finally changed. Until last week it had been conventional wisdom that it would be impossible for Gillard to be overthrown. For a start the independents proclaimed their deal was with her, not Labor. The finely balanced parliament with a government majority balanced on the razor of a single vote seemed to dictate her continued occupation of the Lodge. And although the party's primary vote is languishing in previously uncharted territory, backbenchers comforted themselves about their own futures by adding in Green preferences. These are no longer providing enough of a buffer to ensure Gillard continues as PM.

It was different when Caucus believed no one could do better than Gillard. Now that's changed. The working assumption is that no one could do worse.

In the 1st Nielsen poll after she became Prime Minister Labor's primary vote was 47 percent and her personal approval 21 points ahead of Tony Abbott. Last week’s Newspoll put the party on a risible primary of 27, with her own single-point lead well inside the poll’s margin of error. It's impossible to avoid the obvious conclusion. The more people see of the PM, the less they like her.

The Gruen Transfer takes its name from that special moment in a shopping mall where, completely surrounded by glaring lights, blaring music and gorgeous products, the consumer forgets why they came in the first place. Labor’s looking to make its own transfer and hoping it can find its way again.

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