Sunday, October 2, 2011


Everyone's gotten very excited about the need for Julia Gillard to keep moving forward until she's finally out of the picture.

This column simply makes the point that the delicate balance of parliamentary numbers makes it clear that she will decide both who comes to the Lodge and the manner of their coming.

It also reviews Susan Mitchell's new book on Tony Abbott.


With its subtitle a man's man" and cover photograph of Tony Abbott turning snags on the barbecue, it's quite evident that the author of the latest biography of the opposition leader feels particularly strongly about the man who is in line to become the next prime minister. The knowledge that the writer is Adelaide academic Susan Mitchell, who also wrote a biography of Margaret Whitlam and “Tall Poppies" the stories of nine successful Australian women, indicates that this is not likely to be a hagiography, turning lovingly over Abbott's progress from school, through university and the priesthood, and finally onwards and upwards through the Liberal party.

This is, indeed, a book for the True Believers. It is a cry of anguish from a good, well-meaning person who is horrified at the prospect of Abbott, in particular, leading the country. Turning the pages you can almost hear the screams of torment and distress – is this where, in the second decade of the 21st-century, the forlorn shore on which the country has finally been washed up, like discarded driftwood bobbing aimlessly through the Pacific?

The answer is, of course, that our current latitude and longitude were irrevocably determined the minute the last “politician of principle", Kevin Rudd, urged on by Julia Gillard, abandoned his promise to act on climate change. From that moment on it became apparent that the main aim of our politicians was to grab power. Not so they could wield it to altruistically guide the country to the sunlit uplands beyond, but rather for its own sake. That moment represented the crucial breach of promise with the electorate. Until then Labor's project had been infused with the idea that there was something greater than mere material progress. Politics was about tackling urgent great moral challenges. It was about something more than simply distributing the bounty of advanced industrial society, in an effort to ensure that there are two cars in every garage and plasma screens in every living room.

This is why Gillard's political stocks are flatlining. The polls insist that the more we see of the person who's leading the country, the less we like her. Nothing will turn this around. Labor's so-called “strategists" understand this and have finally recognised that the damage to the brand of retaining the PM will be greater than replacing her. Even installing a revolving door at the gate of the Lodge would be less of a problem than persisting with the current failed experiment.

The only real question in politics today is how this will be accomplished. Just because Gillard doesn't have the political skills to inspire us with her leadership doesn't mean that she is bereft of ability. She alone has the ability over the next few months to determine the country's future. A couple of months ago the PM still believed she could turn things around. It's as if she thought the crisp spring weather would, of itself, clean her image and whisk Abbott's negativity away. Politicians are never lacking in self-confidence, however this has failed to radiate in the electorate. The polls simply recognise her failure. They have now taken on the inevitability of an avalanche. Nothing can turn this around.

The back-room-boys so beloved of New South Wales politics love dealing with the hard world of political reality. This was the environment Bruce Hawker inhabited when he announced this week that dispatching Gillard might, just might, offer the party a circuit breaker it so desperately needs. But when this strategic suggestion comes from one of the electoral Svengalis who are responsible for state Labor's current desperate plight, you know the party is set on a course towards electoral oblivion. The cockroaches inhabiting the darkened spaces away from the political focus are there for a purpose. The apparatchiks are necessary, but they must never be allowed to take over the asylum. That's what happened in Sydney. Here in Canberra it's different – or should be, anyway.

Leadership should be left up to the politicians, the people who love the spotlight. But not everyone is cut out to bask in the centre of attention. Recognising personal inadequacy is always difficult. This week Gillard again attempted to break free of the forces that are pulling her down by giving an inspiring speech about our need to engage with Asia. This is a real issue, vital to the future of the country. It sank like a stone simply because she was the one proffering the ideas and no one believes she will be around long enough to implement anything.

The only thing left for Gillard to shape is the manner of her departure. This will determine her place in history and the way in which she is viewed by the party and the country. The eventual passing of the climate change legislation would mark a natural point for her to bow-out of the premiership. By taking this decision – accepting the inevitable – Gillard will have the opportunity to determine who will succeed her.

If Gillard’s leadership fails Mitchell’s fear is that we’ll end up inhabiting the world she conjures up in her book. She's quite open about the fact that she wouldn't have written a hostile biography if Malcolm Turnbull was still Liberal leader. She sees him as a unifying force: the Abbott that emerges from her pages is divisive and shallow; a man driven by reactionary instincts. And the key to deciphering her work lies in the subtitle – A Man’s Man. For Mitchell, this is what causes the most concern about the alternative prime minister. She believes his approach is firmly staked on a sexist foundation. She suggests this, in turn, is the natural evolution of a particular religious outlook.

For some of us these are ancient battles, long ago resolved and no longer vital. Mitchell worries about the rolling back of hard-won gains, particularly the gains of feminism (such as the right to have an abortion) but also more broadly as well. Some of her judgments’ are one-dimensional and don't mesh with my own personal knowledge of Abbott. Perhaps more unfortunately the work is not informed by recent interviews with the political players. This limits the book, particularly when attempting to analyse a mercurial personality such as Abbott's. It’s great service is, however, to refocus our attention on the person who currently stands to become our next Prime Minister.

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