by Malcolm Farnsworth
It was easily dismissed as silly season puffery but Julia Gillard laid out the ALP’s re-election strategy in her letter to Sunday Telegraph readers last weekend.
The strategy has been developed over most of the past year. It’s a story built around Gillard. In the letter, she says people praise her resilience. “I don’t know how you do it,” they tell her.
The letter begins with mention of what would have been her parents’ 55th wedding anniversary. It ends with Gillard’s upbringing in a Welsh coal-mining village and a father who “prized education above all else” and rejected a society that favoured a privileged few.
“I’ve never felt more ready,” the prime minister says. The last 935 days, the length of Kevin Rudd’s stint in the job, has “strengthened” her and made her “clear-eyed” about the future. And, of course, she’s “determined” to get the “big things done”.
Leadership. Strength. Choose your own model for this approach. Thatcher? Clinton?
The letter emphasises the changed world we live in. “We’ll never go back to a time before the internet,” she says. We must “plan for and shape the future”.
It’s all there. She lauds firefighters and the “Diggers in Afghanistan”, pays homage to “our larrikin character”, and applauds our belief in “fairness” and standing by “our mates”. Security is “our foundation stone”. You can see the ads now.
Medicare gets a mention and the NDIS is positioned as its latterday complement, alongside the NBN, fairer tax and lower interest rates. “Strong families” are thriving in a “strong economy”. Economic strength funds fairness, after all, especially in a world where “Asia rises”.
We can beat the competition, Gillard tells us, especially now that we’ve done some of the “biggest and hardest things like pricing carbon”, even if they were “hard, messy, contested”. Politics and sausages — sorry you had to see all that.
For those with a more transactional approach to government, Gillard points out that the “School Kids Bonus” is being paid now.
It all fits together so perfectly, this political jigsaw. There’s just one more piece: Gonski. Let’s get it done!
This is what the political aficionados like to call a “narrative”. There’s general agreement the government hasn’t had one for a while, especially after you-know-who lost his way.
And, who knows, it might work. The Age reported this week the economy gets a “big tick” from the world’s biggest fund manager. It’s the latest of a series of ticks from the OECD, the IMF and others.
And on Monday night, Newspoll gave it 51-49 to Labor. The pulse of Labor diehards quickened even as they overlooked the erratic up-and-down record of Newspoll over the past six months. Is a 6% increase in the ALP’s primary vote over Christmas really credible? Not if you believe the pesky Essential Poll, on the same day that gave it 54-46 to the Coalition. Essential’s figures over the same six month period have barely moved more than a point in either direction.
Perhaps Gillard’s story works for those predisposed to see the pieces of the jigsaw as carefully crafted by a government of political artisans.
What of those who instead see a desperate attempt by an artful mediocrity to paper over assorted policy mis-steps and the tin-eared politics?
As the political year kicks off, it’s hard to know what’s really going on out there because the debate has taken an American turn. Armed camps face off against each other, cheering those who offer support for their increasingly strident views of the other side and belittling even the friendly critics on their own side.
One of the most interesting stories out of the US presidential campaign is the self-deception of the Romney camp which genuinely believed he was going to win. They even had the polls to prove it. One side is going to have the same experience in Australia this year.
Go online and marvel at these gated political communities hissing and booing each other. I made the mistake of tuning into a couple of the political talk shows which returned to the airwaves this week. The virulence of the language jarred more than ever.
The situation isn’t helped by the cavalcade of events that tumble in and out of the media. Last week, it was a debate about the Queensland government’s plans to introduce non-compulsory voting. Call me naïve, but when I read the discussion paper I couldn’t find any specific proposal to introduce voluntary voting but I did notice that half of the 43-page document is devoted to political donations, disclosure laws and public funding. That sounds much more like the preoccupation of the Queensland LNP.
Then there was the flurry of debate about optional preferential voting. Perhaps it’s an idea whose time has come but the fact that it was floated by Bronwyn Bishop should have been a big hint not to take it too seriously. Nationals Senator Barnaby Joyce wasted no time in knocking the idea over.
And this week, the media spent a whole day trying to interest me in a tweet by Andrew Laming.
And, if I believe the papers, Gillard is vaguely promising, maybe, somehow, to find something with which to tackle gun violence on Sydney streets. That’s streets in western Sydney, of course.
And there’s our problem this year. There are so many red herrings and so many rabbits to be chased down so many burrows. The irrelevance of it all is breathtaking.
Perhaps none of it matters. Maybe the die is cast. A small swing either way would deliver victory to Gillard or Abbott. Gillard is the incumbent and the incumbent government has been returned in 19 of the 25 elections since 1949.
But the odds are stacked against the ALP. On 72 seats, it can’t afford to lose a single one and must win 4 more to stay in government. Its vote is at a high-water mark in Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania. It has more to defend than gain in those states. It can’t do any better in the ACT, and no one thinks it can recover in Western Australia. Even its one seat in the Northern Territory could be in doubt. Queensland nearly killed it in 2010 and a recovery on the back of Campbell Newman seems wildly optimistic.
For both Abbott and Gillard, all electoral roads lead to NSW. Abbott would probably be prime minister today if the Liberal Party hadn’t made a hash of the NSW campaign in 2010. Remember, Maxine McKew was the only sitting Labor member they knocked off. This time there seems to be general agreement that the ALP is on the nose and up to 10 of its seats are in trouble.
Much of what we’re going to see, hear and read over the next nine months or so will bear almost no relation to the real electoral contest and the battle for the hearts and minds of around 5% of the population who will decide the outcome.
Gillard’s story is in place. It will please the faithful and those who fear Abbott. Whether Gillard and Swan can sell the story is moot. It may end up being as irrelevant as much of what passed for political news in recent days.
*Malcolm Farnsworth is a political commentator and webmaster of AustralianPolitics.com