The Gillard government has been, in policy terms, a good one. It’s not up there with the Hawke-Keating or early Howard governments, but its economic management has been better than both of those courtesy of the steady hand of Wayne Swan, Treasury and the independent RBA, and it has accumulated a substantial reform agenda in its limited period. Prime Minister Gillard has also delivered where Kevin Rudd only talked.
But the political tactical judgment of the Prime Minister and her ability to communicate with voters has always been profoundly flawed. Today’s events look like the desperate measures of a desperate government.
Nothing materially has changed about the HSU situation or Craig Thomson’s circumstances that would seem to justify the government jettisoning him to the crossbenches. Nothing has changed from the point when Julia Gillard was declaring full confidence in him. Now, despite continuing to wholly reject the accusations against him, he’s out, joining the ever growing ranks of independents on the crossbenches.
Ditto Peter Slipper. It’s only a day or two since Julia Gillard declared Slipper should be back in the Speakership once the issue of his Cabcharge usage — a matter that has attracted hilarious levels of forensic scrutiny from a Press Gallery that avoids such analysis when it comes to actual policy — was resolved. Now he’s out “for a further period of time”, whatever that means – that’s the sort of bizarre usage that we’ve grown used to from this government since 2007. Pressed to explain the phrase this morning, Gillard deferred to Slipper himself. Who, it should be again noted, also rejects the accusations against him.
Gillard’s justification for her reversals is that she wasn’t aware of how much voters were concerned about the standing of Parliament until she returned to Australia from her Anzac Day travels. At that point she realised, she said, “a line had been crossed” — another line that has already entered the rogue’s gallery of Gillard pat phrases.
The only line that has been crossed has been within the PMO, where a beleaguered Prime Minister and her staff have reflected on Labor’s dire polling, the Prime Minister’s even worse personal polling, and the growing feeling of sleaze around the government and Parliament.
The government’s backflip on Peter Slipper was a result of feeling compelled to stand by him in the first place, because by turning its back on Andrew Wilkie, a man with whom the Prime Minister negotiated and agreed a deal, the government had left itself hostage to Slipper’s reputation. It wasn’t the elevation of Slipper to the Speakership that was the problem, but the fact that the Prime Minister promptly used that to renege on her deal with Wilkie. If you’re going to swap your votes in Parliament, best to make sure the one you’re getting is more reliable than the one you’re rejecting.
As for Thomson, that is a problem wholly of Labor, and the labour movement’s, making, and one that Labor has allowed to drift for years, particularly after it was sent into minority government.
Yet again, whether true or not, Ms Gillard is left looking like a politician who will do anything to preserve her position, regardless of consistency, regardless of whatever agreements she has made, regardless of the cost. Much of that has been driven by the compromises and dealmaking necessary to minority government, rather than reflecting on Gillard’s political personality. But when coupled with the circumstances in which she came to the Prime Ministership, the way she treated Wilkie, and her inability to fulfil her commitment to address the issue of asylum seekers, it is profoundly political damaging for Ms Gillard and her government.
The stench of death increasingly pervades this government. It may limp all the way to August 2013. Thomson, after all, apparently intends to continue supporting the government. But voters appear to have made up their minds, at least about the Prime Minister. And there’s no evidence she has the political judgment to turn that around.