Recent poll numbers showing the Labor party closing the gap with the Coalition have created a flurry of excitement in the media. ‘Gillard puts Abbott to shame,’ read the front page of the Sydney Morning Herald in response to those new Nielsen numbers.
But forget, for a moment, the polls and the press. This is a story about the ideas and visions of politics, the broad brushstrokes of national life, the things that make it alluring and worthwhile. It is a story of a woman from the Victorian Left who came to ruin the very things she stood for.
It is hard to believe it now, but when Kevin Rudd first came to the office of the prime minister, many on the left of politics could be heard grumbling. Rudd was seen as too conservative, too similar to what came before. On election night in 2007 he had thanked the outgoing Howard for 11 years of good governance and prosperity; before the election he had declared himself to be — oh heresy! — an ‘economic conservative’; he thought the American alliance was something to be protected and preserved. The Left had wanted another Whitlam, another Keating. They had got… well, Rudd was quickly dubbed ‘Howard 2.0’ by actor and songwriter Eddie Perfect.
It was Gillard, then Rudd’s deputy, that the Left really wanted. At university, she was active in the radical student movements of early 1980s while Rudd learned Mandarin and affirmed his deep religious faith. Upon graduating, she joined Victoria’s Labor Left faction while Rudd was in China, a non-partisan diplomat. After coming to Canberra, she earned a reputation as a firebrand in parliament, felling foes across the aisle, while Rudd worked quietly and tirelessly in the backrooms when he wasn’t appearing on Sunrise with Joe Hockey.
Gillard’s ascendency to the top job has done very little to dent that reputation. She may have lost votes, but not the support of the Fairfax-Monthly-ABC quarter. Her alliance with the Greens in the Senate to make the carbon tax and her recent tirade against perceived misogyny in parliament have cemented her reputation as a darling of the intellectual Left.
Allow me to be blunt about this: they have got it terribly wrong. The victories Gillard has won have been pyrrhic; the losses have been devastating. She has, through a mixture of action and inaction, deliberate manoeuvre and unintended folly, wrecked the project of leftism in Australia.
Let’s take Gillard’s signature achievement first of all: action on climate change in the form of a carbon tax. The political dance she has performed on the carbon tax has been as capricious as it is craven. On the eve of the 2010 election, she promised there would be no price on carbon in her first term in office. Not even a year into that term, she grabbed the handbrake and spun the wheel. A quick 180-degree turn. She allied with the Greens to pass the Clean Energy Bill, only to denounce them as a ‘protest party’ at the ‘extreme’ of Australian politics, who ‘do not value family or work’. Who needs enemies?
Backflips and fumbling populism have turned the debate over pricing carbon — a debate the Left could feasibly win — into a discussion of Gillard’s honesty. Action that could have been sold as a necessary solution to ‘the great moral challenge of our age’ was stamped with the Green brand, which, by the PM’s own concession, is ‘extreme’. Politics, unmoored from principle and good sense, has made policies addressing climate change deeply unpopular with the Australian people.
In 2004, then opposition leader Mark Latham announced a ‘hit list’ of private schools that would lose government funding if he were to become prime minister. It was the aggressive epitome of an old leftist dream: redistribute education funding until every public school is a cathedral. Only in grandeur, of course: the less religion in schools the better. This year’s Gonski Review suggested just that, proposing an almost $5bn increase in spending on public education. Gillard’s response was that the budget couldn’t find room – but it could for her funding of private schools at double the level the Gonski Review recommended. Oh, to be a fly on Mark Latham’s wall that day.
John Howard once said, quite presciently, that the times would suit him. On this occasion, the times suited Gillard: here was a Labor PM with an independent review advocating what every leftist leader since Chifley had desired. And she balked.
The list goes on. Gillard watered down the mining tax and as a result lost the government more than $1bn of revenue every year. Compromise is one thing; capitulation is another entirely. With a loss of revenue came a loss of principle. Gillard was unwilling to debate the mining industry’s ad men on the question of whether government involvement in the economy was beneficial. Of course, the idea that government could ‘civilise’ the untamed forces of capitalism was what the Labor party was founded upon in the 1890s; it has been its raison d’être ever since.
Gillard called on the factions to mutiny against the post-factional Rudd, and quickly reinstated their undemocratic privileges. That the Labor party would be accused of being held captive by ‘faceless men’: who would’ve thought? On boatpeople and gay marriage, she has equivocated, making a mockery of the moral fervour of the Left on such issues.
Gillard is unlikely to be in office for much longer. The Labor party is nervous and jumpy at the best of times; its frontbenchers have exhibited treacherous ambition on many occasions. Failing leadership change, the voters will relegate her to the annals of Australian political history soon enough. But this isn’t just about an individual and her failings. It is about the ripping apart of the sinews of political ideas, tearing the muscles of a political project, breaking the bones of an agenda. The ruin she has reaped will outlive her, and the Left should not forgive her for that.
Felix Donovan is a reporter for Honi Soit, the student newspaper at the University of Sydney, and a contributor to the American Review.