It could have been the singlest stupid remark made by a politician in this campaign.
As of today, we were going to see the ‘real’ Julia Gillard. Up to now, apparently, we’d only been seeing glimpses, because the ALP campaign was being run in an ‘orthodox’ manner – which is to say, scripted events, crafted speeches and hyper-awareness of possible gaffes. All that was about to change.
The politicians, the pundist, the media – and everyone else – seized on this with almost unholy glee. ‘Will the real Julia Gillard please stand up?’ asked Tony Abbott with his trademark ‘I’m-being-naughty’ smile. ‘Just how many Julias are there?’, ‘Who is the real Julia?’, ‘I’m Julia and so’s my wife!’ went through the Twitterverse and Facebook. ‘If we are going to see the real Julia now, who have we been seeing for the last two weeks?’
It’s an interesting question. Almost universally, both campaigns have been roundly criticised for being too cautious, too concerned with avoiding missteps. In a very real sense, it’s been a ‘race to the middle’ so far – the middle being a bland, uncommitted, slogan-laden series of carefully managed events with all the offensiveness of blancmange. And all the taste and texture, too.
Laurie Oakes, interviewing Abbott yesterday, pulled the Liberal leader up every time he uttered the Coalition’s ‘stop the waste … stop the boats’ slogan. Media have been counting the number of times Gillard said ‘Moving Forward’ in a single speech. After a while, you could almost hear the collective brain of the nation switching off as the spin started up.
That criticism, combined with polls that are now clearly showing a trend indicating a Coalition victory, obviously rang alarm bells somewhere in the Labor Party. The result? This morning Gillard came out against what she called ‘modern campaign orthodoxy’. She was ‘stepping up’ to show herself more fully to the Australian people.
So what does the ‘real’ Julia Gillard look like?
We got our first look at her in a speech and media conference held in the seat of Lindsay, where she announced changes to Family Tax Benefit and school governance. The event was certainly managed – not held out in a shopping centre, but at a school assembly. The speech was definitely scripted. But what about the media conference afterwards?
The first obvious change was the accent. Much has been made of the notion that Gillard worked hard to lose the ‘Western suburbs’ twang – but it was back this morning. Along with the accent came a tone we’ve rarely heard so far this campaign, and then only when Gillard appeared annoyed. Strident, forceful, a little bit nasal, a little bit grating – 100% Gillard.
The language was simple and strong. About the most jargon-laden comment to sneak in was ’empowering’ – although she did fall back on ‘deep and lasting community consensus’ when questioned on Labor’s climate change policy. Most of the time, she was talking at a level that could easily be understood by someone without specialised knowledge or a lifetime spent decoding pollie-speak.
And she didn’t hold back on her reactions, either. Asked if she had questioned the affordability of the new Family Tax Benefit promises – a clear attempt to trip her up on recent accusations that she opposed paid parental leave in Cabinet – her response was immediate and quelling: ‘You bet I did’. Was she even aware of Cabinet rules regarding the National Security Committee? She rolled her eyes and said, ‘I know some people want to make something out of this … Of course I’ve read the Cabinet rules’. She was blunt in her answers and scathing in her criticism of the Coalition.
The most telling moment, for me, came when someone asked if the Labor Party was going to change its position on same-sex marriage. Previously, we’ve heard a lot of spin about ‘Australian culture and tradition’ from Labor, coupled with a slightly apologetic tone. Today, Gillard was direct. The Marriage Act says ‘man and woman’, we’re not going to change that, but we’re committed to removing discrimination, here’s what we’ve done so far. No apology, no justification.
Now, her answer is completely unsatisfactory. It’s not even logically consistent, falling back on the Rudd government’s very weak argument that what’s already in the Act is the final word, and is somehow not discriminatory. In fact, I’d go so far as to say it’s complete rubbish. But it’s the way she answered it that I want to focus on here.
Gillard had to know that her party’s position is unpopular. Every poll conducted has shown that the majority of Australians believe that discrimination in marriage should be removed – is, in fact, long overdue. Abbott gets a bit of a pass on this issue – by far, Liberal voters are under-represented in that majority, and he can speak to his base without causing too many waves. Gillard’s situation, however, is far more problematic. She could have gone for the soft-pedal approach, attempting to excuse and justify the position with a lot of weasel words and spin. It wouldn’t have changed the substance of her answer, but it would have mollified some Labor voters listening out there.
She didn’t do that. She put it out there – like it or lump it, this is what we’re doing.
I don’t like it. I imagine many, many Australians won’t like it, either. But it’s something we haven’t seen a lot of in this campaign – a willingness to be unpopular.
And whether those positions are right or wrong, it’s refreshing not to have to struggle through the spin.
Simon Crean’s responses to media questions today have been similarly forceful and blunt. You could be forgiven for thinking that the old man of Labor was back. Likewise Jenny Macklin was having no truck with fancy speech and measured delivery – she sounded as though she was having a conversation in the supermarket, not fronting a media pack who had the power to shape her image for the nation.
And they all had the same look on their faces – a rather odd mix of determination and relief. It was as though, somewhere inside them, they’d reconciled warring voices. It was more than slightly reminiscent of a certain scene in the political drama The West Wing, when an incumbent President in trouble with the polls decides to stop worrying about offending people and be ‘real’.
In the television story, that strategy wins the White House. There are three more weeks to go in this Australian campaign. It remains to be seen whether the ‘real’ Gillard will show herself as consistently different from the groomed and well-managed leader of the early campaign – but if she does, it just might be the saving of Labor.