Et tu, Gillard?

Overnight the face of contemporary Australian politics – that lacklustre, bureaucratic, increasingly-resembling-a-trainwreck Rudd – was met with a leadership challenge.

This comes on the back of a downward plummet in the polls [debatable] and numerous backflips on the ETS, refugees, Afghanistan and recent confrontations over the RSPT – ‘that great, big fat tax’ the mining industry and the Liberals are so distraught about.

So Labor’s factional warlords have decided it’s time for a new figurehead, and few doubt that Julia Gillard will win. But what does Gillard really represent?

Gillard has been an IR lawyer since 1987, a politician since ’98. She may have been on the Left in her days of student politics, but it’s difficult to detect a trace of that now. Conservative and progressive pundits alike adore her. She’s never challenged Rudd on any policy and there seems to be this idea – ostensibly because she’s a woman? – that she has the best interests of refugees, the Australian public and the mining sector at heart.

Personally, one of my favourite memories of Gillard is during the three weeks of intensive bombing of the Gaza strip at the start of 2009, when she declared that Israel was merely exercising its ‘right to defend itself’. Jake Lynch covered her pro-Israel politics here.

Labor is supposed to be the union party, but these days they’re more interested in defending business and maintaining discriminatory building union legislation – just ask Ark Tribe.

As one MP said earlier today, ‘this is madness’. The fact is this dismal performance in the polls [also debatable] and in governance is Labor’s failure. Because, these days, Labor only has pro-business and centre-right populist policies, which are very far from their roots. Much of their vote has been lost to the Greens due to their conservatism and policy backflips. But, mostly, because of their lack of concern about the issues directly and immediately affecting their electoral base.

For anyone who thinks under Gillard’s leadership Labor will be more progressive, pro-environment, pro-union, anti-war, pro-human rights, I say, that’s trick photography.

Larvatus Prodeo is covering the spill, the ballot and undoubtedly the aftermath, as are Crikey and Drum.

Your thoughts?

Jacinda Woodhead

Jacinda Woodhead is a former editor of Overland and current law student.

More by Jacinda Woodhead ›

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  1. God, it’s not my party but this episode is depressing on all sorts of levels.
    As Jac says, all this can mean is that Labor wants to go to the polls on a platform that’s harder on refugees and softer on mining profits. The Right of the party is gambling on Gillard being able to enthuse a certain number of Labor supporters on the basis of her history on the Left of the party, even as she adopts every conservative talking point.
    I think we need to start preparing for an Abbott administration.

  2. I agree. This seems like a cynical move. Rather than making their policies more progressive, they think they can win voters back by changing their image. All to stop a stop a haemorrhage to the Greens.

    The only kind of solace that I can get from this whole maneuvering is at least we’re in a period when the Labor Party are transparently the party for the status quo.

    Recaptcha: minced banks (… if only!)

  3. paid huber says reCAPTCHA, but it should be paid hubris

    what a debacle it all is – i hate them all for being so selfish, gutless and disappointing

    and how depressing that Julia should be such a weak-as-piss first woman of Australian politics to have a shot at PM

    they should all be ashamed – I know I am

  4. So the spectacle of federal politics continues (could be worse, come to NSW). Unfortunately federal politics was dragged so far to the right by the Howard-Costello Comedy Troupe that Labor had to step into the middle to drag it back, that said they have now stared too long into the abyss. I don’t think we’ll see an Abbott administration but we’re certainly in for a shake up.

  5. It will be interesting to see how the Left responds.
    Are we still all in thrall to symbolism over substance, even after the apology led to nothing and the hopey, changey Obama stuff meant only more war in Afghanistan?

  6. “She’s never challenged Rudd on any policy and there seems to be this idea – ostensibly because she’s a woman? – that she has the best interests of refugees, the Australian public and the mining sector at heart.” I think you’re right, Jacinda – I have already heard (from Paul Bongiorno mind you) that she may bring ‘a woman’s sensitivity’ to the position.

  7. “Are we still all in thrall to symbolism over substance” ?
    Sadly, I reckon yes, Jeff, we are. If we weren’t, we would have a different kind of society and government all together.

  8. Train wreck it is; and business as usual. Make it easy for big business to get its way, lock up the militants, shed more tears for the agents of mayhem in foreign wars, shed an equal amount for flying entrepreneurs doing strange things in The Heart of Darkness, lay on the Orwellian spin, lock up and hide the refugees, preferably sink them, put the environment in the too hard basket, and pretend it is all ethical and moral, all the while feeding the ego with an assured ‘place in history’ and a hugely generous after-life with taxpayer funded retirement package. For the good of the nation? Don’t make me laugh.

  9. ‘No saviour from on high deliver’

    The political imagination of the labor machine is close to nil. Some femminist and left cover (all entirely symbolic) may hold things together briefly, but I suggest a look at NSW to see where we are headed..

  10. Her first speech sets out the rightward lurch:

    Ms Gillard said she believed in a government that rewards those that work the hardest “not those that complain the loudest”.

    She said hard work, decency and effort should be rewarded.

    “The people who play by the rules, set their alarms early, get their kids off to school, stand by the neighbours and love their country.”

    Strong border protection pledge

    There has been speculation that a Gillard-led government would shift further to the right on border security.

    Ms Gillard said she understood Australians were “disturbed” by the number of unauthorised boat arrivals, and pledged strong border protection.

    “I can understand that sense of anxiety,” she said, adding Australia was a sanctuary. “It’s our home.”

    The government had a responsibility to manage the nation’s borders and manage the question of asylum seekers “in the best possible way”.

    Ms Gillard said she had “no truck” for fearmongering on the issue for political advantage.

    “But I am full of understanding for the perspective that the Australian people that they want strong management of our borders and I will provide it.”

  11. As I’ve discussed in my blog this is just MPs scared of losing their seats with Kevin and putting Julia instead in order to save their bums. I think Julia Gillard always wanted to be PM but not this way. She was pushed to step in, and she’ll have it tough now.

    She came from the left, but we’ll see where she goes. I don’t think she will harden her position to the right, because Tony Abbott has already pushed the Liberals so far right and Labor has moved so much to the right, that they’re already losing a lot of people on the left.

    I think Labor will play a dual game. Trying to appear tough not to lose votes on the right, whilst making attempts to regain votes on the left with some, mostly symbolic, gestures.

  12. How very, very odd. I found myself in agreement with Tony Abbott (Australian PM’s should not be dumped in mid-term coups by their parties) and very much disagreeing with Bob Brown (This is a day for raising champagne glasses.

    1. I was just saying to a friend how eerie it was to read Abbott’s comments and see he agreed with me. Strange days indeed.

      ReCAPTCHA: slot steadfastly

      Uncertain what that means.

      1. ‘Most peculiar momma’.
        Vote-wise it seems there is much talk of Labor voters voting Green. Whoopee.
        I see the Gillard takeover as a straightforward coup made with the encouragement of the mining lobby. Which is why it is so bizarre to hear Brown speaking of a ‘champagne day.’ He appears to have lost his mind.

        1. Brown’s speaking of a ‘chamagne day’ concerns me… does he say this because Gillard’s leadership is more likely to lead to a Green’s swing in the votes or because Gillard is his preferred Prime Minister (excluding himself)? And if Gillard is his preferred Prime Minister, why? Or maybe as you suggest Stephen, he has lost his mind…

          1. He has lost his mind. Since last year it’s become increasingly obvious that its corporate interests that decide
            what happens. Make no mistake: this was a coup organised
            by the sinister nexus of capital and power
            politics.Its puts 1975 in the shade.

  13. To Jacinda and bloggers thanks for excellent analysis lacking in mainstream media. Why do we continue to invest so much in the leader rather than look at the policies of the party? If we were to do that how on earth could we think that anything will be different under Julia. She’s a talented political performer for sure, she’s a great communicator but the message she delivers will be the same message as Rudd’s, just more articulate. And while many of us may celebrate Australia’s first female PM, what is more important is whether Julia is any more of a humanitarian than her predecessor/s, is she any more interested in social justice than they were, and finally, just because she is a woman does that make her a feminist, or a feminist who wants to make the lives of unemployed women, refugee women and women who live on or below the poverty line (and so many more women who do not have access to power, privilege and education) better.

  14. i think that even though labor’s policies are progressively becoming more and more to the right, Gillard is genuinely basing them on the views of the Australian people as a whole… i may be wrong.
    in my view the scariest thing about Australia is how far to the right, as a country, our views are becoming. and does anyone know why Bob Brown celebrates the leadership change?

  15. Will, I reckon you’ve summed it up nicely. The Labor Party, no matter who leads it, reflects the conservatism of the people it represents. Could an education system that reinforces the status quo rather than inspires us to question it, and the media who depend on the salacious headline, soundbytes and spin, be to blame?

  16. The Labor Party, no matter who leads it, reflects the conservatism of the people it represents.

    On which policy items exactly? Asylum seekers, maybe, at a pinch; but surely not on climate change, the status of public utilities and privatisation, foreign policy, budgetary allocations for health and education, industrial relations, taxation policy, i.e. almost all of the important stuff. On these issues, Caucus – and a fortiori the ministry, under whichever Labor government – is far to the right of most ALP voters.

    Unless, of course, by “the people it represents”, you don’t mean the people who vote for the ALP, but those who really wield the power and set the policy agenda. If so, I’m with you there: the ALP reflects their beliefs perfectly.

  17. I would be so happy that we have a woman Prime Minister if (at least) 51% of the cabinet were women too and if I didn’t feel like reiterating ‘how far indeed we are from a true women’s liberation than [is illustrated] by these [words], spoken by Elizabeth Cady Stanton in 1868 to the Women’s Suffrage Convention in Washington: ‘Though disenfranchised, we have few women in the best sense; we have simply so many reflections, varieties and dilutions of the masculine gender…To keep a foothold in society, woman must be as near like man as possible, reflect his ideas, opinions, virtues, motives, prejudices, and vices…She must look at everything from its dollar-and-cent point of view, or she is a mere romancer…And now man himself stands appalled at the results of his own excesses, and mourns in bitterness that falsehood, selfishness, and violence are the law of life.’

  18. In my view, conservatism can be judged by who the people vote for: ALP policy on refugees is as conservative as the Liberal Party – why else would Julia be ramping up border protection in her first speech if not for what polling in key seats tells the Labor Party. And as far as privatisation goes, Labor has privatised everything from banks to water. Foreign policy – we’re in Afghanistan aren’t we? ALP industrial relations policy is moderately better than in the Howard years but hardly a radical shift away from Work Choices, taxation policy – doesn’t Labor subsidise private health insurance and private schools. And what about negative gearing that helps the rich get richer. The mining tax was courageous but look at the people’s response to that – Gillard has read the mood accurately and is already talking about negotiation with the mining industry. Labor’s backing away from its commitment to climate change has hardly caused a riot in the streets though I do think a number of ALP voters feel sold out and will vote Greens. I agree with you that people who wield the power set the policy agenda but I lament that the ALP have been their willing agents. But perhaps I’ve misunderstood your question.

  19. Sorry, Trish, you do seem to have missed my point.

    I am of course aware that the ALP has right-wing positions in all those areas: I mentioned them myself. But in each area – save immigration, perhaps – the party is well to the right of its voters, who in any case play little role in policy formation. Or are you honestly suggesting that Labor support for continuing military involvement in Afghanistan, the preservation of certain WorkChoices planks, or the existing tax treatment of capital gains or negative gearing, comes largely in response to popular pressure?

    This argument, where a “reactionary” populace is deplored and a distant, authoritarian party elite defended (“the government was courageous but look at the people’s response”) reminds me of Brecht’s famous lines:

    Would it not be easier
    In that case for the government
    To dissolve the people
    And elect another?

  20. And surely you’ve noticed the circularity of an argument which states that the ALP is conservative because of the people who vote for it, then locates the conservatism of such people in the fact they vote for Labor.

  21. The more I think about this, the more disastrous it is.
    Think about the two policy implications we know of so far. That is, Feeney and Shorten and the rest of that gruesome ultra-right crew backed Gillard because they wanted Labor to change tack on refugees and the mining super profits tax.
    Now think about Rudd’s refugee policy. Wasn’t exactly soft, was it! Remember all the stuff about people smugglers having to ‘rot in hell’! So how is Gillard going to trump that? Almost certainly, she’s going to return to some variant of a Howard-era refugee policy.
    As for the resources tax, Clive Hamilton wrote a very good piece on this not so long ago. He said:

    So the dispute over the super profits tax is a defining moment in Australia’s democratic history, because here we see in its starkest form a conflict between the raw power of capital and the public interest.

    The mining industry has been basking in its own success since its brilliantly successful campaign to defeat the introduction of an emissions trading system. It was an exercise in political thuggery rarely seen in this country. No remorse was felt over the direct thwarting of the popular will embodied in a government that won an election in which both main parties promised an emissions trading scheme. [snip]
    Today we have an angry and powerful minority holding the country to ransom. The dark mutterings of Forrest and Palmer about the spread of communism in Australia are laughable for their paranoid absurdity. What we are in fact seeing is not an attack by the proletariat on the bourgeoisie, but the brutal assertion of power by the richest people in the country.

    OK, so where are we now?
    Gillard’s said that she’ll re-open negotiations, which must mean that she’s now prepared to offer some kind of compromise.
    In other words, the billionaires’ perception that they can determine police … is about to be spectacularly confirmed.
    In summation, we’re watching the most conservative Labor administration in recent history — in fact, probably of all time — make a substantial lurch to the Right. And it’s doing so with the enthusiastic support of most of the liberal Left.

  22. Well, I just heard from a friend who works for an aid agency, the kind of NGO that deals with refugees. They are, apparently, having champagne to celebrate this great feminist victory, even as it becomes increasingly clear what Gillard’s about to do to refugees. Of course, a lot of people on those boats are women, too — but, hey, whatev.
    I have another theory on this, too, that no-one else seems to believe. We are now, it seems to me, much more likely to get Abbott. Gillard and her Labor backers have signalled to the most aggressive sections of big business that any time they don’t like government policy, all they — and their Murdoch mouthpieces — have to do is start kicking up a fuss and the government will cave. OK, well, these people have a lot of other policies that they don’t like. For instance, the Oz today is already asking whether Gillard’s going to pursue industrial relations reform.
    So either Labor keeps giving them everything they want, and risks alienating all its support base, or they’ll just throw their weight behind the Liberals.
    And how does the ALP run its line about Abbott being an extremist as Gillard goes chasing traditional Tory policies?
    Yes, she will have a honeymoon, as everyone gushes over how smart and confident and impressive she is. But they did that for Rudd, too.
    It will end very quickly, and then we will have Abbott.

    1. O Jeff, what a horrible scenario. No! Not Abbott. Give me Julia any day. (What a shame (kind of, in a sick sort of way) that Costello is out of the picture.

  23. Okay, on this point I disagree. The Liberals are never going to do anything to displease big business either, so it’s not like they’ll trump on some kind of strength of doctrine. (Except for a religious one, which is sending wildly mixed signals.)

    If we ‘re looking at two ultra-conservative options, and it’s Abbott vs Gillard, Gillard’s always going to be the more popular of the two; she appears saner, fractionally more progressive and more rational. I think that for the commentariat and business – and Brown apparently – she’s the most attractive package they’ve had in quite some time.

    The fact is, Labor already has WorkChoices-lite. The real electoral policy issues will be the mining tax, skilled migration (which will require fostering more anti-refugee sentiment) and the ETS and how it’s going to be applied. (They need to appear to be doing something about climate change, and a scheme that doesn’t negatively impact on profits would be ideal.) Yet another area Abbott is destabilised by.

    As for refugee policy, we all know how low the actual intake is, so it’s only ever a political kicking ball and an exercise in racist scapegoating. (Granted, the Afghan and Sri Lankan visa freezing is about something more.) A number of industries would like to see increased skilled migration, but maintaining the flame of racial intolerance remains important.

    From a crass statistical perspective, the likelihood of Labor losing is very, very low. And Gillard might even move women in business to vote Labor, purely because of the rhetoric of her ascendancy – a woman knows women’s problems best.

    Neither Australia nor the US is pulling out of Sheridan’s wars anytime soon, but they weren’t 48hrs ago either.

    1. OK, let me riposte.
      The papers today are full of polls showing a surge of support for Labor. Now, this always happens with a new leader, so it’s not worth very much. But look at this one
      What it shows is that Green voters have flocked back to Labor. When you think about it, it makes sense. The tertiary educated Left which forms the core of Green support is also the sector most engaged in celebrations of the symbolism of Gillard’s leadership: she’s a woman, a feminist, an atheist, etc. You can see that sentiment spilling out across (for example) Twitter at the moment. It’s key to the whole project of rebadging the administration as dynamic and exciting and so on: getting back on board the people who can help Labor sell itself — the activists and the propagandists, if you like.
      Yet these are also the people who are going to be most outraged when Gillard does what we’ve been told she’s intending to do: that is, toughen up refugee policy. In other words, even more so than with Rudd, the enthusiasm is going to be followed by a wave of disenchantment. Specifically, think about what will happen if a refugee boat turns up in the next few weeks. To distinguish herself from Rudd, Gillard’s going to have to do something pretty full-on, probably involving Howard-style detentions.
      I guess the Labor braniacs calculate that, by punishing refugees, they can win sufficient outer suburban support to compensate for the inner-city votes they’ll lose.
      But of course the people who’ve come back in the last day or so are, as I said, the activists: the kinds of people who hand out how-to-vote cards and stick up posters and write letters and the rest of it. They will be gutted over what’s going to happen to refugees, and their disenchantment will spread a wave of confusion and demoralisation throughout the party. The xenophobes Gillard wants to appeal to are not going to campaign for the party — and, in fact, in any bidding war over refugees are just as likely to go to the coalition.
      That’s the difference. Anti-refugee sentiment inspires the Liberal cadre (it’s pretty much what the basis on which they’re recruited) but demoralises Labor cadre.
      Remember, in the last election, Rudd pulled it all together partly because of anti-Howard sentiment and partly because the campaign against Workchoices was, in fact, an issue that encouraged Labor supporters to hold their noses and come out for the party.
      What’s the equivalent for Gillard?
      Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe, for instance, they’ll come up with some cunning way of defusing the refugee issue. But I can’t see it. After all, that was Rudd’s whole strategy — don’t tackle the racism head-on and try to come up with a compromise that seems reasonable — and it’s precisely in opposition to that that Gillard’s been parachuted into power.
      Yes, she will be popular at first. But she’s resting on a massive and unresolved contradiction between the job she’s been given to do (move the party to the Right) and enthusiasm for her as a symbolic figure. I cannot see how it won’t end up spreading demoralisation throughout Labor, and thus preparing the ground for Abbott.

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