Friday, June 25, 2010

Musings on Julia Gillard

Congratulations to both the Australian and New Zealand soccer teams on their world cup performances. Okay, we didn't make the next round, but the teams played well after Australia's dismal start against Germany.

Australian news yesterday was obviously dominated by events in Canberra. I found my own reactions interesting. I actually got quite angry at several points. While I have been very critical of Mr Rudd, I never doubted his sincerity. I reacted quite negatively to both the speed and ruthlessness of the execution, as well as the triumphalism of some Gillard supporters.

Part of Mr Rudd's problems can be seen in his comment that he was elected by the Australian people. We have a parliamentary, not presidential, system of government. This hold true despite the apparent presidentialising of Australian politics. Yes, in one sense the Australian people were voting on the question of Mr Rudd as PM, but a PM stays in power only so long as he/she controls a majority in the lower house. The people were in fact electing MPs, not a PM. A quote from an interview with Julia Gillard on the 7.30 report actually captures this quite well:

JULIA GILLARD: (Laughs) Kerry, I am in the business of being a member of the House of Representatives, a member of the Parliament. That means by definition every three years I seek preselection from my political party to have the honour and privilege of representing them in the elections in the electorate of Lalor. And every three years I ask around 100,000 people for their trust and support to be the member for Lalor.

So she is chosen first by her party and then by the electorate. That, I think, is a pretty accurate summary.

Well, what can we expect from Ms Gillard as PM? Here I thought that I would do as I did so long ago with Mr Rudd, try to stand back and look at her approach. The thoughts that follow are not profound, simply putting down ideas to provide a benchmark for later analysis.

She is quite clearly pragmatic, more consultative and knows how to work the Party. This should make for a somewhat more collegiate style of government. 

Her pragmatic, more consultative style was, I think, shown in the new industrial relations legislation. I only wrote a few posts on this one, pointing to some of the problems that had arisen during implementation. She seemed to manage these reasonably well by treading a careful path between conflicting interests. I have not attempted to properly assess this as policy; the critical thing at this point is that it did not blow up as it might have.

Her pragmatism was also shown by her prompt action in ditching the Government's approach to the resources super profits tax, thus lancing one boil. There will, of course, be a new tax, but for the present we can put a line through both the original proposal and, potentially, some of the spend items attached to it.

We can see pragmatism at work, too, in two other areas.

In his press conference the night before his termination when his first reaction was still to fight, Mr Rudd referred specifically to two policy measures. He would not, he said, be pushed to the right on the boat people issue. Then, on the emission trading scheme, he said that if he continued as PM he would introduce a firm time table. As I remember his words, he either stated or implied that in deferring action here he had taken advice from colleagues, something he clearly regretted.

If we know look at the 7.30 Report interview, you will see that Ms Gillard referred to both these issues. This exchange took place on the boat people:

You have said for instance on asylum seekers that you understand people's anxiety and this issue. But does that mean you are prepared to change Labor's policy to "Toughen it up"?

Will you do what Kevin Rudd swore he wouldn’t do on this issue, lurch to the Right? Kerry, I can absolutely rule out lurching anywhere. I won't be doing that.

I do understand the anxiety and indeed fears that Australians have when they see boats, they see boats intercepted. It does make people anxious. I can understand that, I really can. And I can understand that Australians therefore say to their government that they want to know what we are doing to manage our borders and what we are doing to manage asylum seeker flows. And I will be explaining as Prime Minister to the Australian people how we do that.

Of course, I obviously believe that as Prime Minister it is the role of the Government to do everything we can to best manage our borders.

While not "lurching anywhere", it would seem clear that we can probably expect some toughening of the Labor approach. On the emissions trading issue, she reaffirmed the Government's current policy position.

There is nothing wrong with pragmatism, with taking community opinion into account. However, when the need to stay in power becomes the central, dominating, concern to the exclusion of other things, we get NSW.

I am not suggesting that this must happen with Ms Gillard, simply that it is something to watch.

If we know turn to what we know about her policy positions and her approach to public administration, we have some case material we can draw from. We have to be a little careful in judging this because I, for one, do not know enough about Ms Gillard's views and values; these will emerge now that she has come out from Mr Rudd's shadow.

What we can say, I think, is that she has actually followed the same somewhat mechanistic approach that held elsewhere while Mr Rudd was PM.

Forget the problems with Building the Education Revolution. While many commentators and opposition will focus on these, the central problems with BER lay in its size and speed of roll-out. I don't think that this tells us anything at all about Ms Gillard's approach. Instead, we can look at her education initiatives. Here I want to focus on two that I have written about.

The first is the My School website. Without again canvassing all the issues involved, a central problem with that site is the way in which a narrow range of measurements are being used to assess school performance. Ms Gillard strongly promoted the approach in the first place and then defended it against criticism.

The second is her approach to university education. Again without canvassing all the issues involved, I have suggested that the approach is over-centralised and complicated. I have also doubted whether the approach can actually deliver even the narrow range of performance indicators used.

I accept that my analysis is partial, using that word in the sense of incomplete. My point is that, at this stage, it is hard to get too excited when Ms Gillard's approach to nuts and bolts public policy and administration seems a mirror image of that applying prior to her elevation.

Finally, a personal gripe. I know that it's of historic importance to have our first female PM, but some of the comments of the sisterhood have really been over the top. As Ms Gillard has noted, the fact that she is a woman or has red hair are neither here nor there. She is a person who is now PM; her gender is of interest, but has nothing to do with her performance. Some of the comments of the sisterhood have, bluntly, been sexist.    

End day postscript:

Quite a bit of the discussion today has centred on the impact of the change on Labor's election prospects. See Julia Gillard: day two as an example.

I really have no idea. The next election is quite close. Ms Gillard has said before the end of the year. Despite the marginal seat polling, I expected Labor to win, partly because some of the worst policy problems were behind them. On this basis, Labor should still win.

Leaving aside the joys of political navel gazing, something that I am as addicted to as anyone else, I think it important that we focus on the evolution of policy. But that's just me.


Anonymous said...

Off topic sort of, but I am reminded of a hot discussion on an American blog about a burning of the American flag.

Many commentors were quite agitated about the physical act, but the poster I most identified with said “You would fight over the symbol; I will fight for what it represents”.

Our particular form of democracy allows for this sort of change – the reasons for which might be noble or quite base.

I remain simply happy that I live in a country where such change is possible, and will be shortly referred to the people for ratification, or rejection – without the use of military force.


Noric Dilanchian said...

Dear Jim

As I tracked the momentus power switch this week in Federal politics I kept thinking how spot on your observations have been in this blog for two years on the Rudd Government.

Your observations that have echoed and been amplified by the events of this week include the Rudd Government:

(1) taking on too much change all at the same time; and

(2) pressing the human resources available in the public service too greatly thus opening room for project management shortfalls to take place and do damage, as we saw with the home insulation debarcle and perhaps some questionable school building projects.

These issues compounded the stress on government finances caused by the Rudd Government's reactions to the Global Financial Crisis. Then we have the lurch to shore up funds with the new tax on the mining sector.

From little errors big ones grow.

And you've always had an eagle eye on project management errors.

My short comment here of course do not explain fully Rudd's fall, rather I'm simply noting how your writing early on predicted the formation of potential future cracks in the Rudd Government's armour.

Good work Jim!


Jim Belshaw said...

I agree, KVD, and it does provide a balancing perspective.

Thanks, Noric. Comment much appreciated. What we tend to forget in the day to day political round is that present decisions affect later actions; compounding errors are possible, as you note. The diffficulty is to stand back far enough from the politics in order to examine what is being done and what it might mean in a delivery sense.