On June 24th 2010, a freshly installed Prime Minister Julia Gillard walked across the aisle of the House of Representatives, leant in to shake the hand of Opposition Leader Tony Abbott and declared “Game on.” The statement was received with excitement from supporters and critics alike. Tony Abbott’s pugilistic style of politics had been blunting Kevin Rudd’s charm for months and the bookish Queenslander’s seeming inability to return in kind was arousing concern. But Gillard was different. She was a fighter, aggressive in parliament, forthright, unrestrained—a match to Abbott’s machismo.
It is an odd quirk of our political class that elections are often framed as a contest between strength and fortitude. Politicians with a predilection for bellicose ranting and gratuitous personal attacks are proclaimed to be “strong”. It’s hardly behaviour you or I would call endearing, but it makes for dramatic video packages on Lateline or The Bolt Report, and so the advent of these political figures is greeted with much fanfare. The boxing metaphor became well worn, clichés like “the gloves are off” were abused as the two candidates promised a “win-at-all-costs” sharpening up of their campaign machine. Gillard v Abbott was the clash of two fierce political warriors the punditry had yearned for, but the voters didn’t follow the script.
Gillard kicked off her leadership by outlining three key policy areas over which she would assert her authority: Asylum Seekers, carbon pricing and the Resources Super Profits Tax. These were all areas of policy where Abbott had attacked the Rudd government and Gillard attempted to neutralise them with shifts to the right. Within days of assuming the leadership she announced that a hurriedly designed, watered down down Minerals Rent Resources Tax would replace the proposed Resources Super Profits Tax. Abbott countered that this was evidence that the Coalition had been right all along, the RSPT had been excessive, but Gillard still hadn’t gone far enough.
Gillard proposed a climate assembly of 100 randomly chosen citizens to establish a consensus on climate change and climate action. The whole thing was derided as a farce and against mounting pressure from Abbott, Gillard made the concession that there would be no carbon tax under a government she led. Abbott and his supporters claimed vindication once again and public support for a price on carbon fell, but there was a less tangible but more severe consequence.
The image of a well-meaning government working away in good faith to try and build a better Australia was rapidly eroded. In its place came a popular perception of politics as a game for politicians. Policies were not being developed for altruistic motives, policy positions were being taken to achieve strategic outcomes. Public cynicism about the political class grew. Abbott gained little capital for his tactical victories, his approval ratings remained low but Gillard was getting dragged down with him.
The cruel irony of course was that the Rudd government represented the height of policy decisions being taken for strategic reasons. Rudd’s ability to manipulate the daily news cycle was scandalous. But the Gillard government had a strange obsession with the meta that Rudd did not. For reasons best known to themselves, ministers would background journalists on the strategic purpose behind a government decision. Gillard herself would announce new strategies, not just policies, new strategies, most notable among them the “Real Julia”. This peculiar habit of proclaiming the cunning reasons for a policy instead of just reaping the benefits of it was deeply counterproductive.
The trend continued as Gillard announced that her government would be resurrecting the Howard Government’s Offshore Processing policies with East Timor as the new site of settlement. The plan collapsed when it emerged that the negotiations had occurred with a titular head of state and not the East Timorese government. Gillard’s attempts to provide a political fix to the policy challenges of the Rudd government had backfired and when election day arrived, the initial swell of support around Australia’s new Prime Minister had plummeted, meanwhile the ostensibly principled Bob Brown soared and The Greens recorded to date their best performance on record.
The chief culprit in all of this was of course Tony Abbott. The failed former Prime Minister, who is bizarrely seen as a man of conviction by large elements of the hard right, took unprincipled politics to hitherto unseen lengths. His changes of heart on such a large suite of policy positions belie the extent of his grubby opportunism. To take just one example, when John Howard announced an emissions trading scheme, Abbott naturally accepted the science of climate change. When he saw an opportunity to outflank Brendan Nelson on the right he began hinting at doubts he had about the climate science. When Malcolm Turnbull became leader and Abbott was angling for internal promotion Abbott once again accepted the science of climate change. But when an opening emerged for a new flag carrier of the hard right he began to doubt it again. As Liberal leader, he accepted the science of climate change but downplayed the role of humans and carbon emissions in causing it. But as the leader of a hard-right insurgency he now lectures on climate scepticism.
A year or so into Gillard’s Premiership the Labor government realised with horror the depths to which Abbott was prepared to plunge and abandoned any such hopes of outmuscling him. Far too late, they rebranded as a mature, adult government getting on with the job while Abbott behaved like an infant. By this stage popular perceptions of Gillard had crystallised, the government was in a terminal decline and against an aggressive insurgency from Kevin Rudd it crumbled.
The restoration of Rudd did little to help. His three years of leaking and backgrounding, or pulling stunts on Breakfast Television had hurt his credibility. The carefully crafted image of an intelligent, hardworking, altruistic Rudd was in tatters. Now he was seen as manipulative, self-interested and erratic. The electorate were contemptuous. In their eyes the government had behaved gratuitously for three years, Gillard taking tactical policy positions to try and wrongfoot Abbott and Rudd for being an attention seeking prat. They were angry at Abbott too; his low approval rating never rose. But Gillard and Rudd had been the ones in government. And so, they had to go.