Prime Minister On Hold
By Bernard LaganFebruary 6, 2012
With parliament resuming amid leadership speculation, some in the Labor Party are wondering where is the tiger lawyer who can prosecute their case with the public. Can Julia Gillard carefully win back the party, and the people?
At first, Petra Weber was going to leave the little shoe on the ground. It could not be the Prime Minister's, she thought. More likely it had been dropped by a member of her staff. "I saw this shoe and I was about to go past and then I sort of hesitantly picked it up. It drew your eye. It was brand new. One of my friends looked inside and said, 'Oh my goodness, it's a six. It can't be hers. She doesn't look that small.'"
But this blue suede wedge heel - one half of a $148 pair - that Weber, a Canberra artist, picked up outside Canberra's Lobby restaurant on Australia Day was the Prime Minister's. It was the one sent flying when her bodyguard reeled her in close and half carried her from the Aboriginal protestors who'd surrounded the Lobby upon a misguided tip-off from a young Gillard staffer. It was the small shoe that Petra Weber stuffed into her backpack, intending to find its owner, but which she off-loaded to an Aboriginal elder when her pack became too heavy. It was the shoe that would be returned to the steps of the Australian Parliament the next day in a plastic shopping bag carried by a striking young Aboriginal woman - her face painted and wearing a kangaroo skin - accompanied by a police escort, lights flashing as television cameras rolled. It was that disobedient shoe that fled the Prime Minister's right foot, contributing to her stumbling exit and the imagery that will remain in news archives to be flashed up as the emblem of Julia Gillard's too-frequent cruel luck - or, for harsh souls, her too-frequent cock-ups - if her grumpy colleagues turn on her in the next days, weeks or months.
That bloody shoe.
That, you suspect, is what the Prime Minister really wants to say when she's asked by The Global Mail, in an interview in her Melbourne office a week later, if it has re-entered her wardrobe.
"We will work our way through that," is instead, the arch reply. Its banishment to an auction for charity is likely.
You could, of course, also say that the lost shoe was evidence of Julia Gillard's ability to make a retreat from calamity, mount a calm recovery. And then deal quickly and ruthlessly with the cause - the resignation of the staffer who sought to use the Aboriginals to embarrass Tony Abbott was fairly quickly delivered to her desk.
Australians have known a Prime Minister to lose their trousers in Memphis, a marriage through infidelity, and a life in the surf - but never a woman's size-six blue suede shoe. There are, as Julia Gillard says, differences when you are the first woman Prime Minister: "I mean, for all of our nation's history, up until now, if you said to someone 'Imagine what a Prime Minister looks like,' of course they are going to imagine a man in suit, because they'd always been, at least in the modern age, men in suits. Obviously suits in the modern age are slightly different to suits in an earlier age.
"But men in suits. I am not a man in a suit, and that is going to make some things different."
Like the warm Sydney night late last month when the Prime Minister went to see Phyllida Lloyd's starkly off-beam Thatcher biopic, Iron Lady; a picture which, while viewing Margaret Thatcher's legacy to Britain and Europe through the fuzzy lens of her senility, at least accurately constructs her as the plucky underdog who defied a male political establishment.
Less could hardly be said of Julia Gillard's own rise through politics. When she, accompanied by her partner, Tim Mathieson, and friends, former Labor Prime Minister Bob Hawke and his wife, the writer Blanche d'Alpuget, arrived to take their seats in the Hayden Orpheum Theatre in the north-shore Sydney suburb of Cremorne, a silence befell that audience.
"We caused a little bit of an incident, as you might imagine," smiles Gillard. "People were trying to munch on their choc-tops and then got quite startled."
Imagine that scene. It must have been rather like sitting in a play. There, amid the audience, sits "Our Maggie". The one we made here. Not as ferociously sharp as the first, as deeply menacing or scarily certain. But, like Thatcher, the daughter of a bright, striving father frustrated by his own opportunities for education, vitally interested in politics, determined that his daughter should excel; a man whose daughter long knew what was expected of her. Gillard became a lawyer, Thatcher a barrister.
They, of course, are the obvious, easy comparisons. Of others, we can be less sure. Thatcher, for instance, no matter how polarising, could not be said to be opaque in what she stood for, what she meant and what she'd do. And a lack of consistency is a charge levelled frequently by Gillard's critics.
Talk to those in the Labor Party's higher levels and they will tell you they've raised the trust issue with her, forcefully and recently. Some now feel deeply frustrated that their advice was not taken when Gillard reneged in late January on her pledge to the Tasmanian Independent MP, Andrew Wilkie, to legislate gambling reforms by May. Gillard argues Wilkie's demands would have been defeated in the House. But others in the Party say she should have put them before Parliament in any case so as to be seen to keep faith with Wilkie and the public.
Julia Gillard herself says she understands that there is an issue surrounding her trustworthiness. She traces it back not to her removal of Kevin Rudd but to her promise in the 2010 election not to bring in a carbon tax - a tax she later introduced, she says, because it was the only way the country was going to get a viable emissions trading scheme, in the make-up of the post-election Parliament.
She can almost feel the target that reversal pinned to her back, and now says: "So I do understand that's left a mark, and it's for me to continue to explain and for me also to demonstrate, by doing in relation to the rest of the Government's agenda, that the things I say I am going to do are the things that I will do."
There is one lapse that bewilders those who've studied her and who have held high public office themselves: it is what they identify as the Prime Minister's failure - through caution or inability - to construct and milk issues that will grab attention and build her Government's case.
Asked for an example, one former Labor Premier says on the morning after BHP Billiton reported its $22.4 billion profit in late August, Gillard should have called the producer of ABC Radio's AM program and asked to go an air as the morning's lead item.
She should have argued, says the ex Premier, that Tony Abbott could no longer hold to his promise to repeal her Government's mining tax - the Mineral Resource Rent Tax - in the face of such a bountiful profit announcement from the world's biggest miner. It was, he says, a wonderful and now lost chance not only to convince the electorate of the justice of the mining tax but to also skewer Tony Abbott and his promise to ditch it.
It is true that the Prime Minister is sometimes curiously reluctant to seize on those issues that leap out of nowhere and arouse great national passions. The billionaire mining magnate Gina Rinehart's move on Fairfax - owners of The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and The Financial Review - is an example. Here was Gina Rinehart, implacable opponent of the mining tax and climate-change sceptic, suddenly becoming Fairfax's largest shareholder. Rinehart is perfectly within her rights, of course, but is it imaginable that a Hawke, a Keating - even a John Howard - would have elected to stay mute amid such a ratcheting-up of her influence over Australia's media?
Yet the Prime Minister's response, when asked about Rinehart, seemed hide-bound in a lawyer's numbing caution: "I wouldn't be drawn on an individual's decision about share holdings, which is what it is at the end of the day." Surely a measured nod to the implications in Rinehart's acquisition for public debate wouldn't have been out of order - at the very least for the many Labor voters who are mightily concerned about it.
Her communications minister, Stephen Conroy, felt no such compunction to hold back when, the next day, he told The Australian Financial Review that the Rinehart Fairfax play demonstrated the need for tougher media ownership laws.
We can safely say that this concern - raised by the ex-Premier and others - about Julia Gillard's uneven record in prosecuting issues in public is not for want of ability. She came to her job not least because she is the Labor Party's stand-out parliamentary performer. She rose up through the rough house ranks of student and ALP politics, finished a law degree and impressed her masters at the Melbourne law firm, Slater and Gordon, enough to become the firm's first female salaried partner. She was then 29 years old; Slater and Gordon had been going for 55 years.
Where is that real Julia, the one that the Prime Minister told us really did exist during the last election campaign, the one that gets up from her desk and walks to her doorway to greet a journalist she's never met before with a cheery "G'day" and laughs as though she means it at his lame joke about losing her soul in a Canberra restaurant? The one that will take a bold risk on policy, but not on herself? Could it be that, once in public view, she retreats under that lawyer's smothering caution, the training that wants to cover all bases, that renders airwave adventures risk-averse, that drowns her public language in qualifications, caveats, and dead, rotting words like "stakeholder"?
That real Julia needs finding. For Australia has entered a strange place. One in which its bursting economy, powered by incomprehensibly vast mining and gas ventures, is the envy of the world. At the same time, it is - through the dollar's run-away value - beginning to tip a troubling number of people onto the street as our manufactured exports become ever more expensive and therefore less appealing. Each new wave of layoffs will need to be explained, fears soothed, the encouragement of the big picture economy given. And above it all looms the prospect of a Europe in free fall.
Can Julia Gillard tell the reassuring, convincing over-arching economic story of where Australia is headed in these times?
Here is what she said in her Feb. 1 interview with The Global Mail: "What the high dollar means is that we've got no choice. The only way to compete is on quality, not price. So we've got to lock in that strategy in high skill, high productivity, high quality, best possible infrastructure. It's an absolute imperative now. In other times in our economic history you might have preferred to compete on quality but you had a choice to compete on cost. So we need to compete on quality - that is a transformation in our economic structures and approaches and it's that that I am dedicating to the Government to do during the course of this year, by building, obviously in partnership with business and unions and educators, the people who bring skill to others, dedicating ourselves to driving the creation of this new Australian economy and getting everybody a stake in it."
What's missing here? There is a narrative, there is an argument, there is an aim. Yet, though real examples abound of enterprises that have made the adaptation she intends, there are no people to bring to life what the Prime Minister sees as the way forward. It is all in the abstract, and the words die. A Bob Carr, a Paul Keating, a Peter Beattie would have the flesh of the real to flash by Australians.
SHE HOLIDAYED in rural Victoria before Christmas with her partner "and just, you know, hung out," she says. She read Frank Moorhouse's Grand Days, Sydney restaurateur Tony Bilson's memoir, Insatiable, and Mighty Be Our Powers, by Leymah Gbowee, the Liberian feminist and peace activist who led a coalition of Christian and Muslim women in a public sit-in to persuade warlords to end Liberia's civil war.
Parliament returns on Feb. 7, and with it intense speculation about Julia Gillard's ability to stare down a challenge to her leadership from the man she deposed, Kevin Rudd.
In the 23 minutes The Global Mail had with the Prime Minister the Wednesday before, she appeared warm and relaxed until the unavoidable question about the leadership speculation came. Her brow furrowed, her hands slightly clenched and her eyes lowered; it seemed a script, invisible to others, was in her hands.
"It's not my intention to keep dealing with this," she said.
You could sense the frustration in the room. And it may be as much frustration with those of her colleagues who are fermenting speculation on the leadership as with those of us tasked with writing about it.
On Friday, Feb. 3, she lamented that Bob Hawke had gained more media coverage for downing a beer at the Sydney Cricket Ground during the Australia versus India test than she gained for announcing a $95 million boost to cricket's infrastructure.
She's right, of course. And it does people like me no credit at all.