Tony Abbott's greatest successes have been making Prime Minister Julia Gillard seem illegitimate and obscuring her government's achievements. The media and public have been too hard on her. Clint Howitt explains.
LAST MONTH'S tumultuous events in Canberra were just the latest in a long line of tribulations Prime Minister Julia Gillard has had to endure during her tenure. The overwhelming majority of them have not been of her own making; and so it was last week. The 'nervous nellies' in the Labor Party, instead of using their energies and talents to sell the policies and achievements of the government, turned on their leader holding her solely responsible for a slide in the polls — which the 'Ruddites' had in large measure created themselves by their constant divisive media comments.
It was yet another instance of the unique and fiendishly stressful pressure our prime minister has been subjected to over the last few years. Never in our country’s history has a national leader faced so many demands and attacks on multiple fronts. Yet, sadly, seldom in the media is this perpetual pressure and harassment given the critical attention it deserves.
The Hung Parliament
From day one after the 2010 election, Gillard has had the blowtorch applied
Her position as prime minister had been described as “tainted” because she “tapped Rudd on the shoulder” or “stabbed him in the back.” This suggests she came to power illegitimately.
It ignores the fact there was widespread dissatisfaction over Rudd’s leadership within the Labor Party as polls began to slide. She spoke to him face to face about her intention to challenge after being approached by several concerned members of caucus. He resigned and Gillard was elected unopposed by the parliamentary caucus.
She became leader because she gained support of the Labor Party caucus. It may have been unusual for a prime minister to be replaced, but it was quite legitimate — just as it was legitimate for Abbott to replace Turnbull as Liberal leader in 2009. Not to mention Napthine replacing Baillieu as Victorian Premier this year.
Faced with the first hung parliament since the 1940 election, the first task of both parliamentary leaders was to see who was the more convincing leader and the better negotiator. The nation held its collective breath for the outcome.
For both leaders, the negotiations with the cross benches would involve reordering priorities, modifying plans and making concessions they had not contemplated when in campaign mode. It was a classic instance of politics being the art of the possible.
The feather in her cap was winning the support of Windsor and Oakeshott who represented electorates which were predominantly rural and conservative leaning. They both said they thought Labor had better policies which would offer greater benefits to their constituents and the nation.
Abbott should have romped it in, but he blew it.
Wilkie, in particular, was wary of his extravagant ‘win at any cost’ approach. Windsor later said much the same thing. She had won on three counts – more detailed and convincing policies, more reasonable negotiating skills and an ability to compromise.
Since that time, “detailed policies”, “negotiation” and “compromise” have been expunged from the Coalition lexicon.
The point is, the entire procedure was carried out as it should have been. Suggestions this government should not be allowed to run its full term are nothing more than expressions of opportunistic self interest.
Breaking New Ground
Having finally formed a government, Julia Gillard was confronted with the pressures of being Australia’s first female prime minister. She had no precedent to model herself on, no guidelines to follow.
On top of the usual irrelevances that women in positions of prominence have to endure, like her dress sense, her hair styles, her shoes and so on, she also faced a barrage of conservative disapproval over her childlessness, her atheism and her marital status.
None of this claustrophobic scrutiny has ever really gone away. To this day she is the butt of snide remarks and innuendo about her domestic situation and her lack of religious convictions.
Her political opponents frequently deny her the courtesy of using her correct title. Manager of Opposition Business Christopher Pyne often refers to her as “she” rather than “the prime minister” in parliament.
Alan Jones brazenly called her “Juliar” to her face, on air. This is a bit rich from a man ordered by the ACMA to undergo a course in Journalism 101 for repeated factual errors and misrepresentations.
Pressures of Minority Government
Minority government creates a huge extra workload on top of what is arguably the country’s most demanding and stressful job.
Her government sits on a knife-edge margin to get every piece of legislation through the parliament.
This requires her to consult and liaise regularly with the Greens and the Independents to gain their vote.
All this extra consultation adds considerably to her duties and erodes much of her time.
This comes on top of the many hours she has to devote to meetings with cabinet and the parliamentary caucus, not to mention all the heavy demands of her prime ministerial public commitments, both national and international.
Despite Tony Abbott’s prediction in 2011, he would be in the Lodge by Christmas, Julia Gillard has successfully navigated through the treacherous waters of minority government to ensure it sees out the full three year term.
In the process, she has introduced a raft of broad ranging policy initiatives and overseen the passage of 485 pieces of legislation through federal parliament since the end of 2010, much of it involving major reforms.
The Challenges to a Reformist Government
All over the world reformist governments face fierce opposition from the conservative forces and large vested interests.
We have seen this played out repeatedly in Australia. This has come in many forms, whether it be the slick and duplicitous advertising blitz against the mining tax and the constant attacks from mining billionaires crying poor, the sustained campaign by the tobacco industry against the plain packaging legislation, the huge resistance from the licensed clubs opposing poker machine reform or the massive fear campaign over the carbon tax.
Major reform is risky. It is easy for little things to go wrong and be blown out of proportion by those who oppose it. We need look no further than the stimulus packages used by the Rudd government to deal with the GFC in 2008 and 2009.
This was the biggest global financial crisis since the Great Depression. The size of the problem demanded a huge response to prevent the country being plunged into a major recession.
The success of the measures are borne out by the fact that Australia was the only one of the 33 advanced economies to record positive growth during that time and not enter recession.
Yet the focus was on “waste” and the unfortunate deaths of four installers of roof insulation.
The benefits of these large ambitious schemes are still being felt and will continue to provide valuable returns to the nation for years to come, but the collective memory is one of waste and mismanagement.
No allowances were made for the scale and speed with which these initiatives had to be implemented in order for the effects to be immediate.
Complaining about “waste” in the stimulus package is like complaining about a driver sacrificing a bit of tyre rubber to avoid a catastrophic collision.
Many have failed to appreciate how lucky we were to come through that period unscathed.
Julia Gillard can count among her achievements a demonstrably strong economy, despite the on-going drag of the GFC which is still adversely affecting other western economies, as we are seeing played out in Cyprus right now.
Australia has low inflation, low unemployment, comparatively low government debt and record levels of investment. Something Independent Australia has already covered recently in Matthew N. Donovan's in-depth article Time to end Tony Abbott’s deceitful debt scare campaign.
Action has been taken on climate change via the carbon tax with proceeds used to compensate consumers and develop renewable energy projects. The National Broadband Network roll out continues.
We have also seen the health reform package, implementation of the Houston Plan on asylum seekers, Australia gain a place as a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, the Minerals Resource Rent Tax and plain packaging for cigarettes.
In education, major reforms have resulted in record numbers of students attaining university degrees, apprenticeships and traineeships.
Households which had already benefited from the stimulus package, have also seen the introduction of paid parental leave for both parents, the Schoolkids Bonus and an increase in the tax free threshold from $6,000 to $18,200 meaning one million of our poorest workers pay no tax at all.
Finally there have been record increases for pensioners and improvements in working conditions for lower paid workers under the Fair Work Act after the highly unpopular Workchoices was repealed.
Her government has a clear vision for the future and has begun to implement what will prove to be massive reforms for the nation’s future - the National Disability Insurance Scheme, the Gonski Report on Education and preparations to meet the opportunities of the Asian Century.
True to his pugnacious style, Abbott’s strategy has been to oppose the Prime Minister stridently on every front. The Coalition’s “whatever it takes” approach has been extraordinarily vicious and downright dishonest.
Conservatives are supposed to be the great champions of convention and tradition. In his hunger for power, Abbott has ignored convention.
Frivolous censure motions, abuse of points of order, interjections and a barrage of heckling have become standard procedure for the opposition in question time.
The Abbott strategy is to disrupt question time, diverting from its usual purpose – for the Opposition to hold the government and ministers to account.
Instead of seeking information and explanations, Abbott has turned it into a hectoring session against the government and the prime minister.
Distortions, misinformation and innuendo are all thrown into the mix designed to whip up fear in the community and generate an atmosphere of chaos. It is a well worn political tactic - create an impression of chaos, hold the government responsible for it and then promise you will sort it all out if you are elected.
Despite repeated offers, the Coalition has stubbornly refused to develop a bipartisan approach to asylum seeker boat arrivals. Instead, they have used human misery as a bludgeon to beat the government, escalating public paranoia and xenophobia in the process.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard has twice subjected herself to exhaustive interrogation by the entire Canberra press gallery over the AWU “slush fund” beat up. She answered to exhaustion every question they put to her.
Abbott, on the other hand, is notorious for refusing to answer difficult questions. He has never agreed to be grilled for an hour on a single issue by a room full of journalists. His modus operandi is to stage a stunt, make a short statement and then walk away.
Gillard has appeared solo on ABC's Q&A programme twice since 2010 to respond to questions from the public. The opposition leader has not appeared on Q&A since the 2010 federal election. This despite having a standing invitation.
Other shows he avoids are ABC's Lateline and 7:30 as well as Ten's Meet the Press.
Instead he appears on radio and television programmes hosted by far right-wing commentators like Alan Jones and Andrew Bolt.
He's comfortable with commercial television's lightweight morning shows where there is no challenge to his superficiality.
Tea Party Campaign
Outside the parliament, there has been a concerted Tea Party style campaign waged against the prime minister by redneck extremists.
Like the Tea Party in the US, this purports to be a “people’s movement,” but it is actually orchestrated by big players to advance their own interests and political objectives. In the US it was the Koch Brothers. In Australia it has been Alan Jones and Senator Cory Bernardi – both stood down from their positions because of their extremist statements.
Bernardi travelled to America to study how the Tea Party movement was organised and then returned to set up a propaganda network on social media.
Bigoted bloggers and on-line fanatics circulate all kinds of wild scuttlebutt, shamelessly using lies, half lies, faked documents and unsubstantiated accusations against the government and the prime minister.
Jones used his hate filled radio programme to mobilize the infamous anti-carbon tax rally in Canberra. A few members of the opposition front bench joined Tony Abbott, who appeared on stage at the rally to sympathise with all its partisan nastiness.
His very presence in front of an array of highly offensive and sexist banners for the TV cameras virtually endorsed their spiteful slogans.
Shock jock Jones later said of Julia Gillard: "I'm putting her into a chaff bag and hoisting her into the Tasman Sea."
That was followed by the wild claim that imposing the carbon price "borders on the treasonous."
On another occasion he agreed with one of his caller’s suggestions regarding the PM: "Yeah, that's it. Bring back the guillotine!"
Much to Julia Gillard and Labor's disadvantage, the mainstream media in Australia is dominated almost exclusively by right wing outlets.
The unashamed bias and lack of ethics in the Murdoch empire, which owns 8 of the 12 major newspapers in our country is scandalous. Three others are owned by Fairfax.
The journalistic standards of Murdoch’s News International has been well documented in the News of the World scandal in the UK.
Even a superficial survey of News Ltd’s political news coverage will provide evidence of a consistent pattern of heavy handed anti-Labor bias.
The Daily Telegraph’s depiction of Stephen Conroy as Joseph Stalin amidst a gallery of dictators would have made the propaganda methods used by Josef Goebbels look like models of subtlety.
The impact of such distortion is compounded by the prominence given on morning radio and television to “What the Newspapers Are Saying” segments.
So whether we access our information from newspapers, radio or TV, we are bombarded by essentially the same negative messages about the government. Even social media sources much of its political material from the mainstream press further perpetuating the bias.
On the other hand, Abbott’s overblown rhetoric has been taken up enthusiastically by journalists failing to do their job of checking facts, demanding detail and asking key questions.
To regain credibility, they need, in the prime minister’s words, to “stop printing crap.”
It follows that journalists have largely failed to acknowledge, let alone make allowances for, or, heaven forbid, condemn the kind of unrelenting personal attacks the PM had been subjected to since coming to office.
It is therefore credible to say the extremist rantings and misinformation emanating from the shock jock sewer, along with the hostile campaign waged by News Limited, has skewed all political reporting.
Even the ABC which prides itself on having procedures in place to monitor balance and fairness, seems influenced by the commercial mainstream media.
Across all TV channels, the clip of the prime minister falling when her shoes sank into soft turf played endlessly repeated, often with cheap shots from commentators.
Yet with the routine announcement that Nicola Roxon and Chris Evans would not contest September’s election, when the headlines were declaring "chaos" in the government, Julia Gillard had a telling moment in parliament which was given minimal coverage.
As the Prime Minister was paying tribute to press gallery doyenne Michelle Grattan, who announced that she was resigning from The Age, she wryly asked: "How long can this chaos in the press gallery go on?"
It was a good moment for the PM. It received a hearty laugh from the parliament. It displayed her widely acknowledged sense of humour and sense of the ridiculous – qualities clearly lacking in the leader of the opposition and, it would seem, in news editors.
The 24 Hour News Cycle
All governments expect scrutiny and criticism. It comes with the territory. The job of the opposition is to oppose.
However, in a fair society, citizens expect it to be done in a civil and rational way.
The Gillard Government is the first to be subjected to the blow torch of the 24 hour news cycle and the fierce competition among mainstream media outlets to maintain their dwindling market share.
Any rumour or half truth is repeated, printed or broadcast, for fear of being scooped by a competitor.
The piranha-like feeding frenzy of the media pack in Canberra over the fizzer of Rudd’s non-challenge was indicative of the scrutiny and partisan commentary that surrounds the prime minister. It was pervasive, unsettling and incessant.
Lack of Scrutiny of Opposition
Meanwhile, Abbott has been getting away with the most monstrous mistruths and exaggerations.
Greg Combet has time after time exposed the deceitfulness of Abbott’s Chicken Little pronouncements on the carbon tax but there has been a deafening silence from the media. Abbott’s stunts and dire predictions get top billing.
Dressed in a safety vest and hard hat, in Whyalla, he predicted the city would be “be wiped off the map.” Outside Peabody’s coal mine in Central Queensland, he proclaimed the carbon tax would see the end of Queensland’s coal industry.
We have seen the scale his predicted consequences shrink from the devastation of “a tsunami,” to a deadly “cobra strike,” to a prolonged “python squeeze.” In fact the impact of carbon tax has been as benign as an earthworm.
It would be refreshing to see journalists quiz Abbott as rigorously as they did Gillard on the AWU slush fund accusations.
Incredibly, there has been virtually no scrutiny of the hollow woodpile of Coalition policies or their failure to provide a properly audited costing of them before the 2010 election or coverage of the fact Treasury found between $8 – 11 billion dollars worth of promises were unaccounted for. They said their costings had been audited. They hadn’t.
The stealing of documents to gain an electoral advantage made the Watergate break-in serious enough to bring down a president. Why wasn’t the stealing of Peter Slipper’s diary entries in order to advance the Coalition’s political interests and undermine Labor’s hold on government equally serious? It seems the only Woodward and Bernstein equivalents in Australian journalism are those who contribute to Independent Australia.
In maintaining the pressure on the government, the conservatives are aided and abetted by an interlaced network of media moguls, mining billionaires and other born-to-rule extremists from the big end of town – all baying for blood. Gina Rinehart, Australia’s supreme example of self-interest, clearly has open access to Abbott as well as his support and admiration.
Through the megaphone of screaming headlines, shrill shock jocks on talk back radio, tabloid TV and multi-million dollar advertising campaigns, the public is harangued from all quarters when the government has the temerity to attempt instigating measures in the public interest against the GFC, climate change, tobacco smoking, problem gambling and obscene profits from the mining industry.
Internal Party Pressures
Sadly for the government, there are also pressures on the Prime Minister from within her party.
The on-going destabilisation from the Rudd camp has been a huge distraction.
Meanwhile, simmering away in the background, are the likely court actions against former ALP members Craig Thomson and Eddie Obeid. The outcome of those cases hangs like a Sword of Damocles over Labor.
If the accusations are proven, then the ALP machine must accept responsibility. Having said this, it’s drawing a long bow to hold the PM culpable for failures in the Labor’s pre-selection processes.
Both the government and the opposition have made mistakes. In a truly democratic media environment, the public would expect criticisms to be reasonable, factually based and balanced. Governments should also be able to expect acknowledgement for achievements as well as criticisms and complaints. In the land of the "fair go", there has been precious little praise for the government’s significant legislative successes.
Julia Gillard, with hindsight, would have to admit that making unequivocal assurances – such as those on the carbon tax and the budget surplus – were a mistake.
Other matters like the timing of announcements relating the election date and the resignations of ministers Evans and Roxon can easily be argued either way. Likewise the appointment of Peter Slipper as Speaker.
In 2011, Abbott was seen on camera speechless for over a full minute trembling with anger when Channel 7 interviewer, Mark Riley queried him about the “shit happens” comment he made about a soldier’s death in Afghanistan.
In 2012, twice, in quick succession, he was shown to have been condemning government actions or defending his own party by reference to documents that he hadn’t even read. In each case, his version of the contents of the documents was wrong.
Surely the prime minister is not to be judged at a higher standard than male leaders, including Abbott? All leaders make mistakes, often serious ones, but their legacy is normally judged by weighing up the positive aspects of their achievements against the negative aspects.
On this measure, Gillard has been very successful indeed.
A Case for Workplace Bullying
Regular observers of question time have witnessed how Tony Abbott not only uses inflated outrage but niggling antics across the despatch box towards the Prime Minister - the contemptuous leer, the turned back, the sotto voce remarks. They constitute a strategy of unremitting harassment.
Taken as a whole, the litany of attacks on the Prime Minister since she came to office has been reprehensible. If the treatment she has had to put up with was meted out in the workplace to any other person, it would be denounced as calculated workplace bullying of the most callous sort.
If we are honest, we would have to admit that most of us would buckle under the stress of such a high pressure job let alone one made nigh on unbearable by personal invective.
In any other workplace she would have an unassailable case for harassment. In a legal setting, harassment is considered to be conduct “that reasonably causes the other person to feel vexed, persecuted, offended, humiliated or intimidated. Generally, there is the connotation that such conduct is persistent or repeated.”
Prime Minister’s Demeanour
Despite all the provocation and insults, Gillard has maintained her equanimity. One can only admire the way she has displayed graciousness, good humour, courtesy and a steely determination in the face of such relentless criticism and personal abuse.
It is most unusual to see her look irritated, let alone angry. In interviews she remains calm and polite. With the public and international leaders alike she is genial and charming with a ready smile and friendly greeting. Seldom does anything seem to get under her skin – with one notable exception.
The Misogyny Speech
Online, Julia Gillard's misogyny speech went viral – not just in Australia but worldwide. Women everywhere understood and endorsed its sentiments. They understood what it was like to suffer constant discrimination purely because they were women.
They understood the way sexist language and ingrained sexist attitudes were constantly used either deliberately or unthinkingly to put them down. They understood the anger and the frustration of being victimised by injustice.
And many sympathetic men understood it too and agreed with them.
But the mainstream media did not understand its impact, even at this general level. They completely missed its broad significance.
Instead, without exception, the major newspapers next morning gave all the focus to the Coalition’s criticism of Gillard’s support for Peter Slipper as Speaker.
If the journalists had cared to examine the prime minister’s situation with any kind of empathy at all, they would have seen her words were also symptomatic of all the pressures she had borne personally, during three years of minority government.
The strength of her reaction should have inspired our top political journalists to examine critically just how relentlessly and unfairly those pressures have been applied to her. They should have recognised what extraordinary toughness it must take to do a job effectively in those trying circumstances.
Her father’s sudden death while she was at the 2012 APEC Summit set the stage for the most hurtful insult ever directed at any Australian prime minister.
A few days after John Gillard’s funeral, at a $100-a-head Sydney University Liberal Club dinner, Alan Jones made his heartless remark that the Prime Minister’s father “died of shame.”
Advertisers began boycotting Jones in droves. Malcolm Turnbull commented on a social networking site, "Alan Jones' comments about the late John Gillard were cruel and offensive."
However, Abbott gave a half hearted criticism and said he would not register a protest for decency in broadcasting by refusing to be a guest on Jones’s show saying he would appear on it in the future.
Gillard simply ignored Jones’ comment.
Then on 10 October, Abbott launched yet another of his shrill censure motions in question time to attack the prime minister.
He used the word “shame” throughout the speech and then delivered the callous finale - that she led “a government which should already have died of shame."
It was premeditated and intended to hurt.
If Jones had stuck the knife into Gillard, Abbott had now cruelly twisted it in the wound. He showed he was not only a sexist but a sadist as well. Later on 2UE he was to deny that he had intended any connection to Jones' comments.
Given the furore and publicity over Jones’ remarks, which dominated the political news for days, this defence was disingenuous and cowardly.
This time the prime minister did respond angrily.
Her reply was instantaneous, spontaneous and stinging. It was a speech that was unprepared and unrehearsed. It was borne of a daughter’s grief for her father, not a self-pitying outburst but one of a feisty woman who for two years had been gracious, smiling and civil in the face of vile and unfair criticism which must have seemed interminable.
It also summed up what many were feeling about Abbott and Jones in particular.
It was a speech straight from the heart. It had a very personal dimension that spoke to the stresses of office, a crippling workload, the daily pressures of minority government, but above all, to the malevolent nature of the Abbott’s political tactics.
What happens between now and September 14th will determine the nation’s future.
For the country’s sake, one would hope that all sides of politics are given an opportunity to set out their policies in full and have them independently costed in time to be assessed and debated fully and reasonably.
Whether this can happen or not will be a crucial test of whether our politicians, our media and our citizens still value the national ideal of our country - as the land of the "fair go."
(Find out about the Ashbygate Trust and help bring James Ashby and his co-conspirators to justice.)
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