Prime Minister Julia Gillard didn’t waste time firing back at Kevin Rudd after he finally announced his decision to contest Monday’s Labor leadership ballot. And she came out swinging.
This contest, she said, was all about ‘who has got the character … the temperament … the strength’ to not only go up against Tony Abbott, but to carry through significant, long-term reforms. ‘This isn’t Celebrity Big Brother,’ she said, repeating an earlier swipe aimed at Rudd’s exhortations to the Australian public to pressure their Labor representatives. She was confident and reassured by the promises of support she’d received from her colleagues.
She talked up her government’s legislative agenda to date – means testing on private health insurance, the Mining Resource Rent Tax, job creation and carbon pricing. In a classic incumbent’s campaign speech, she spoke of her desire to deliver further reforms in these areas, adding ‘a new approach to school funding and skills training, the proposed National Disability Insurance Scheme and assistance for threatened industries such as manufacturing.
In a further reminder that she was the person currently holding the office of Prime Minister, she noted that she’d spent the day out and about visiting schools and industry, and consulting with the public. It was almost as though she was slotting this conference into a busy daily schedule, but had much more important things to do – if only she could get this leadership nonsense out of the way.
‘Talk is easy. Getting things done is hard, and I am the person who gets things done,’ she said – and here she made her first misstep. ‘Who delivered carbon pricing? I did. Who delivered means testing for private health insurance? I did.’ And on she went, apparently taking personal credit for a whole slew of policies.
Now, I don’t think she really was trying to tell us that she had single-handedly accomplished everything her government had done – but it was a bad look. In recent days, her supporters have made a point of attacking Kevin Rudd’s non-consultative, micro-managing style, citing it as one of the reasons they had pressured him from office. To have Gillard now speaking only of what she had accomplished – particularly when Rudd had been careful to speak of ‘his government’ – looked churlish at best.
Like Rudd, Gillard spent a good deal of time attacking Tony Abbott, branding him a nay-sayer with no real interest in pursuing a strong future economy. This was a familiar refrain to any viewer of Question Time, and one of the Prime Minister’s strengths. She tends to be at her best when she has a clear target, speaking with both conviction in her own policies and contempt for Abbott’s ‘wrecking’, and she didn’t hold back here. In a leader’s debate during an election campaign, the Worm would definitely have approved.
She managed to avoid mentioning her challenger by name until she opened the floor for questions – but then she let loose, with the same vitriol she’d directed at Abbott only a few moments before.
Rudd was untrustworthy. He was ineffectual – he lacked method, purpose, or ability to get things done’. He had failed to deliver a price on carbon even when he had a majority government. As Prime Minister, he had so little support that he was allowed to resign rather than be humiliated in a challenge. He ‘undermined’ and ‘destabilised’ her government (I lost count after the fourth time she used those particular words in those few answers). She implied he could not be trusted to keep to his undertaking not to seek a further challenge to her leadership. Most damning of all, she asserted that he had not denied engaging in confidential briefings with media undermining the government.
‘Australians can have confidence in me that no matter how hard it gets, I’ve got the determination and the personal fortitude to see things through’, she said.
The list of accusations stood in stark contrast to Rudd’s remarks a little earlier. Rudd had asserted that Gillard was unable to lead the party to victory against Abbott, and that she had convinced him to shelve the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme. He implied factional heavies might try to intimidate his supporters, and called on her to guarantee that wouldn’t happen. His major criticisms were reserved for her perceived inability to win the election.
And there was one crucial element of Gillard’s spray that is frankly untrue. Her recitation of the history of carbon pricing legislation failed to mention some crucial facts. The Greens never supported the CPRS, and refused to compromise. That forced Rudd’s government to seek support from the Coalition – and he gained it. Right up until the time Tony Abbott, backed by former Senator Nick Minchin and long-serving MP Bronwyn Bishop, challenged and won the leadership by one vote. At that point, all deals were off. It was only after that time that the legislation was shelved.
To make matters worse, Gillard did not rule out the possibility that she might dismiss Rudd’s supporters – notably, Martin Ferguson – from Cabinet, if she won the ballot. She would appoint her Cabinet on merit alone, she said. That’s a fair statement, but in the context of Rudd’s ‘olive branch’, delivered earlier to her supporters, looks ungracious.
The final stumble occurred when Gillard asserted that, ‘You shouldn’t be dragged down by someone who is on your own side’. Social media monitoring the conference exploded with cries of ‘Pot, meet Kettle!’ and accusations of hypocrisy.
It’s difficult to understand how Gillard could have handled that situation so clumsily. She appeared genuinely angry throughout whenever she spoke of Rudd or the challenge, in a way that she’s never directed at Tony Abbott. That anger’s shown through quite a bit in the last few days. All indications are that she has more than enough support to retain her position as Prime Minister, but she seems to be fighting this ballot like a general election – and that she believes her real opponent is not Tony Abbott, but the colleague she ousted.
In the light of the public campaign against Rudd from her supporters, it does nothing for the Prime Minister’s cause. She needs to stay out of the mud and concentrate on her strengths – the fact that she has held a minority government together in the face of unrelenting attacks by the Coalition, pushed through a huge amount of legislation and endured opposition from some of the biggest special interest groups in the country. She can stand on that record, and should do so. Attacking the man makes her look worried and ungracious, and obscures her achievements.
With the exception of Nick Champion, there’s a conspicuous silence from Rudd’s supporters today. I’m sure that will change over the weekend – and we’ll see members of both camps going head to head. It will be interesting to see if the contenders can keep above the melee.