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The endemic problems of the Gillard Government

By Don Aitkin - posted Monday, 19 December 2011


'She just can't take a trick, can she.' The comment (it wasn't really a question) came over a dinner a little time ago, and referred to our Prime Minister, hosting CHOGM while the QANTAS war raged on. Someone pointed out that the Government no longer had any share of the airline, and someone else wondered whether or not Bob Hawke could be wheeled out to do his celebrated impasse-breaking act.

I went into a long ponder, about how Julia Gillard had got into the dreadful mess that she and her Government are now in. I ought to point out that virtually all around the dinner table were sympathetic. All had some respect for the PM, and all wanted our first woman in the job to be seen to be doing it well.

Alas, it ain't necessarily so. In my view things were never going to be easy for any Government in this Parliament, because of the numbers. But you can argue that the PM has made things even worse than they might have been by going down the auction path.

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The bidding war for government

By that I mean that last year she and Mr Abbott engaged in a bidding war for the support of the independent MPs and the Greens, an auction that she eventually won - not that I ever thought that the coalition was likely to win it.

There was, however, a clear alternative. She was the Prime Minister at the time, and she would remain so until she lost a vote of confidence on the lower house. She was in the riding seat. Given Labor's own sense of itself as the moral force in Australian politics, a deal with a set of independents and another minor party weakened Labor's position. And the whole process looked, and was, grubby.

Worse, it put Labor's new partners onto a much higher rung on the media ladder, and made them seem, at least to many, as the driving force in the formulation of the Government's policies. And while Ms Gillard could say that her promises during the campaign, such as not having a carbon tax, ceased to be relevant once she had entered the deal - that was an awkward argument to put to the electorate, and it has been rejected.

My guess is that she and her advisers were so intent on ensuring that they stayed in office that they ignored the other path available to them; which was to continue as a minority government and dare the others to put them out. There are many examples of this strategy having been employed in Australian politics. Victoria was governed that way for a good deal of the last century. It can work.

To begin with, the independents could have been cajoled with initially vague but eventually specific programs that would have been beneficial to regional electorates like theirs. It would take some time to get the details right, and in the interim, it would have been unlikely for them all to gang up on the Government.

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The Greens could be told that there would be no carbon tax (which has proved to possess the soaring power of the famous lead balloon), but that there would be other policy moves which the Greens would support. In my opinion, the Coalition could not have agreed to a carbon tax while the Government showed its sympathy with other Green initiatives - or, realistically, at all.

Had the PM gone down this apparently less attractive path, her Government would still be in power, with a higher level of public support that it now has, and much less lead in its saddle-bags than they currently possess. And it would be facing the prospect of an election in 2013 with more confidence than it now has.

Can she recover? Yes, as so many like to say, two years is a long time in politics. Despite the glow of the Obama visit, she will need some powerful external circumstance, like a massive asteroid strike three weeks before the poll, or a Martian landing.

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About the Author

Don Aitkin has been an academic and vice-chancellor. His latest book, Moving On, was published in 2016.

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