A couple of real weathervanes

Julia Gillard has some news, and it will do your head in. The woman we’ve seen reciting talking points, using the phrase “moving forward” approximately twice per breath and advocating that absurd Citizen’s Assembly that promises to be even less useful than the 2020 Summit is not the real Julia Gillard.

It seems there’s been some kind of sneaky Prime Ministerial switcheroo. Another one, I mean, besides us not getting to keep the one we voted for in 2007. How could this have happened? Was hypnotism involved, or perhaps some Face Off-style mask shenanigans? Did Karl Bitar somehow get his hands on polyjuice potion?

I hope the AFP is investigating, or, to save time, the truth is leaked to Laurie Oakes. But one thing needs clarifying, though: is the current iteration of our PM the real Julia Gillard? Or, OR – was the other Julia Gillard the real Julia Gillard, and is this new Julia Gillard actually the fake?

The whole thing gives me that disorienting feeling I had in my first-year philosophy class when the lecturer dramatically asked how we could be certain we weren’t all just brains in a bucket, with an evil scientist feeding synthesised images into our neurons. We couldn’t. But fortunately, our sense of having woken up within the Matrix was quickly alleviated by heading to the uni bar.

While we’re puzzling our way through this epistemological maze, though, it should be noticed that there are a few welcome differences. I heard her speaking to Richard Glover for 20 minutes yesterday, and she didn’t use the term “moving forward” once that I can recall. Sure, she still trotted out the same stock phrases in response to tricky questions, but it was at least less hideously artificial. Dubbing her new persona ‘real’, as she has, seems generous. But at the very least, she’s had a substantial programming upgrade.

Later, when appearing on Today Tonight, she made a clear departure from Gillard 1.0, and agreed to a second debate. Which initially filled me with terror, since the one last week was about as exciting as a Family First function that’s run out of red cordial. But if the leaders can genuinely get stuck into one another this time, I’d risk watching it.

There’s been a lot to dislike about her campaign, so I’m not surprised Julia Gillard’s reaching for the ‘reset’ button. While Abbott’s surged, I doubt that’s because the electorate’s suddenly discovered an abiding affection for him. I suspect that voters have reached the point where we’re fed up with insincerity, sound bites, and meaningless phrases. The tricks have worked previously, but we’re onto them now, and we’re sick of them. And our aversion is so great that we’ll reward anyone who seems in any way sincere, even if they’re as wacky as the Greens or as conservative as Tony Abbott.

The thing I admired most about John Howard was his willingness to be disliked. He’d form a view, which was generally driven by his ideology instead of opinion polls, and as long as he had 51% of the public onside – and even sometimes when he didn’t – he’d stick to it. Contrast this with Kevin Rudd, whose instinct for retreat was on a hair-trigger by the end. Even though the polls consistently showed that the public backed him on climate change, he didn’t have the guts to fight for it, not when deferral seemed like the chance to have his cake and eat it.

Julia Gillard tried the same trick, attempting to placate the public by putting off anything difficult, as I pointed out last week. It backfired hugely, because the net result was that she appeared to stand for nothing.

And that’s the risk with following the mountain of voter feedback that comes in from head office. If you base your platform on it, you risk an outcome worse than adopting any one unpopular policy: the appearance of not really believing anything, and just telling people what they want to hear. It might be smart to be poll-driven, but it’s not a good idea to seem poll-driven.

When Julia Gillard talks about getting tough on asylum speakers, or Tony Abbott praises the status quo on industrial relations, it simply doesn’t ring true. We know them better than that. And it makes us doubt their credibility.

Abbott used to define himself as a conviction politician, but no longer. Malcolm Turnbull’s phrase shortly after his dumping was particularly delicious – he quoted Abbott as calling himself a “weathervane” on the issue. No fixed direction, and blown endlessly by the wind – it’s a perfect summary of Abbott’s recent reversals, and Laurie Oakes clobbered him with the word in their interview on Sunday.

I doubt that Julia Gillard will successfully reinvent herself – and who would have predicted it would be Tony Abbott who seems to be running the more coherent, disciplined campaign? But at least the Prime Minister belatedly seems to realise that the cynical, banal slogans she’s been relying on won’t cut it. Her plan to sashay into the Lodge on a wave of honeymoon goodwill has now been abandoned. And long may we react with such palpable contempt when politicians sell out the beliefs we know them to hold and tell us only what they think we want to hear.

One Response to A couple of real weathervanes

  1. P. Oliver 11 August 2010 at 4:03 pm #

    JG didn’t invent the Citizens Assembly. Because no-one [in print] has taken the trouble to discover what citizens assembly means, I googled for a clue and apparently it’s been done in British Columbia, Canada, to investigate changes to the provincial electoral system, {wikipedia}. This begs the question, why didn’t journalists ask JG a few questions before losing concentration ??

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