In recent weeks the Left — which is of course not a singular herd, though it sometimes acts like one — has rushed adoringly to the former PM’s aid. Her upcoming appearance at the Sydney Opera House with Anne Summers sold out on the day it was announced. Her op-ed in the Guardian was lauded as if it were this century’s On Liberty. It was a fine essay, yes — you’d hope so seeing it was more than two months in the making.
The resurgent interest in Gillard is hardly surprising. The bloodletting to come will be pornography for politics junkies. The book deal is thought to be worth $500,000 and I’m certainly looking forward to her take.
But it should be considered no more than that: one perspective on what went wrong for Labor during those six tumultuous years. Gillard is no less responsible for that failure than anyone else, no less steeped in political intrigue and machination. She may not have been leader on the day but it was still Gillard (and her backers) who lost Labor the 2013 election.
It began, of course, with her urging for the emissions trading scheme to be dumped in the early months of 2010. Both Gillard and Wayne Swan were guilty in this, and it seems to me that if you are on the Left and you believe in action on climate change, then you should regard this as unforgiveable.
So it’s amusing to see Gillard now urge the party to maintain the rage and not roll over on carbon pricing, the very opposite of what she advocated back in 2010. A lesson learned, you might say.
That decision, for which Rudd shares a great deal of responsibility, destroyed the PM and created the need for rescue, a call Gillard subsequently took up. The narrative of a sudden and reluctant coup has been thoroughly debunked. But regardless, this act destroyed the government. It ruined not one but two good prime ministers, for Gillard may have been wonderful in a few more years. And surely this, for the true believers, should be deemed unforgiveable too.
Gillard’s Guardian essay accused Rudd of running a campaign which lacked big ideas and ignored the achievements of the government under her leadership. That assessment is pretty much beyond dispute, but it mirrors Gillard’s own disastrous 2010 campaign. People’s Assembly? Sustainable Australia? They too were thought bubbles more than ideas. And the Rudd government’s management of the GFC barely rated a mention.
Gillard may have closed many deals as PM, but she opened few conversations. Is it not possible that Rudd’s dearth of big ideas in 2013 reflects a great deal on Gillard’s failure to embrace any in government? When given the opportunity to lead progressive change on drug reform, the Newstart allowance, gay marriage or the republic, she shirked it every time.
So while Gillard should enjoy deafening applause on the NDIS and education funding, she cannot make a claim to have established a third-term agenda for Labor. Her essay’s thoughtful discussion of progressive purpose is dramatically undermined by the notable lack of purpose with which the government limped along from 2010.
The former PM acquits herself quite reasonably on asylum seekers by arguing the need to find a policy that satisfies the public’s many whims — from despair at a boat sinking to anger at a detention centre riot. What is missing is any consideration of establishing a new norm, taking the voters with you to where you think they should be.
Gillard simultaneously chastises Labor for its failure after 1996 to defend the Hawke/Keating legacy, pandering instead to the public’s warped memory of the negative over the positive. It requires a lot of cognitive dissonance to believe that you should defend some values against public scepticism, like free markets and enterprise bargaining, and not others, like onshore processing or marriage equality.
And it was amusing to see Gillard criticising Rudd’s foray into economic nationalism when it was she who ushered in the crackdown on 457 visas amid a dog-whistling sojourn to Western Sydney (Rudd, it should be noted, allowed the legislation to pass).
What’s most disappointing about Gillard’s essay is that it shows the colossal potential she had as a leader. There is talk of purpose and vision, reasserting policy over politics, and an interest in the big picture. In a mere paragraph she bats away the missed surplus as the unimportant footnote that it is. But she never made that argument in government. The surplus fetish and its corresponding narrative of failure flourished under her leadership.
As did the perception that Labor was wedded to its sectional interests, facilitating the demands of unions and old comrades-in-arms instead of moving toward the modern and accessible. Gillard versus Rudd seemed very much like a proxy war for old Labor versus new, and Gillard unquestionably won that battle. It’s unsurprising, then, that she wants the incumbent power structures to remain.
The former PM’s essay is brilliant as a piece of writing, but the cheer squad has blithely ignored its total contrast with her time in the job. It is as clear attempt as any to retrospectively establish a legacy; to be remembered as the Labor hero and master negotiator who fell victim to the most drawn out revenge plot Australian politics has ever seen.
It is remarkable that people, many of whom might be described as part of the intellectual elite, could be so gullible.
They should at least be able to appreciate the counter-narrative: that Gillard had no values which were not for sale, that her negotiations frequently produced lacklustre and untenable outcomes (the mining tax and the Malaysia Solution come to mind) and that she clung to power when it was obvious she needed to stand aside.
Memory is one of the surest casualties of the modern media cycle, where it seems a well-crafted but hypocritical essay can nullify the sins of the past. If Gillard’s leadership comes to be remembered as some sort of high watermark for the Left, it will be a sad and undeserving epitaph indeed.
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