La Gillard enchaîné

The merry-go-round of Australian politics is revolving at sickening speed. Society’s craving for instant gratification has led to demands of perfection immediately and inevitable failure makes us repeat past errors. Today’s talk is of replacing Julia Gillard with Kevin Rudd. This way madness lies – Rudd’s knifing was wrong but there is no reason to believe he will become Lazarus of Queensland.

Leaving aside media hype, and despite the High Court and Craig Thomson there is no imminent threat to the government. Its coalition with the Greens and independents is predicated on the leadership of Julia Gillard and all bets are off with anyone else at the helm. Coalitions are common in Europe but considered the devil’s work in Anglo-Saxon countries (apart from Ireland where amoral politics will tolerate any governing arrangement as long as it can turn a quick buck.)
Here power-sharing arouses fear and suspicion in both major parties. Keating called the Senate “unrepresentative swill” where tiny Tasmania has as many seats as NSW with 14 times less population. But the Senate also has a wonderfully complex system of proportional representation and plethora of candidates that made the ballot paper the size of tiny Tasmania. What Keating was really complaining about was the Senate did not agree with him. There is a perception today the country is anarchic when all that is really happening is a government in power whose policies some people don’t agree with.The fact “the Coalition” does not like coalitions is particularly funny as it tries to combine the neoliberals of dry neo-con bent with the agrarian socialists of the Nationals. The US Government was worried Barnaby Joyce had become a lightning rod for the resistance, particularly over climate change. His implacable opposition to action on climate change led to the unseating of Malcolm Turnbull as Liberal leader and Tony Abbott taking the party to the right.

I was at a meeting in Roma on Monday where Joyce spoke to the local business community. His ability to communicate is impressive. But there was little new I hadn’t heard him say before except the admission he was the only accountant in parliament which “scared the hell out of him”. His audience was sympathetic and anger was directed at the government. There was a question from a lady still annoyed the political system allowed Gillard to knife Rudd in the first place. This lady was personally affronted a leader not elected by the people was now running the country. “How can Labor get away with this?” she asked Joyce.

Joyce explained that the Westminster system allowed this. “You as voters chose your MP and the MPs come together to decide who leads them.” Joyce conceded it could happen on both sides of politics but declined to talk about the last time it happened in Australia (The Libs McMahon ousting Gorton in 1971). He put the boot into Labor saying Rudd’s overthrow was the first time in has happened to a first-time prime minister.

Politicians should not be surprised when voters see it as a failing in the system. Rudd’s overthrow was a very Australian coup. There was no rioting nor did the stock exchange collapse. The voters stored away their unease and anger and took it out at the ballot box where Labor was badly mauled in 2010.

The Government scraped over the line thanks to Julia Gillard’s negotiating skills and willingness to compromise with a variety of political perspectives. There were more conservatives than non-conservatives in the parliament so the Liberals played their cards poorly. Tony Abbott’s treacherous nature put off Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott. The pair knew any arrangement would be jettisoned as soon as Abbott had the numbers. Instead Gillard offered a power sharing arrangement guaranteed to 2013. Despite the ideological contortions Oakeshott took 17 agonising minutes to talk through, he knew Gillard made the better offer.

Falling just one seat short of Government left the Coalition with a strong sense of injustice it has nursed since the election. The party has attacked the “legitimacy” of the government though there is no sign of the police arresting Gillard any time soon.

Gillard chose the high road for her administration when she did an about turn on carbon taxation. It was an enormous gamble which she knew would excite opposition on two fronts. Firstly it opened up the breach of trust. Keating and Howard survived similar breaches though neither suffered a nickname from Alan Jones like Juliar.

Secondly it galvanised an Australian tea party movement convinced climate change is the work of a cabal of communists. Personified by the recent “convoy of no confidence” (run by the Australian truckies, who will be hit hard by the tax) it sought to magnify the illegitimacy of the government with a massive people movement.

The Convoy failed. It attracted poor responses from most towns it visited (except Bob Katter’s Charters Towers). But it had a sympathetic run in the media as it fed the “government in crisis” narrative. The convoy supporters’ angry attack on Anthony Albanese yesterday showed what it was really about. They were not there to listen but to jeer. None were likely to vote Labor in any case.

This is a confected crisis. The parliament has two years to go and Labor can govern their way through it. Barring a by-election or a more serious charge for Craig Thomson, Gillard should survive to the next election. That will give the electorate enough time to look carefully at achievements as well as promises. By 2013, the carbon tax and the NBN will be realities too hard for Abbott to overturn and this week’s High Court result may actually make refugee processing easier for the Government to sell morally because it forces them to do it in Australia. Tony Abbott’s glib glass jaw has not yet been fully tested. Despite all the noise and fury, Gillard could still win in 2013, if given the chance.


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