PM with a problem

Labor strategists helped to create the wrong kind of prime minister, argues Peter Brent

24 November 2011



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A chance to regain her authority mojo? PM Julia Gillard (above).
Photo: Annaliese McDonough/ Commonwealth Secretariat

MANY years ago I worked as a non-singing “extra” at the Sydney Opera House. I was a spear carrier in one opera, a waiter the next, a peasant in another. One morning we were rehearsing a scene in which a main character made an entrance. The director explained that this character was very charismatic, but because people don’t really possess such a quality innately it was up to us on stage to give it to him. We did this by all turning our heads and watching him as he walked in. This gave the character presence.

That’s a good concept through which to see “charisma” in public life. Over the years the charismatic label has been applied to many people in politics who wouldn’t rate a second glance walking down the street. It has even been said about two of the least innately charismatic people ever to enter the profession, John Howard and Bob Carr, when they were prime minister and New South Wales premier respectively.

The truth is of course that it’s the office of prime minister that bestows authority, charisma, gravitas, call it what you will, on its occupant. The individuals are beneficiaries of the respect and esteem in which our society holds the position. Not only are people looking at them, they are also hanging off their words, at their command. It accrues to whoever resides in the Lodge.

Everyone, it seems, except Julia Gillard. She never did get that authority thing. The question is: why not?

The simple explanation – and the one probably favoured by many Coalition supporters – is that she’s risen to her level of incompetence and is not up to the job. But that’s difficult to sustain. She’s probably smarter and harder-working than most of them.

Is it because she’s a woman? That’s possible, though we have no one to compare her with. But are we really that different from New Zealand, which has had two female prime ministers? And Britain, which has had one?

Gillard’s personal circumstances, in a de facto relationship and childless, may contribute. But I think it’s the result of Gillard’s behaviour, her careful, deliberate modus operandi for communicating with the country. It takes great effort to be prime minister without enjoying the indefinable accoutrements, but she has managed it.

Gillard’s elevation in June last year represented a triumph not just of Labor’s backroom boys and girls but also of the approach to electoral politics they favour. According to this school of thought, voters crave “the common touch” in their leaders – above all else, they want to empathise with them. That’s why politicians often consciously talk about sport. It’s a wholly erroneous notion but seems to be an article of faith among the political class.

We know that modern Labor believes in the power of opinion polls and market research generally. The approach fits with this construct of the ideal leader because insiders believe that if an archetype of the “average” Australian can be devised, and the leader can be found who conforms to it, then electoral success will follow. Ask people what they want and give it to them. Repeat their sentiments back to them.

It seems that Gillard was a believer in the “electoral politics as science” approach as well. She believed Australians don’t like “elitists” and so don’t want their leaders to be like that. So she wasn’t like her predecessor Kevin Rudd, who gave the impression he was interested in policy and had perhaps read a book or two. Rudd used big words, Gillard spoke in single syllables. She was determined to be the girl next door.

Soon after taking the job, she embarked on the inevitable (for Labor leaders) tour of western Sydney, stating again and again her opposition to “big Australia,” a theme the opposition had been pushing for months. “I choose my words carefully,” she said in one particular nudge-nudge moment.

She even announced she wouldn’t move into the Lodge until after the election, a peripheral issue but emblematic of her whole strategy. There is a reason why governments usually win elections and that reason is incumbency. Whatever their faults, the incumbents are the governing party, with all the authority that entails. But Gillard was determined to show that she wasn’t arrogant, aloof and policy-oriented, that she was just like you and me. She even rushed to an election before people had a chance to see her as prime minister.

If she’d won the election with a majority she might have settled into being a normal PM. We’ll never know. The hung parliament, in which the Greens sap her authority, has never allowed her to do it. Since then she’s grappled to generate some authority but it just won’t come. It’s too late.

Gillard’s October 2010 declaration that “foreign policy is not my passion” and “I’d probably be more [comfortable] in a school watching kids learn to read in Australia than here in Brussels at international meetings” came from the same well. I’m not like these people, she was saying.

Gillard succeeded in convincing Australians she is just like them. Unfortunately for her, people don’t really want their leaders to be just like them. They want something more.

Today, the numbers in the House of Representatives shifted with the elevation of Peter Slipper to the speakership. This may provide a small opportunity for Gillard to discover her authority mojo. But it would require political judgement and an understanding of the dynamics of leadership. •

Peter Brent is editor of
Mumble.

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5 Comments

  1. Michael R. James added this comment on 24 November 2011 | Permalink

    The comments box looks so lonely I just have to fill it!
    Here is part of a comment on this topic. Broadly in agreement. The leadership and dignity of the office stuff seems so basic, it is unfathomable how Gillard and her minders get this so wrong. (my comment below was in response to another commenter, not directly to P. Brent).
    …………………….
    I believe it was George Mega (probably in the current Monthly) who compared Tony Jones’s interviews over consecutive weeks of Howard, Keating and Gillard. How, at the end of the first two, Jones said (as he often does) that they could talk for another hour but sadly time was up. At the end of the Gillard interview he was quite startlingly frank and said words to the effect that there was little point in going round in circles when the PM replies with the exact same rehearsed answers (sotto voce: I am glad time is up!).

    Other than her and her Sussex street guru’s dumbest of strategies (appease the bogans), there is also a few personal issues. When reading prepared/rehearsed speeches she lapses into the most horrific schoolmarm hectoring tone. Utterly unnatural and offputting. She is very good when arguing from the heart and on issues she is familiar with, but give her a script and horrors! It is worse in proportion to the public importance of the speech! And then there is the girly stuff. I want my PM to be a very serious person — at least in public when engaged on official business. But too much of the time she seems to be auditioning to be prom queen, throwing her head back in girlish laughter, patting/rubbing people on the back or the elbow etc. All that kissy kissy. If this is a strategy it is deeply wrong-headed, if it is “natural” she need to curb it.

    And please do not call me se*ist. The great female leaders do not behave that way, from Thatcher, Golda Meir, Indira Ghandi. Nor contemporary powerful women like Hilary Clinton or Madeleine Albright. Or for that matter senior ministers like Nicola Roxon who gets the balance right. Or on the other side, like Helen Coonan (have you seen her when young, she was the prom queen!). She needs to show seriousness, gravity and dignity that the office demands.

    Believe me I want her to succeed. Most informed people know she is extremely talented, hard-working and generally sincere and well motivated. As good or better than most men. (No contest with Abbott.) I think this presentation thing is still an issue and can only hope she addresses it in the next year.

  2. P. Oliver added this comment on 25 November 2011 | Permalink

    Of course the PM’s lack of ‘gravitas’ and ‘authority’ has absolutely nothing to do with the constant stream of anti-government, anti-Gillard, pro Abbott propoganda from News Ltd, and often the ABC ….would it?
    Nor would it have anything to do with the repeated lie that the PM lied about the carbon tax, when she did in fact state before the election that she would put a price on carbon followed by an emissions trading scheme….would it?
    Despite the fact that this was reported in The Australian by Paul Kelly and Dennis Shanahan, the lie about the PM lying lives on, and is repeated by every Coalition MP and their supporters, and every other ‘talking head’ that appears on the various radio and TV programs, as well as blogs.

  3. John Davidson added this comment on 30 November 2011 | Permalink

    What you say may be part of the problem. After Howard the voters wanted someone like Rudd who was offering something different and obviously had some talent. They wanted a leader rather than a very good manager.
    What irritates me about Julia is that she speaks like a head prefect talking down to the junior school. Worse still, a head prefect who has had course in elocution and the importance of speaking slowly and clearly.
    Julia comes across well in her unscripted moments but the scripted ones are a major put-off.

  4. Cassandra Duwell added this comment on 30 November 2011 | Permalink

    One of the unusual things that I noted right after Julia Gillard became PM was that journalists in television referred to her as “Julia” and not “Ms Gillard” – most especially at the end of their scripted story when they would improvise or round up an interview.

    I cannot imagine anyone ever calling Mr Abbott “Tony” except for his friends and family. Even the friendly nickname for Kevin Rudd is most certainly not “Kevin”.

    Unfortunately I think in her quest to become likeable I don’t think people take her seriously.

    We know that the Labor party is powerful, but its leader is not.

    I don’t think this is because she was voted by the public into the position – we happily glide over this fact every day – but simply because the timing behind her rise to power cemented the two ideas together in our minds:
    “Julia Gillard, Prime Minister” alongside “mysterious and powerful people in the Labor will choose any old leader”.

    And now she cannot show herself as powerful or ambitious without seeming greedy or manipulative.

    No way out as far as I can see it.

    Better public speeches that assume the average listener is over the age of 15 would be nice however.

  5. Dean Rizzetti added this comment on 1 December 2011 | Permalink

    Thoughtful article. Two points:

    1. It’s so hard to pin down exactly what Gillard is passionate about. What issue gets her up in the morning, and what issue does she preach about when she’s drunk (if she gets drunk – i don’t know!). Politicians need to have issues that they care about simply because they do.

    1. I don’t think the political class (media and politicos) ever really understood the profound impact of the leadership change. Those who watch politics on a day to day basis weren’t all that surprised by the outcome (even if they were shocked by the process) and we all knew why Rudd was rolled. But we ask voters to engage with our politicians on a deeply emotional level – and we know that voters do. Why then did we not understand the deep wound that the rolling would inflict?

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