Last week, the Australian Labor Party installed Julia Gillard as prime minister in the hope that she can win this year’s election. “Reconnect with the voters” is the operative phrase.
Now the hard questions are coming. Can she win? What does Julia Gillard stand for? As night follows day, the n-word – narrative – is starting to appear in the Australian media.
Michelle Grattan, veteran political correspondent for The Age, says that Gillard needs a narrative.
As she grapples with the three issues the government must neutralise - mining tax, asylum seekers and climate change - Julia Gillard has a broader challenge. She needs to fit her solutions into a story that defines, rather than confuses, her political identity.
Kevin Rudd's popularity plunged when people became unsure about what he stood for. But now Gillard's own narrative is becoming rather hard to follow.
Julia Gillard’s challenge is both easier and harder than it looks. She already has a brand, a personal narrative. “The Gillard narrative so far is one of a fresh face with talent in spades: the first female prime-minister-in-waiting,” political commentator Per Van Onselen wrote last week, just before Labor switched leaders. Gillard projects authority with personality, says The Australian’s Paul Kelly. Sid Astbury has called her “famously calm, never impetuous and never flustered . . . Labor's best parliamentary performer”. My friend Karin Sowada (who was a Democrats senator in the early 1990s) wrote last week that:
Julia Gillard is a formidable opponent – tough, smart, a clear communicator with a measured political judgement and manner of personal presentation which is confident and reassuring. The public quite like her and she reflects a common touch in her voice and manner.
So far, however, the well-chronicled story has been all about Julia Gillard and not about the Australian people, where they’ve been and where she wants to take them. Margaret Thatcher stayed in power for so long because she was a brilliant teller of a story that was both easy to understand and resonated with the emotions and the deepest-held, shared values of most British people.
If Julia Gillard wants to “reconnect” the Labor government with Australian voters, she too will need to tell a story that enables them to develop (or to confirm) a sense of who they are; and that enables people to reframe their thoughts and plans for the future.
Margaret Thatcher’s story was successful because she embodied her narrative. She came from the very ‘little England’ she so revered. The grocer’s daughter from Grantham worked all hours. Her language and rhetoric often reflected Thatcher’s ‘black-and-white’, ‘us-and-them’ way of seeing the world. So Gillard’s brand will be important too.
Some people may be uncomfortable with the Thatcher lesson but it wasn’t a one-off. The Hawke and Keating governments successfully deployed a narrative that was originally about the need national unity and reconciliation, in the face of a grave social and economic crisis. Over time, they told a story of transformation and renewal, based on giving Australia a strong and modern economy, so that it could face a tough, changing world. The first story became a bridge to the second. Bob Hawke embodied the narrative with his record as a solver of industrial disputes in his 1970s; his history as a folk hero and his very “Australianness” put him above party. As treasurer and prime minister, Keating was strong and determined; above all, he delivered (with some accompanying blood and gore, rays and hail). In their very different ways, and despite all their disagreements, both men were accomplished storytellers.
Like most senior politicians, Kevin Rudd has a strong personal brand – as a competent technocrat and, until recently, an election winner. His policy wins were not insignificant. But he failed to put them all together and tell a story that evoked his country’s values, archetypes and myths and painted a compelling picture of its future.
Julia Gillard will find it hard to rewrite the Labor government’s entire policy programme. There’s very little time until the election and she was, after all, part of Rudd’s inner circle. (Therein lies the opposition’s counter-story – this is no fresh face, they are saying). And no politician ever won by just reeling off a list of policies. No, her mission is to tell a story that is emotional and engaging, compelling and connecting, and to embody it. If Gillard fails in this, Rudd’s fate will be hers also.