Today, Australia’s Labor prime minister, Julia Gillard, faces two possible futures. One is awful beyond belief. If the final counts in a couple of seats don’t go Labor’s way, and if Gillard fails to gather the assured support of enough Green and Independent MPs, her political career ends in disaster. The other is a prolonged nightmare. Gillard stays on as prime minister but with her government unstable and unsure, its legitimacy called into doubt.
In June, just after she rolled Kevin Rudd and became prime minister, I wrote that Gillard would need to tell and embody a story that enabled Australian voters to develop (or to confirm) a sense of who they are; and that let them reframe their thoughts and plans for the future.
There was strong evidence that she could pull it off. Julia Gillard started out with a good, strong brand, based on her undoubted competence and gift for plain speaking.
But Gillard’s credibility suffered when she stumbled over the issues of asylum-seekers and deadlines for cutting emissions. Then, she was sandbagged by a series of damaging leaks from within her own party that depicted her as callous towards pensioners and young families. After these disasters, and the fall-out over the ousting of Rudd, there were signs that the brand of the tough, smart and likeable leader was being eclipsed by a new one: Gillard the hard-bitten political opportunist.
All politicians have a narrative, but none get to write it. That brutal reality was rammed home when Gillard’s campaign became overshadowed by a few dramas that reminded voters what they didn’t like about Labor. A lot of media attention was paid to Kevin Rudd, who eventually agreed to campaign for Labor. Soon after, another ex-leader, Mark Latham, ambushed Gillard in a media scrum, challenging her about the way Labor had treated him in the past and over claims that Rudd was behind the leaks. Later, Latham urged Australian voters, who are required by law to turn up to the polling booth on election day, to spoil their ballot papers.
All this was outside Gillard’s control. Yet the Labor campaign may also have played up her political weak points. When she assumed the leadership, the BBC’s Nick Bryant argued that Gillard’s brand was based around what he called her “Bungalow politics”, which identify the PM with “mainstream” Australia.
By the end of July, commentators were slamming her over-controlled appearances, excessive use of marketing-speak and robotic presentation. With her campaign failing to fire, Gillard promised that voters would see the “real Julia”. Yet by polling day, the “real Julia” remained elusive. This was an important failure. In The Political Brain, Drew Westen shows how voters’ feelings about candidates -- or, in Australia, party leaders -- are more important than their assessment of policy positions in deciding how they will vote.
Labor's campaign accentuated [Gillard’s] solitariness in contrast to an opponent who wears several hats as father, husband, community volunteer. These roles helped flesh out a sense of Abbott.
Gillard's candour about her atheism, her de facto relationship and personal choices that put children out of her reach was refreshing, but we didn't see enough of the depth beneath her political skin.
. . . In the hundreds of campaign events and picture opportunities that both parties plot assiduously, Gillard's army of one did not allow her extracurricular personality to break through.
Gillard was well placed to live the "Australian dream". Nick Bryant also wrote in July that the new PM could embody the myth – the narrative -- of the “the Australian everyman” [sic].
From her pride at her immigrant "Ten Pound Pom" roots to her Western Bulldogs scarf, from her red-brick suburban bungalow to her Akubra hat, Julia Gillard is presenting a quintessentially Australian story - and therein lies much of her appeal.
Launching Labor’s campaign, Gillard stressed her values: hard work, "earning your keep” and the transformative power of education.
Of course I learnt these values in my family home, I learnt them from my parents. . .
When my parents migrated to this country they didn’t come asking for a free ride, they came seeking a fair go, and they found it.
She then told a brief story about how both her parents had always worked hard.
All good stuff. Yet it was tied to a policy programme that was cautious and a vision that was hazy. Gillard stressed Labor’s fiscal credibility and plans for a nationwide broadband network, as well as education and health. In the end, her promises added up to a continuation of the Rudd programme.
Such an incremental narrative can for do it a popular government, in benign times. It can also work when a new leader has taken over from a popular leader whose vision was well established. Bush I’s 1988 victory after eight years of Reagan is a good example. None of these conditions applied and so Australian voters’ minds turned back to the government’s record and judged Labor accordingly. But then Gillard was Rudd’s deputy and a key member of his government, meaning that she had little choice but to tread carefully in presenting her own story.
The lack of choice that leaders have over the stories they can tell voters may be the real lesson from Julia Gillard’s grim experience.