When Even The Rusted-On Lose Grip


It sure isn’t easy being Julia Gillard just now.

No-one ever said running the country was easy, but running a minority government in the current political environment is tougher than anything recent prime ministers have experienced.

After Labor’s dismal 2010 election performance, Gillard reigns with the support of independents and minor parties, making every vote in parliament perilous and every decision a finely poised balancing act. The list of politicians and lobby groups to be placated grows seemingly by the day: not only Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor, but Bob Brown and the Greens — not to mention Labor’s own parliamentarians and factions. Even a negotiator as skilled as the Prime Minister is finding it tough to keep everyone happy. Despite the challenges, Gillard has been performing this difficult task rather well. This year has seen the government finally take the courageous decision to revisit carbon pricing.

If the discomfort of the Opposition is any indication, Gillard’s decision to abandon an election promise and press ahead with a carbon tax has been singularly effective. The Coalition has lost the plot, throwing the switch to vaudeville in Parliament with a series of apoplectic speeches, futile censure motions – not to mention one spectacularly ill-judged Senate dance.

The rage from the Coalition reflects the rage in parts of conservative Australia. Right-wing voters have, unsurprisingly, never liked this government, much less Julia Gillard herself. But the shenanigans of the past fortnight have spilled over from Parliament and the shock-jock radio programs into death threats for Tony Windsor and a level of vituperative that is disturbing for moderate bystanders. According to the ABC’s Barrie Cassidy, the mailbox at Insiders has been "inundated with vile filth passing as political commentary, of the type we have never before received in such large numbers." Australia appears to be heading towards the sort of vicious divergence all too apparent in the United States, where energised progressives and conservatives not only fail to find common ground, but fail to accept the political legitimacy of their opponents’ democratic right to hold office.

The upshot is a government that has lost the support of conservative and swinging voters. As the terrible figures from yesterday’s Newspoll confirm, Labor appears to have leaked away all but its inner core of rusted on voters. The ALP’s primary vote is at rock bottom 30 per cent, while the Greens are up to 15 per cent, giving them a primary vote half as big as Labor’s. That’s a pattern that would have been inconceivable even a year ago. In two-party preferred terms, the Coalition is eight points ahead on 54-46. Even in the slightly less abysmal Essential poll, Labor is struggling.

The current political landscape is one we’re all familiar with: polarised, superficial and ill-tempered. Tony Abbott continues to be highly attractive to the conservative base, uniting right-of-centre voters in animus against a Prime Minister they believe has lied about carbon taxes and who shouldn’t be Prime Minister in the first place. In part because Tony Abbott has so effectively politicised it, climate change has become an issue on which conservative voters oppose specific action. That’s only going to make pressing ahead with emissions reductions more difficult for Labor. Perhaps the upside for Labor is that it now has no choice but to keep going, knowing that only a full term of Parliament gives the government a chance of re-election. Any disunity at this juncture could see the government fall apart.

Given the bad polls and another outbreak of Labor factional infighting last week, Gillard must have enjoyed getting on a plane and flying to America to meet US President Barack Obama. She certainly seemed to enjoy speaking at a Washington school and appearing alongside Michelle Obama at the International Women of Courage Awards.

There doesn’t appear to have been much in the way of foreign policy discussed between the leaders, apart from noises about basing more US troops in Australia. But media opportunities alongside John McCain and the Obamas must have seemed all the more valuable after such a torrid few weeks in Australian politics. And perhaps the Prime Minister and President compared notes on the difficulty of delivering on political expectations.


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Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.