21 February 2012

Cult of personality reveals a serious lack of perspective

David Penberthy wrote this article on Gillard's rivalry with one of her opponents. He's only told half the story at best.

THE battle for the prime ministership has absolutely nothing to do with policy and everything to do with personality.

It is not about who has the best agenda to govern the nation.

On the part of Tony Abbott, it is about payback. Payback for what he sees as a moral wrong - the removal of a democratically elected prime minister by a bunch of no-name factional hacks in the 2007 election, by a bunch of bored and flaky voters. That is the way Abbott sees it at least, and plenty of voters agree with him. He regards his return as "the politics of contrition".

On the part of Julia Gillard, it is about the refusal of her party to admit that if you're going to acknowledge that John Howard was right about a lot of things (asylum seekers, school funding), why not just have a Coalition government an be done with it? More so, it is about the refusal of the party to reward the tactics he has been accused of since he failed to win in 2007 - a stunt a day, the backgrounding of senior media figures, accidental self-descriptions as prime minister, and so forth.

To which Abbott would counter: "Well, you started it, when you snuck around with the Greens and independents and slipped back into office."

You cannot exaggerate the level of venom in this fight. In the blokey, profanity-laden world of the Parliament - where it is said politicians swear so much in private because they can only use civil language in their public lives - Julia's people almost habitually describe Tony with a word unpublishable here, while Tony's people refer to her with a word starting with b.

"Moving forward" from this is the funniest concept kicking around. In a fight over personality rather then policy, it is easy to predict what will happen the day after the division in the event of an Abbott victory, a Gillard victory, or the continuing non-resolution with the corresponding back-biting from both camps.

Nothing will change.

Two quotes from the past week sum up the public mood better than any newspaper columnist ever could. One was from a woman in Sydney's west, interviewed on the ABC, who after offering the obligatory punter's qualifier ("I'm not really into politics") made the crystal-clear observation that "the whole thing just seems juvenile".

The other was from a removalist last week who was helping me move house. He was a Labor man, a big fan of Bob Hawke ("Did you see him down that beer at the SCG? Gold!"), who asked: "What the hell are they doing? It's a joke. It makes me not want to vote."

The idea that either Abbott or Gillard can emerge gracefully at the other side of all this, and get down to the business of governing, is the stuff of fantasy. The only way Gillard could survive with any real authority is if Abbott, who needs 76 of the 150 House of Representatives votes to return, polls so few votes that he looks like a joke. Abbott's people might be overestimating his numbers now to psyche out Gillard, but he is embarrassed in ballot after ballot as supposedly contentious legislation sails through, as though Gillard has the sort of majority that Barry O'Farrell has in NSW. And if he loses by a narrow margin he will not go quietly into the shadows. He will do a Keating, who needed two shots at Hawke in 1991, and continue to make merry hell before challenging again.

We saw Gillard yesterday playing a bit of a home game with the release of the Gonski report on education funding. It is the kind of substantial policy she is most passionate about, and the implied message from her confident handling of the report's details was: "This is what I do, this is why I am PM, and I want to keep doing it." The problem, obviously enough, is that she cannot with all the distractions of Abbott. Even the most humiliating sniping by Christopher Pyne failed to render him the spent force he deserved to be, and even then he keeps sniping.

Should Abbott win the ballot, almost half his party room will struggle to work with him at all. This is because they are mostly dills. They include backbenchers and ministers. The quality of the cabinet will suffer. Gillard might have struggled as PM but she was a great education minister, and would not serve in any capacity under Abbott. Wayne Swan would go from Treasury and probably go from cabinet completely. Nicola Roxon and Stephen Conroy probably would not serve under Abbott either.

The most important question, and one which has not been answered by anyone, is how an Abbott government would be better than the one Gillard has haplessly been trying to run, in a hung parliament dotted with independents, greenies and a constant barrage of leaks.

The fact remains that the policy problems which helped drive Howard from office - in order of importance: the environment, border protection and the changing 21st century global challenges facing the country generally - were the same policies which subsequently proved unmanageable for Gillard. She inherited thet mess and fixing it in a hung parliament was an impossibility. If the parliament turns to Abbott it returns to the source of its woes on all three of these vote-shedding policies: a climate change strategy which is a joke; a line on asylum seekers which works for nobody but Scott Morrison; and the shifts in geopolitics and technology that render Julie Bishop a blithering fool.

There is no clue anywhere as to what policy issues are involved in the leadership. It is about personalities, hatreds, grudges. Voters don't care whether politicians feel good about themselves or not. The fact that Tony has never got over September 2010 is more his problem than ours. The fact that Julia thinks he is a deceitful and damaging force is neither here nor there in punterland. These people have got a country to run.

Voters such as the lady at Lindsay and the removalist guy do focus on the style and personality of political leaders, but they worry more about what they actually stand for. It is the great missing feature of the leadership battle, and it has trashed the party to the point where voters think they are more interested in who exercises power, rather than how and why it is exercised.


  1. So much for the hope that this excruciating rubbish would fade once Parliament got going again. If they thought 2010 was bad, wait for the reaction of the electorate to another non-election.

  2. I am certain that Tony Abbott does not have the ambition to the Leadership of the ALP. Have you mixed him up with Kevin Rudd?

    1. It was a fast edit of Penberthy's piece and I have tried to edit it to widen the discussion.

    2. "Gillard might have struggled as PM but she was a great education minister, and would not serve in any capacity under Abbott."

      Perhaps too fast an edit.

  3. ABC breakfastnews UPDATE: When asked about a challenge to her leadership for head of the house Jemima replied she was not going to run commentary on the topic.

    Henny Penny was running late for for her role in the senate and declined to comment.

    Big Ted said, his loyalty was with Jemima and she still had the numbers.

    Humpty said he was a happy little vegemite being foreign minister.

    ABC breakfastnews can confirm, there will `definitely` be a leadership challenge when Humpty returns from the toy box.

    1. Questions as to which window we're looking through today or what day it is are mere distractions from ephemera like this, which is actually core business and only children hope for better.

    2. LatelineLand UPDATE: Un-named sources in the Humpty camp claim Jemima can`t defeat Mr-Rabbit at the next national poll, while Humpty definitely can, claimed Fergus.

      That doesn`t matter, claimed the rest of the toys, 71 of whom, pushed Humpty clean off the wall.

      Unfortunately, microphones and cameras were pointed at the `round` window, so the `children` missed the real action.

      After solidly defeating Humpty and sending him to the bottom shelf, Jemima has the full support of the toys to lie brazenly to the `children` with microphones and cameras, and that one that tweets.

      Join us tomorrow on LatelineLand when we will speculate, Can Jemima`s popularity increase enough outside `playschool` to defeat Mr-Rabbit at the next national poll? And what are the real reasons to `Faceless-Ted`s resignation? Also the re-shuffle, which toys will Jemima assign to which window to look out?

  4. Zuvele Leschen22/2/12 11:14 am

    Totally confused. Do you mean Abbott or Rudd?

    1. I mean that Abbott is no more substantial an opponent for Gillard than Rudd, and that if you're going to bag Rudd for being all rhetoric then it's unavoidable to conclude the same about Abbott.

    2. No; surely you have typed Abbott in numerous sentences where you meant to type Rudd.

    3. Surely you have read Penberthy's piece and considered that the coverage of Gillard-Rudd is just as facile as coverage of Gillard-Abbott?

  5. meher baba22/2/12 3:06 pm

    I've read a lot of stuff in the past few days suggesting that the Rudd vs Gillard thing is entirely about "personality".

    IMO it isn't. It is about a fundamental and longstanding split among the Australian political left - grass roots and parliamentary - between those who would prefer action over words and those who prefer words over actions.

    Gillard, like Hawke, is all about getting stuff done: making deals, negotiating compromise solutions, achieving half a loaf rather than none at all. There is an enormous element within the ALP supporter base, and parliamentary party, who cannot abide this approach to politics. Typically, but not exclusively, they are to be found in one of the so-called "left" factional groups. In the wider community, they are steadily deserting the ALP for the Greens. The old adage that "the ALP left is perpetually in opposition" is as true today as ever.

    While Rudd is politically to the left of Keating, he shares the Keating's ability to talk well and rouse the troops. He says the sorts of things that many lefties long to hear: about Aborigines, boat people, the poor, the environment, world peace, etc. He's not so good at getting down and dirty and doing stuff and making deals. As the recent video on youtube shows, he is happy to cancel a 6 pm meeting (quite possibly about something important) so that he can continue to agonise about a prerecorded TV message.

    The point here is that, if you keep on talking a good game and don't achieve stuff, you are more easily able to maintain the purity of your position and the consistency of your approach. You're a loser, but you can keep feeling really good about yourself.

    Under Gillard, many on the left of politics have lost this sense of feeling good about themselves and want to get it back. They also want a Labor leader who has an accent that sounds like they have been to university and would listen to ABC FM and so forth: lefties are generally snobs at heart (the basic tenet of bolshevism is that the working classes aren't the right sort of people to organise their own revolution and should leave the job to their betters).

    Being a sentimental lot, the lefties will - as they have now done with Bob Hawke - come to idolise Gillard after she has gone: the first female PM, the one who got the carbon tax through, etc. But, right now, their hearts belong to daddy, because they know daddy will always whisper the comforting words they like to hear as they snuggle up in their beds and drift off back into the dreamland of political irrelevance.

    1. This has been a common trope in ALP politics since at least the split of the 50s, probably since time immemorial - cf Whitlam's "certainly the impotent are pure" speech to the 1967 Federal Conference.

    2. Ooh I don't know, I am about as left as they get and I have issues with Ms. Gillard, but it's fairly plain to see that a good negotiator makes a faaaaaar better PM (and Cabinet Minister...and MP...) than a micromanaging control freak. No matter how nice he is to listen to.
      PS - excellent post as usual Andrew.