On the centre-Left, a new election meme has been incubating, one that attributes Gillard’s persistent unpopularity to the hostility of the media, which has been either too shallow (the Monthly) or too sexist (Anne Summers) to appreciate her achievements.
Now, obviously, News Ltd has campaigned against Gillard hysterically and relentlessly, and this will only intensify in the months to come. Mark Latham, of all people, came out with a decent line when he quipped that if Gillard cured cancer the Murdoch papers would attack her for neglecting other diseases.
Yet blaming the media rather misses the point.
The right-wing press – its sexism, its conservatism and, yes, its inanity – forms part of the landscape against which any reform project defines itself. A progressive candidate will inevitably receive constant visits from Murdoch’s flying monkeys; by definition, a successful campaign necessarily involves countering Tony Abbott’s grisly Hallelujah chorus on the op-ed pages. That’s why attributing Gillard’s woes to the right wing media might be compared to explaining the failure of a long-distance swimmer by complaining about the dampness of the water.
More fundamentally, the notion that Gillard Labor represents a progressive project somehow thwarted by the Australian and Larry Pickering simply doesn’t hold up. The ALP possesses, after all, a sophisticated media management strategy – it’s just that the strategy doesn’t involve fighting the conservative press so much as channeling it.
Hence Kevin Rudd’s famous response to policy advice: ‘That’s a fine idea – but how do I explain it on Today Tonight?’
Now, Gillard’s misogyny speech provided a glimpse of a different approach, one that sought to overcome prejudices rather than pander to them – and the ecstatic response that ensued hinted at a constituency willing to fight when given a lead. But, for the most part, Gillard’s political instincts are the same as Rudd’s, more given to pandering to backwardness rather than overcoming it. Think of gay marriage, think of the resources tax: two instances where a substantial majority could have been mobilised against whatever slurs and idiocies the Telegraph cooked up. Instead, Gillard has responded to controversies by giving the Right what it wants.
It seems odd to have to point out the fundamental conservatism of Gillard Labor, perhaps the most right-wing ALP government we’ve ever seen. After all, Rudd proudly proclaimed himself to be both an economic and social conservative – and insofar as Gillard has distinguished herself from the Rudd administration in which she was a key player, it’s been by lurching rightward on the most highly contentious issues.
Yet the imminence of an Abbott government makes an honest assessment of Gillardism increasingly difficult. For many on the Left, the prospect of a Liberal landslide under Tony Abbott seems so apocalyptic that preventing a Coalition victory becomes the first, second and third priority, and pointing out the ALP’s failings seems, at best, an intolerable indulgence and at worst the provision of aid to the enemy.
Clearly, the election of Tony Abbott will be A Bad Thing. Scott Morrison’s suggestion that refugees be monitored by police hinted at the cruelties we might expect under a Liberal government. ‘There is a register in relation to sex offenders’, explained Eric Abetz, in the wake of Morrison’s remarks, ‘and the community has spoken in relation to that. And communities do want to be notified.’
Yet you can’t discuss the ‘refugees as pedophiles’ notion honestly without noting the relationship between the Liberals’ plan to treat asylum seekers as criminals and Gillard’s policy of preventing refugees from working while paying them a pension that’s less than the dole. For what does the Labor policy do, if not establish bipartisan support for the notion that fleeing persecution makes a person in some way guilty? And, if they’re guilty, well, alerting the police makes sense, doesn’t it?
When Tony Abbott became Liberal leader, his extremism seemed, at first, likely to keep the conservatives out of office for a generation. Here was a hard-Right activist, deeply committed to a religiously derived social conservatism out of step with how most Australians live their lives. Surely he’d never become Prime Minister!
Well, Labor’s own conservatism has managed to normalise most of Abbott’s ideas, thus rendering him entirely electable. Take his ideas about sexuality. Same-sex marriage enjoys majority support, and has done so for a long time, especially among young people. If Gillard had backed equal marriage and quickly passed laws making it possible, she’d have neatly wedged the Liberals. Abbott would face a rank-and-file revolt if he lined up with the ho-ho-homosexuals. Yet, once same-sex weddings had actually taken place, a Liberal pledge to rescind them would have become equally difficult, since it would have committed Abbott to separating happy couples, whose union most people support.
Instead, Gillard, presumably on the basis of some sort of deal with the Australian Christian Lobby, announced her personal opposition to gay marriage, a stance that both demoralised potential Labor activists and, more importantly, legimitised the Liberals’ position. It’s now very hard for the ALP to paint Abbott as a bigot, when there’s not a lick of paint between his stance and that of the PMs.
So that’s part of the problem with using the prospect of an Abbott government to give the ALP a blank cheque: it means you can’t explain how Labor got itself into such a terrible mess in the first place.
But there’s more to it than that.
Given that every survey suggests the inevitability of Gillard’s defeat, the relentless warnings about the awfulness of the coming Libpocalypse run the risk of fostering massive demoralisation when the black day’s actually upon us. Now, it’s possible that the polls are wrong and Abbott will never see the inside of the Lodge – but you wouldn’t bet your house on it.
That’s why it’s useful to remind ourselves that, in almost every protest campaign in recent years, Gillard’s been on the wrong side. Think about the equal love marches, think about the refugee issue, think about civil liberties and war and pensions to single parents. It’s not as if activists and community campaigners will be losing an ally if Gillard goes. On almost any issue you can name, the struggles will continue, irrespective of who wins the election.
Yes, it’s possible that Abbott might open up some new fronts, especially if emboldened by a big win. Yet, while Gillard Labor is clearly hated, the popular mood doesn’t seem to involve a great deal of enthusiasm either for Abbott personally or conservatism as a whole. Rather, much of the sentiment comes from a deeper discontent about governments as a whole, part of the general anti-incumbent mood prevailing throughout the industrialised world at the moment.
Furthermore, the conservatives might have papered over their own divisions because of the intensity of their hatred for Gillard and the limitlessness of their personal ambitions but that won’t cut it in the longer term. It’s not as if Abbott’s put forward a philosophical manifesto to which he’s won his colleagues. On the contrary, the Liberal platform consists of a grab bag of whatever ideas seemed promising at the time. After the election euphoria subsides, an Abbott administration might very well replicate the same sort of internal shenanigans we’ve seen from Labor.
That’s not to discount how depressing an election this is likely to be. As well as a Labor wipeout, the poll might also mean a reversal to the Greens, who have placed themselves in a position where it’s unclear whether they’re running in opposition to Labor or whether they’re standing in defence of the alliance they made with it.
Yet, though an Abbott government will be nasty, it’s quite likely to be weak, too, and so we’re not necessarily facing anything like another Howard decade. A lot depends on how prepared the Left is for another round of struggles. Facing reality is a necessary first step.