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Gillard: Lacking Political Acumen

G22nd November 2010

C2 Comments


Four months in: Does Julia Gillard really have what it takes to be PM?

Julia Gillard today confirmed for-once-and-for-all that she lacks the necessary political acumen required of a party leader, more so a Prime Minister.

The Labor Government has been trying to get several bills passed in Parliament that would enable Telstra’s wholesale and retail arms to be structurally-separated. This would facilitate the sale of the copper-wire and exchanges network back to the Commonwealth Government as part of the implementation for the National Broadband Network (NBN).

A number of independent Senators, as well as the Liberals and Greens are demanding that a report into the business case for the NBN be tabled in Parliament prior to them voting on the bills. The government is refusing, instead insisting that the Opposition and minor parties vote in support of the Bill before receiving the report.

Julia Gillard speaking at a City of Melbourne press conference
Photo: Max Milne. Published under a Creative Commons licence.

Whatever excuses the government might raise about commercial-in-confidence concerns, asking politicians to “vote first and ask questions later” on a $43 billion project which effectively re-nationalises a large part of the telecommunications industry is a big ask. With just three days until Parliament rises for the year, the government’s line of argument is becoming difficult to sustain. Some would say impossible.

In an attempt to get the bills passed, Julia Gillard offered MP’s a briefing of the NBN’s business case but only with the signing of a confidentiality agreement. Originally the Government demanded silence for seven years, but that was reduced to three years, and by yesterday it was just two weeks. With the exception of Victorian Senator Steve Fielding, all MP’s have refused to sign an agreement.

I am a strident supporter of the NBN, and I firmly believe it is a critical piece of infrastructure for Australia. I’d even go as far as saying it’s implementation as a government project is visionary. But I also understand that $43 billion is a lot of money and the Parliament is well within its rights to demand some accountability from the government.

Today it was revealed that Shadow Minister for Telecommunications (and former Liberal leader) Malcolm Turnbull owns $10 million worth of shares in Melbourne IT, a company that would benefit nicely from the implementation of the NBN. The Liberal Party, and Mr. Turnbull in particular, have opposed the NBN from the beginning.

Believing she had stumbled upon hypocrisy of the highest order via a tacit financial endorsement of the NBN, Ms. Gillard challenged the Member for Wentworth on the floor of the House of Representatives today with this witty one-liner:

Most politicians get asked to put their money where their mouth is. We simply ask the member for Wentworth to put his mouth where his money is.
Julia Gillard

Brilliant, Julia!

It didn’t take long for Mr. Turnbull to respond:

The disgraceful suggestion that I should act corruptly and dishonestly by, and I quote, ‘putting his mouth where his money is’, speaks volumes about the standards of those who have made that disgraceful suggestion.
Malcolm Turnbull

And disgraceful it is. I cannot fathom why a Prime Minister would even contemplate encouraging an MP to commit an act that would fit the very description of corruption, even if in jest. What beggars belief is that Mr. Gillard didn’t even consider how Mr. Turnbull would reply. Surely, his response was as predictable as it is reasonable?

But it got worse as Mr. Turnbull quoted Julia Gillard’s own words after it was revealed that she’d strongly opposed pension increases in Cabinet, during the last election:

I am the person who will say ‘Let’s look at it. Let’s cost it. Let’s think about it. Let’s question it. Let’s turn it upside down. Let’s hold it up to the light. Let’s ask a million questions. Does it add up? Is it affordable?’
Julia Gillard

After imploring Mr. Turnbull to act corruptly then having her own hypocrisy revealed, the Prime Minister was effectively left without an argument.

I struggle to believe that Kevin Rudd, John Howard or Paul Keating would have so easily allowed themselves to be cornered like this.

But Julia Gillard’s lack of political acumen doesn’t stop there.

Even during the election, Julia Gillard’s lack of political nous was evident. After knifing first term Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in a shock night-time coup, Gillard called a federal election where she led what could possibly be described as the dullest election campaign in Australia’s history. For me, the worst moment was her announcement mid-election that we’d now see the “real Julia Gillard”:

I want to throw away (the) rule book, be out and about, meeting people, talking to people, making myself available. Up to this point I’ve gone with the standard campaign model… very risk averse… (but) my style is to play my own again, to be out there taking a few risks.
Julia Gillard

Obviously, this prompted the question ‘If this is the real Julia Gillard, who was the one that we saw before?’. Like the examples above, it showed an appalling lack of political judgement.

In some ways, it shows an inability to take an intelligent or principled stance and argue a case to its logical end. These days, Ms. Gillard seems keen to use annoying witticisms or analogies to make her point rather than just articulate her view.

Yet Julia Gillard is no fool.

I have been watching the former lawyer since she was an unknown back-bencher. All the way up, she had impressed me greatly. Even as she was serving under Kevin Rudd as the Deputy Prime Minister, she handled her twin portfolios of industrial relations and education admirably, with barely a hiccup.

So what has happened? Was the knifing of Kevin Rudd an abrupt and premature end to her political apprenticeship? In some ways, I believe it was. After all, it was inevitable that Julia Gillard would succeed Kevin Rudd as leader of the Labor Party and as PM if Labor held power long enough.

Now that she’s Prime Minister, it seems more evident that it’s Julia Gillard who’s lost her way. Perhaps she’s out of her depth?

Julia Gillard now leads a minority Labor government with the support of the Greens (a rising force in politics) and two independents. There’s only one vote between government and the political abyss.

A smart person in her position would do all in her power to cultivate those crucial relationships. She can still afford to be difficult with the opposition, but she can’t afford to be difficult with the Greens or Tony Windsor and Rob Oakshott.

The Labor party has always prided itself on being the party of reform and vision. If Gillard doesn’t reform her ways and demonstrate some vision, let alone deliver some outcomes, Labor will be swept from office and the NBN will be nothing more than a momentary fantasy tangent.

There is only one previous example of an Australian first-term government being swept from office. There are plenty of examples of second-term governments being swept from office.

Gillard may like to consider what would cost her more: Releasing the NBN business case, or losing office?



2 responses to “Gillard: Lacking Political Acumen”

  • Written by Andrew on 22 November 2010:

    Pretty thought provoking post. She is supposedly from the the left of the party. I don’t understand.

  • Written by James on 28 November 2010:

    A very good post. You’ve captured the irony of Gillard’s “put your mouth where your money is” gaffe in a way that seems to have left the newspapers almost lost for words, so they have given it barely a mention.

    Like the “real Julia,” this was no a momentary slip of the tongue but a carefully prepared strategic message. She had days or at least hours in which it should have occurred to her that she was openly recommending corrupt conduct – even, as you said, in jest.

    And yet, she’s got away with it. Hardly anybody noticed or cares, and the famous-for-being-famous commentators are saying the week has been a political triumph for Gillard.

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