byÂ 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. Itâ€™s a story built around Gillard. In the letter, she says people praise her resilience. â€śI donâ€™t know how you do it,â€ť they tell her.
The letter begins with mention of what would have been her parentsâ€™ 55th wedding anniversary. It ends with Gillardâ€™s upbringing in a Welsh coal-mining village and a father who â€śprized education above all elseâ€ť and rejected a society that favoured a privileged few.
â€śIâ€™ve never felt more ready,â€ť the prime minister says.Â The last 935 days, the length of Kevin Ruddâ€™s stint in the job, has â€śstrengthenedâ€ť her and made her â€śclear-eyedâ€ť about the future.Â And, of course, sheâ€™s â€śdeterminedâ€ť to get the â€śbig things doneâ€ť.
Leadership.Â Strength. Choose your own model for this approach. Thatcher? Clinton?
The letter emphasises the changed world we live in. â€śWeâ€™ll never go back to a time before the internet,â€ť she says. We must â€śplan for and shape the futureâ€ť.
Itâ€™s all there.Â She lauds firefighters and the â€śDiggers in Afghanistanâ€ť, pays homage to â€śour larrikin characterâ€ť, and applauds our belief in â€śfairnessâ€ť and standing by â€śour matesâ€ť.Â Security is â€śour foundation stoneâ€ť. 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.Â â€śStrong familiesâ€ť are thriving in a â€śstrong economyâ€ť.Â Economic strength funds fairness, after all, especially in a world where â€śAsia risesâ€ť.
We can beat the competition, Gillard tells us, especially now that weâ€™ve done some of the â€śbiggest and hardest things like pricing carbonâ€ť, even if they were â€śhard, messy, contestedâ€ť.Â Politics and sausages — sorry you had to see all that.
For those with a more transactional approach to government, Gillard points out that the â€śSchool Kids Bonusâ€ť is being paid now.
It all fits together so perfectly, this political jigsaw.Â Thereâ€™s just one more piece: Gonski.Â Letâ€™s get it done!
This is what the political aficionados like to call a â€śnarrativeâ€ť.Â Thereâ€™s general agreement the government hasnâ€™t had one for a while, especially after you-know-who lost his way.
And, who knows, it might work.Â The Age reported this week the economy gets a â€śbig tickâ€ť from the worldâ€™s biggest fund manager. Itâ€™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.Â Is a 6% increase in the ALPâ€™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. Essentialâ€™s figures over the same six month period have barely moved more than a point in either direction.
Perhaps Gillardâ€™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, itâ€™s hard to know whatâ€™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 isnâ€™t helped by the cavalcade of events that tumble in and out of the media. Last week, it was a debate about the Queensland governmentâ€™s plans to introduce non-compulsory voting. Call me naĂŻve, 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.Â That sounds much more like the preoccupation of the Queensland LNP.
Then there was the flurry of debate about optional preferential voting. Perhaps itâ€™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. Thatâ€™s streets in western Sydney, of course.
And thereâ€™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.Â Maybe the die is cast.Â 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 canâ€™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 canâ€™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 hadnâ€™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 weâ€™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.
Gillardâ€™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