Julia Gillard and the Promise to Try

When it comes to providing detail on precisely what she would do with three years in charge of Australia, our new Prime Minister is moving forward at an absolutely glacial pace.

Kevin Rudd was accused of having a limited agenda ahead of the last election, but his campaign was positively Whitlamesque compared to Julia Gillard. She’s set to break almost no promises if she remains Prime Minister, simply because she will hardly have made any. Other than her vow to give Kevin Rudd a front-bench position, which she now claims to be “excited” about – which beggars belief, because surely nobody could be eager to spend more time with Kevin Rudd – there’s almost nothing she couldn’t deliver by the end of her first week.

And that’s because her policies are gossamer construction, delightfully ornate and yet entirely flimsy. They’re artfully designed to appeal to left and right alike, and delivered in speeches that feel like a cup of hot Milo before bedtime. Gillard speaks calmly and placidly, accompanied by constant hypnotic nods of her head which lull the viewer into a slumber.

Under the blazing spotlight of analysis, her plans melt like an ice sculpture  – or a polar ice cap, given her approach to climate change, which was announced on the weekend with a commitment to setting a carbon price that was firm in every respect except the date.

She committed a billion dollars for renewable energy to try and safeguard those Green preferences, but the major thrust of the policy felt like an attempt to placate those, like Tony Abbott, who think it’s crap. She’d toss the problem to a Citizens’ Assembly, a proxy for public opinion that conveniently delays her own decision until a year after the election.

If the randoms are on board, she can go ahead, protected from any fallout by arguing that there’s now a “community consensus.” But if can’t be convinced, she’ll shelve the whole thing. Because, of course, eminent scientists telling you that the destruction of the planet is imminent can safely be ignored if a bunch of ordinary voters don’t happen to think it’s important.

As Madonna put it, it’s a “promise to try“. That’s all she needs to do, because everyone intuitively believes that the public know she’s more committed to it than Tony Abbott.

She’s tried the same left-right pirouette on asylum-seekers. Refugees are important, she said alongside Frank Lowy, presumably implying that if we’re lucky, they might turn out to be billionaires. And she believes – controversially in Australia these days – in not leaving them drown.

But to impress the right, she’s still planning to be tough on them, diverting them to East Timor. Not that there’s any agreement with East Timor yet, of course – these things take time! But look, she’ll give it a go. That’s it. And while picking up the phone and talking to the right person would constitute a fresh new foreign policy approach from the Gillard Government, it’s again merely a promise to try.

Immigration policy receives this treatment, too. She won’t commit to anything as crassly specific as a number. Heavens, no. Instead there are panels to look at the issue, and report back on what to do. Waleed Aly is on one of them, although he admitted on Q&A last week, he doesn’t even know why. But surely it’s obvious why – just so the panel exists, so Labor has a policy to look at the problem.

Slow down, Gillard says. Let’s take a breath. The word “chillax” may even escape from her lips before the end of the campaign. Don’t frighten the horses – and why would she, when she’s ahead in the polls? Slow and steady wins the race.

Tony Abbott’s doing his best to copy the same approach, but given his characteristic bluntness, he just doesn’t have the capacity to seem reassuring while saying nothing. A lifelong advocate of industrial relations reform, he now claims there’s nothing so urgent that he would need to address it in the next three years. People want certainty, he says. And they’ll get it, too; with both parties desperate to minimise any perceptible difference between them.

But to Gillard, it comes naturally. She’s not a doer, she’s a listener, as though Australia is a character from The Wire, asking “You feel me?” And oh, how she feels us. She’s even slammed the political correctness that dares to suggest that those who might feel uncomfortable with asylum seekers are rednecks. The Prime Minister’s undoubtedly the better listener, even though she’s the candidate with the smaller ears.

Kevin Rudd’s biggest problem was that he couldn’t give the impression of listening – he seemed like he thought he knew it all already. And he simply couldn’t give a clear, warm performance like Gillard did in the debate. While her efforts frustrated anyone looking for substance, she smiled and seemed positive, and her opponent did neither. And that’s all Labor’s strategists will have been looking for.

Perhaps this is what happens in the election after a global financial crisis. Above all, Australians just want to continue their slow meandering towards recovery. Tony Abbott’s tried to turn this election into a protest vote on a “bad government” – but with a new leader, Labor’s successfully obfuscated its failings. One leader is only really effective in attack mode, while the other is hell-bent on reassurance, like a kindergarten teacher calming the class down after big lunch. It’s no surprise which one’s leading the preferred Prime Minister polling.

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