The claim that Julia Gillard is a liar is now as widespread across Australia as rabbits and Andre Rieu, and almost as devastating, at least to her approval ratings. Tony Abbott has been gleefully claiming that her pants are on fire for months now, and Alan Jones, that bastion of civility, called the Prime Minister “Juliar” to her face, his Wildean wordplay reminding me of those halcyon days when primary school wags named me “Domadick”.
Gillard already had an integrity problem after the dumping of Kevin Rudd, and her decision to renege on her promise not to introduce a carbon tax has exacerbated it dramatically. The “liar” rallying cry has been picked up across talkback radio, news website comment pages and various other cesspits of ugly vitriol and untreated personality disorders. As a result, the Prime Minister’s reputation for trustworthiness now lies somewhere in between Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency and Lord Voldemort.
I can understand why the ranting of people like 2GB’s Chris Smith has gotten so many people worked up. Gillard’s about-face seemed blatant and shocking, albeit not compared to Smith at aChristmas party. If a politician can expressly promise not to do something, win an election and then a few months later, go ahead and do that exact thing anyway, you have to wonder why we bother having election promises at all.
You can imagine the fury from the union movement if Tony Abbott, having repeatedly vowed not to do so, had blithely reintroduced WorkChoices within a year of assuming office. And Labor had essentially promised that the carbon tax, to adopt Abbott’s peculiar mixed metaphor, was also “dead, buried, cremated”.
But the current Eyjafjallajokull-level fury does seem something of an overreaction when anyone with even a passing familiarity with Australian politicians knows that their election promises are as flexible as News International’s code of conduct. Gillard is not some Ricky Gervais figure who invented the idea of lying in a mediocre movie. John Howard developed the risible concept of the non-core promise after his first election victory, and Tony Abbott tried to argue on the 7.30 Report last year that only his written commitments should be treated as binding – a standard which, as it happens, would excuse Gillard entirely. When ignoring election promises has been a proud bipartisan tradition, neither side of politics has any right to feign umbrage.
Furthermore, the claim that Gillard lied to win the election is wrong for two reasons. First, she did not lie, and second, she did not win the election.
On the first point, the relevant question is whether her original promise was a genuine statement of intent, or whether she, in effect, had her fingers crossed. The Prime Minister reiterated in her National Press Club speech last week that it was a sincere commitment, and the truth of this statement should be as abundantly clear as Steve Fielding’s diary.
Why? Because the entire reason Labor dumped Kevin Rudd was so that she could distance herself from his more unpopular policies. After two years of commissioning a litany of reports, Kevin Rudd had finally started to implement some of their recommendations, and he had frightened the horses – both voters and, fatally, his colleagues. On replacing him, Gillard immediately watered down the mining tax, tried to divert the boat people to East Timor and abandoned the Big Australia plan that had made suburban bigots worry about miscellaneous scary ethnics moving in next door. Gillard’s brief was to provide – ironically for this government – some political insulation ahead of the election.
But her biggest watering-down of Rudd’s original agenda, the icing on her cop-out cake of cowardice, if you will, was her climate change policy. The entire point of her woeful Citizens’ Assembly was to protect her from having to take action, while still making her seem to care about the issue slightly more than the Coalition. Gillard was so reluctant to expose herself on the issue that she wanted to set up a whole separate representative body – a second Parliament, or perhaps a national focus group – so that it could recommend an ETS without obliging her to implement it.
And if this doesn’t convince you of her heartfelt desire to punt the whole carbon issue into the stands like that apocryphal full-forward for the Western Bulldogs, at least until the term after this one, then I’d remind you of the commonly-accepted report that she convinced Rudd to drop his own ETS.
With a rather amusing lack of self-awareness, Gillard told the National Press Club that “in the moment I truly believed I was going to be Prime Minister I told myself, ‘Don’t ever put a hard call off, because it will only get harder every day.”’ And yet on arriving in office, her strategy was precisely to put off the hard calls, to defuse all of the bombs that Rudd had set and Abbott was so effectively lobbing at Labor.
She failed, of course. And as soon as it became clear that the Parliament was hung, all bets were off. Both leaders were forced to make new commitments to win cross-bench support. Had Tony Abbott succeeded, he would have had to break campaign promises too – and we know he offered Andrew Wilkie a billion-dollar hospital. Sure, that’s nowhere near as major a change as a carbon tax, but does anyone honestly think that Abbott wouldn’t have offered equally dramatic policy backflips in return for becoming PM? If Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor could have been swayed by tough IR reforms, Abbott would surely have been delighted to exhume WorkChoices.
As Gillard has admitted and they have boasted, it was the Greens who forced her to take on the risk of the carbon tax if she wanted to form government – and her fear that it would prove politically problematic has certainly been vindicated over the past few months. In short, she changed her policy in response to a major change in circumstance. And that doesn’t make her a liar, it makes her a better negotiator than Abbott. Ultimately we are having a carbon tax not because Gillard broke her promise, but because the Greens found themselves in a position to achieve theirs.
If we learn anything from the carbon stoush, it should be that our hopes of political promise-keeping are as doomed to failure as an American teenager’s abstinence pledge. If the supposed idealist Barack Obama can go from being one of Guantanamo’s harshest critics to merrily keeping the place open, then surely no contemporary politician can be trusted to adhere to their pre-poll commitments. We should vote on the basis of their values and priorities, which are less likely to change in response to circumstances. The flood levy was entirely unforeseeable, for example, but the fact that it was means-tested under a Labor government was no surprise.
There are many things one could fairly call Julia Gillard. Some – well, perhaps just Albo, at this point – might call her a skilful legislative tactician who has guided a raft of contentious policies through an extremely difficult Parliament. Others, responding to her view on gay marriage, might call her… words that the ABC’s editorial policies prevents me from uttering.
But despite the hilarious punnery that the name ‘Julia’ makes possible, despite her surname also being one letter away from containing ‘liar’, and despite the fact that even her electorate of Lalor sounds very much like that same word, her promise not to introduce a carbon tax was sincere. Personally, I’m delighted she was forced to change her mind.
This article originally appeared at The Drum on 18 July 2011.