Labor’s brand in extremis

Just six months after her hasty marriage to Bob Brown and the Greens, Julia Gillard looks headed back to Yarralumla via Reno.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard went to Adelaide last week in an attempt to square the political circle she’s spun herself into by turning desperation into political virtue. The effort, in her Don Dunstan Foundation address, was as incoherent as it was dissembling. It was also more than a staged attempt at product differentiation – it was that – as Brown chortled afterwards; it sounded like Gillard is looking for a Reno divorce and even a new mandate.

This week’s Newspoll, which has pulled Gillard and Labor back from the brink for the moment at least, has perhaps shown that spurning her coalition partner will help get her there. If it’s worked this well, why not keep on spurning?

Minority government with the Greens is political purgatory then oblivion. Gillard knows it. She will likely break it off sooner than Britney Spears and (fill in the blank) if she can. After all, commitment is not really Gillard’s thing. And if – albeit a big if – she can recover enough ground to get across the line with a majority, there is no reason to suspect she wouldn’t hesitate to shred her weasel-worded “agreement” to serve a full term and lay rubber on the way to Yarralumla.

Setting the scene in her speech, Gillard, who’s made a feast of indecision, had the cheek to admonish the electorate to “embrace [yet] another moment of decision… to cut carbon pollution”. Leaving aside the lie that carbon dioxide, the life-giving plant food implicated by climate change stoppers, is carbon or a pollutant, her economy-busting soak-the-effluent, bribe-the-rest scheme will do no such thing let alone lower the planet’s temperature.

But the corker was the lifelong leftist’s claim to be the heroine of moderation and reform. “Neither of the extremes in Australian politics can deliver this reform,” Gillard projected (in the clinical sense). The only thing Gillard has successfully delivered for Labor in government is Kevin Rudd’s head on a plate.

Strangely enough, Gillard has gone to great pains lately to show that she is no moderate, middle of-the-road pollie – but not in the way we would expect. Only a week before, when in Washington, Gillard gushed over Ronald Reagan’s legacy not long after she was spun as a Lady (not-for-turning) Thatcher doppelgänger. And this past weekend, Gillard claimed to be a “cultural traditionalist” who believed the Bible had a central role to play in education.

Who knew the Socialist Forum “typist” and Socialist Left Labor faction member and whatever-floats-your-boat atheist with a live-in hairdresser was really a Bible thumping, free market loving, social conservative new age Iron Lady and that her seat of Lalor is Reagan Country? 

Michael Jackson’s plastic surgery was more genuine looking than Gillard’s sudden love of all things righty. But that didn’t stop her in her Adelaide moonwalk from portraying the Coalition as even further to the right – God forbid – than she was. “The Coalition has surrendered itself to fear-mongering,” she lamented before fear-mongering like there was no tomorrow. Which was pretty much her extortionate point: agree with my cunning plan to save my political skin or there will be no tomorrow – a rain of ruin (or cyclones, drought, flood, locusts, you name it) will fall upon ye.

Gillard then claimed the “Greens are not a party of government and have no tradition of striking the balance required to deliver major reform”. So much for the dance-with-who-brung-ya rule. True, the Greens hadn’t been a party of government – at least not until Gillard made them one to save herself. (Only weeks before Gillard handed the prime minister’s courtyard over to Brown, he appeared to be speaking in tongues when he blamed the Queensland floods on Australian miners. But so typical are Brown’s political and rhetorical paroxysms that the political establishment’s astonishment was fleeting and forgotten by the time Gillard made him carbon czar.)

But of course it is the Greens’ so-called reforms that Gillard claims to champion, though is anyone but her labouring under the delusion that she is doing so because she’s a 21st century Hawke or Keating? Gillard faced certain personal political oblivion after her coup backfired miserably on Labor at the last election. Her hasty marriage of convenience to Brown gave her a political stay of execution and Brown a dowry of green-left goodies including the Greens’ monster tax on everything forever, which eventually would make Treasurer Wayne Swan’s mining shakedown look like a video rental late fee hike.

Before the election, Gillard not only promised not to tax “carbon”, but she had leaned on Kevin Rudd, successfully, to walk away from an ETS – to his everlasting regret. Then, as newly installed prime minister, Gillard flicked an ETS to her so-called citizen’s assembly in a short-lived election stunt to reach a community consensus some time in the never-never. Yet Gillard now claims, palms up, eyes wide-open that all along she had intended to legislate an ETS had she won government outright.

But having only achieved a community consensus that she has lied and that taxing everything to no effect was not on, and with Labor having plumbed historic depths in the polls as a result, Gillard now curiously claims to be the leader of the only party fit to deliver. More bizarre is what Gillard claims to be capable to bestow exclusively: the Greens extreme carbon tax, which she openly blames on her political predicament with the extreme Greens. Some sales pitch. Imagine: ‘This car’s a bomb, costs a mortgage to run but the boss says I have to sell it to you.’

Gillard’s attempt to distance herself from the Greens as well as her own leftist self is not just to claim to the electorate and her teeth-gnashing backbench that it is she and not Bob Brown who’s wearing the pants in their green-red union. Labor’s marriage to the Greens was a gamble in an inherently unstable coalition with the independents that’s not paying off beyond temporarily staving off the consequences of the electoral shellacking Labor suffered. Her parliamentary caucus are growing increasingly restless and don’t want to see what’s left of Labor’s brand made cactus. She’ll have to cut Brown loose before she is.

The problem for the moment, though, is that not only can Gillard not live with the Greens politically, she can’t live without them. She needs Brown co-signature to keep her Lodge lease current even if the relationship is toxic to her political health. Unfriending the Greens in a way that allows her to rebuild her personal brand and Labor’s – if that’s possible at this point – without losing their support for her fragile minority government seems her only option. But that highwire act is a short one, especially when the Greens hold the balance of power in the Senate from July.

Whatever eventuates, Gillard cannot and will not go to the next election wedded to the Greens, not unless she wants to be the Bride of Frankenstein.

Alan R.M. Jones was an adviser in the government of John Howard.

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