Thursday, June 27, 2013

Musings on Julia Gillard, politics and management

There has been saturation coverage here in Australia of the downfall of Ms Gillard and the return of Mr Rudd. I don't want to talk about the detail of what happened. Instead, a few short observations on both the events and people's responses to the events.

Representative Democracy

One of the most frequently expressed expressed comments in discussion links to the belief that Australians vote for the Prime Minister. Mr Rudd was voted in and then overthrown. That's a breach of democracy. This type of comment comes in a variety of ways. This type of comment is both constitutionally incorrect and also dangerous.

Despite the increasing hype placed on the leader, Australia does not have a presidential system. At the last Federal election, I did not vote for Ms Gillard or Mr Abbott, although the vote I gave may have been influenced by my views on the two. I actually voted for a local member of Parliament in the lower house, for a state representative in the Senate.

In our system Parliament, not the president or prime minister, is boss and who controls Parliament, more precisely the lower house, has the right to govern for the present, subject to our judgment at a later point. In that process, the parties are a way of organising the vote. So, traditionally, many Australians think of their vote as a vote for the party. I voted for whatever that person's name was because they represent my party.  The core constitutional principle remains true. The party remains in power only so long as it controls a majority on the floor of the lower house. 

The problem with the quasi-presidential belief is not just that it breaches constitutional principles, but it also causes us to focus on particular individuals instead of teams and makes us believe that out vote somehow must bind those we vote for. You can actually see this if you look at the word mandate.

Definitions vary, but one definition is the authority to carry out a policy, regarded as given by the electorate to a party or candidate that wins an election. The electorate cannot bind Parliament, it can only judge later. To the degree a notional contract exists, it is between the elector and the elected as agreed at a point in time. Even then it's slippery, as you can see in that rather strange discussion about core versus other promises.

Governments are there to govern. We cannot bind them, we can only reject them later.

Problems of Perception and Bias

I have been fascinated if depressed watching the flow of comments. Take this post from Catallaxy Files on Rob Oakeshott's decision not to contest his electorate again: "Australia’s Benedict Arnold, Rob Oakeshott, is also a coward. Oakeshott, the  lily-livered yellow belly. His betrayal will be long remembered."

Embedded in a lot of the comments that you will see, this is an example, are a combination of implicit values and assumptions. There is very little analysis. So just focusing on the words. Benedict Arnold was a general who deflected to the British side during the civil war that led to the formation of the USA. So Mr Oakeshott is clearly a traitor whose betrayal will be long remembered.

Why is he a traitor? Why is he a coward? It appears that he is a traitor because he finally supported the formation of the Gillard Government. He is a lily livered coward because he decided not to run again. By implication, he should have run so that he could have been properly punished. Into the Valley of Death and all that.

I have no problems with opinions. I do have a problem when opinions impede effective debate or twist analysis.

The Misogyny Problem 

As an example, take the misogyny problem. Some of my feminist friends cheered Julia Gillard's misogyny speech. That's fine if you are focused on a cause, if that's your judgement frame. Go, Julia, go.

So let's look at my perception of the facts.

Julia Gillard's elevation to PM occurred because she was seen as the most effective performer at a time when there were reservations about Mr Rudd. She was not the first female political leader to head an Australian jurisdiction, but she was the first Australian woman PM. There is no doubt that there were sexist reactions to her, you only have to look at some of the placards that emerged later to see that, but did it affect her ability to be an effective PM? I can't see how,

When Ms Gillard introduced the misogyny card into debate, she may have been cheered along by some feminists, but it damaged her because it detracted from the message that she needed to get across, the leader in control. It also accentuated a gender divide in the polls. Did it advance the broader feminist cause? I have no idea. I suspect not, but we will only know that later.

The Minority Government

Really, one of the strangest things has been the way that discussion has focused on the problems created by minority government.  Assume that Julia Gillard had a majority of one. Would it have altered results in any way? I think not. Internal Labor dynamics would have continued regardless.

In any case, the support of the New England independents was one of the rock sold bases of the Gillard Government. Sure, they negotiated on particular issues. But in politics, to have someone who keeps their word and who negotiates on principles is rather special. That is why Catallaxy Files so hates Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor. Without them, the Gillard Government would have fallen earlier.

Just think about it. Your word is your bond. It's a country thing, I guess, although I accept that that is one of my prejudices!

Causes of Failure

In multiple posts, I traced the growing failure of the Rudd and Gillard administrations. If we just focus on Ms Gillard, her failure lay in an inability to be truly prime ministerial. Of course, she inherited problems from the Rudd period. But as a fighter, she could never stand above the fray, she had to fight.

I could illustrate this with case studies, but for the moment I will just let it stand beyond this brief comment. The PM's job is not to win every debate, she (he) cannot. Her job is to stand above the fray, to give her team clean air to do things. That is where both Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard failed.

Judgement of history

Rereading this post this morning, I felt that I should add one more thing to provide a differing perspective. How will Ms Gillard be judged by history? Pretty obviously, the story of rise and fall will interest. But what about the success of the Government as a whole?

At the most basic level and despite the sometimes turmoil, this was a working Government. Decisions were made, acts passed, taxes collected, bills paid. Economic management was okay and may receive a reasonable tick given global economic conditions, although the Gillard, Rudd and Howard Governments are all likely to be marked down for failure to gain best results from the mining boom. We have a measure here in subsequent judgements on the Fraser Government.

Refugee policy is likely to be seen as a fail, although judgements here will be made in the context of both Howard and probably the subsequent Abbott administrations. What do I mean by fail? Well not the success or failure of turn back the boats. That's an immediate political issue'. Rather, the broader humanitarian questions involved.

One of the interesting thing about the evolving interpretations of Australian history lies in the way that the humanity or inhumanity associated with decisions and actions becomes more important with time.

Malcolm Fraser is remembered positively, indeed the country takes a degree of pride in, the way that Vietnamese boat people were treated. By contrast, the treatment of unmarried mothers, of Aboriginal children, of the Dunera Boys, are examples where judgments have become harsher with time. I suspect that history's judgement on this particular aspect of Australian history is likely to be negative, although the Gillard Government will not be alone in this.

On some of the other policy matters such as Disability Insurance or education, its too early to tell because it depends on just what happens. Certainly the Government is likely to be seen as a centralising government with further transfers of control to the centre, continuing a trend. My feeling is that Disability Insurance is likely to be seen as an important social initiative, whereas education is more likely to be seen as an important failure in policy terms. I say this not because of the success or failure in getting the states to sign up, but because I think that some of the policy underpinnings are flawed.

I am reminded here of the Dawkins' reforms, reforms that I supported at the time, where judgments have become increasingly critical to the point that I and some others now regard them as fatally flawed. One of the things about historical judgement is that it places actions and changes in a context of what came before, what came after. On that basis, I suspect that Gonski and indeed a lot of current policy approaches will receive a cross.

Finally, and I was reminded of this by some of the comments I have seen from outside Australia, we should remember Ms Gillard's basic humanity. We judge on the turmoil of the time and we actually have very high expectations. For that reason, our immediate judgements are often harsh.

To many of those outside Australia who live in harsher conditions (social, political, economic), the thing that stands out with Australia is that our system seems to work. There is a bit of luck in that, but we do seem to muddle through. Measured in that way, I suspect that we need to give Ms Gillard our thanks!      '


Legal Eagle said...

My comment is similar to what I said on Facebook today. I hate this "spill" malarkey. I disapproved in principle when Gillard spilled Rudd and I disapprove now that Rudd has spilled Gillard. I do not think it was a good way to behave. I think the last three years have riven the Labor party.

I think Gillard's finest hour was her last: dignified and strong, and I was sorry to see her go in that manner. I would have preferred her to go up to the election. That being said, I am not a fan of many things the Gillard government did. Sometimes the policy was fine but the implementation was not good. As an example, I cite the NDIS, which I strongly support in principle, but I am concerned about how exactly it is to be funded and administered by whoever introduces it. I also support educational reform, but taking away uni funding is something I was very unhappy about, and I think that could have been done better, and perhaps with more wide-ranging reforms which didn't just focus on funding. Then there were other policies which I thought were utterly half-baked (eg, the media laws) - if you're going to do something like that, it takes a lot more consultation and work than they put into it, and I'm glad they didn't pass (thank you independents). Finally there were some policies which I thought were downright bad eg, net censorship, Malaysian refugee processing.

I don't know, I'm not as passionate about political personalities as some. I can see the argument that Windsor and Oakeshott's electorates have a Labor/Green vote, and thus it could be argued that they did not truly represent their electorates by siding with Labor/Green. On the other hand, I personally admire them, think they are decent people, and I think that they behaved according to their consciences.

The main person who I came out despising last night was Shorten. There was just something horribly traitorous about what he did - the way he leaked it at precisely that moment.

Jim Belshaw said...

I added something to the post to give a little bit more balance, LE. I agree absolutely with you on the implementation issue.

I don't accept the representation argument re Windsor and Oakeshott. Both have had systems to try to measure and respond to electorate concerns. But once elected, they have a broader responsibility to Parliament. They have to try to do what they think is right. If the electorate disagrees, then they get voted out next time.

Anonymous said...

Hi Jim

I've wanted to say a couple of things (both in response and disagreement)but deferred, mainly because I'm just so tired of this sort of gameplay. Anyway, on your para headings I would like to add:

Representative Democracy - agree completely, and hence disagree with LE's take. We elect representatives to do the best they can with whatever they are presented with. I don't recall any candidate in any electorate being 'mandated' to vote in any particular way on the specific circumstance of a 'hung' parliament. That gets rid of 98% of the bile directed to the various independents as far as I'm concerned.

Perception, bias - Catallaxy, Bob Ellis, and in the old days Alan Ramsey; they each have buried within their lunatic rants a grain or two of truth. Doesn't make me respect them any more that they shroud their logic in over-the-top language. My basic reaction is, as always, disappointment - and then I turn away. But I remain bemused by the thought that Professor? Davidson is considered 'thoughtful' by any moderate, of any 'persuasion'.

Misogyny - we differ here. My take is that our community has a lot of growing up to do, and the past three years or so only serve to highlight that. This is not to say that this was the only, or primary, reason for Ms Gillard's reduced effectiveness - but to discount the inbuilt bias that Mr Abbott so eloquently demonstrated with his "make an honest woman" comment is where we part ways.

Minority government - you don't seem to acknowledge the quite vast difference between a simple majority of one that you propose, and the position that Ms Gillard had to negotiate for three years. As an economist might say: "assume all other things equal" - and thereby you lose me.

Causes of failure - agree, except I think the lack of adequate supervision, follow-through, on potentially 'good' policy was more significant than simply 'bad policy'.

Judgement of history - I accept your 'musings'. Allow me to add one of my own:

I watched in full Mr Windsor's final speech. It was at times rambling, at times very instructive. It started just before the much-hyped Kevin Rudd presser, and finished 40 minutes later. Ms Gillard, along with seven or eight of her front bench sat through the whole thing, together with a fair number of backbenchers on that side. The opposition benches were bare - except for Mr Turnbull and three or four lesser lights. I remember thinking at the time what an insult that was, and what pressure Ms Gillard must have been under at that point to run from the House, and start working the phones. But she didn't, and I greatly respect that - to the point of correcting the SMH live blog of events on that specific point. Which to their credit they immediately did.

Windsor's speech was good, but as a final comment, I'd say Peter Garrett's was quite remarkable for both clarity and conviction. Yet not a mention anywhere, and thus is 'history' made up on-the-fly by all of us.


Jim Belshaw said...

On representative democracy, "mandating" is a fundamental breech in the way its so often presented. Don't know ?Professor Davidson. Missed that.

On misogyny, we do differ. I just don't think that it was important as a real dynamic impeding Ms Gillard's effectiveness. That's not to say that it's not a broader issue. But don't expect me to be too sympathetic on this on.

On minority government,my point was that I don't think the outcome would have been different with a one seat majority. In fact, it may have been worse.

I hadn't realised that there were so few opposition members present for the Windsor speech. I did realise Ms Gillard's presence.

I missed Mr Garrett's speech. I will now read it.

Legal Eagle said...

I was more trying to explain why the Catallaxy people might feel bile towards the independents - they are elected in part to represent the views of their electorate and on the views of some on the "Right" passed legislation and made deals which arguably did not reflect the views of the majority of their electorate. But I take Jim's point: they've been elected, and if the electorate doesn't like the way they represented them, well unelect them.

Personally I think there was a sexist element to some criticism of Gillard, but it doesn't explain all of it. As I said elsewhere, I think there are a number of factors which led to criticism:
1. Bad decisions on Gillard's part;
2. Sexism (some of the criticisms of jackets and bottoms and cleavages would just NOT be leveled at a male PM, and I'd suggest that a feisty male Labor figure would not be criticised in the same way - there are some (present company excluded) who find a fiesty woman confronting, and I should know all about that);
3. Leaks from within Gillard's own party which led to a constant destabilising of her authority; and
4. A concerted press campaign by some who thought (for a variety of reasons) she should no longer be PM.

Gillard was perceived as painting all criticism as misogyny. While it appealed to a certain group of well-educated left wing women who are afraid of Tony Abbott's conservative attitude to women, it did not appeal to many voters and indeed removed their sympathy for her. I don't think gender is the sole reason why she fell, but I think it is part of the picture.

Anonymous said...


"Don't know ?Professor Davidson. Missed that"

- my bad. I was unsure of his quals - so remove the '?' But a bit hard to 'miss' the author of maybe a quarter of Catallaxy's output I'd have thought?

Misogyny. Yes, we do differ, and that much bandied about term 'unconscious privilege' springs to mind. Don't feel bad about it; I fail every day, with the best of intentions :)

Minority government. Take the other extreme Jim. Look at the mess that David Cameron negotiates every day with his 'minority' Conservative government. He's lucky, only having one minority party to deal with - mad as it is. But you have now changed to a view that a simple majority might have been 'worse'. Which is a different discussion to that of a leader's ability to effectively pursue party policy.

LE, the 'Catallaxy people' feel bile simply because it tastes good. Much as the old Larvae people did/do on the other side.

And if you insist upon "they are elected in part to represent the views of their electorate" then you are missing the point of representative democracy.

Nowhere did I suggest that sexism was the whole reason for failure. Yes, I do agree it was a significant (much more so than Jim allows) factor contributing to the obvious dimunition of effective leadership we'd all wish for the country.


ps Jim, if you read Garret's speech, also try to get Windsor's. He made the point that 'country' representatives - of whatever stripe - never seem to realise the power they might wield as a bloc. And he also noted that Greiner's demise was not the result of deserting National Party members - it was his (Greiner's) own Liberal 'loyal band' who did the job.

An interesting speech, but rambling - which I'd forgive for circumstance.

Jim Belshaw said...

That Sinclair Davidson! I didn't make the link. Silly me! I suspect that I should resent your term "unconscious privilege". Perhaps I would if I understood it.

No I didn't change direction on minority government, and coalition is not the same as minority government. Maybe it should be more so! That's a hint Barnaby.

Anonymous said...


Not to extend a discussion beyond the 'been there, done that' but this (I accept, partisan) opinion piece -

- captures some of the underlying thoughts about sexism within Australia. I tend to more agree with this take, than your own, about the significance of the part which gender has played in the past few years.

That aside, I wish you a lovely, if damp, weekend.


ps mention of Alan Ramsey, as I did, sent me searching out what Bob Ellis had to say. I like my apoplexy multi-faceted! Forget what he says, but boy can he write. Hope that makes sense...

Jim Belshaw said...

kvd, perhaps its's sensible not to engage on this issue. I thought that
Jacqueline Maley's piece was crap.

While I don't want to engage, I will express a deeply held opinion.I don't have to defend my opinion on gender based discrimination since I have been opposed to it for a very long time.

I am interested in facts, the pattern of social change, and the meanings for our society and for us as people.

As part of this, I have written a fair bit on gender roles with, I accept, a male focus coming from the need for men to adapt and what that really means. In the end, I came to to the view that growing discrimination against men and what it might mean was a major social problem.

I accept that Ms Gillard was a victim of sexism from women and men, something that I oppose independent of gender. I specifically refereed to this. But I do not believe that this was in any way significant in the decline in her support. By contrast, her playing the sexist card was for it put people off, men and women.

I would argue strongly that we have yet to address the question of what gender equality really means in terms of human relations as well as broader political and social issues. We simply do not recognize the implications of diversity, of compromise.

I listened to Annabel Crabb and Leigh Sales saying that what a female politician needed was a good wife (itself a hugely sexist remark), then both corrected themselves as an afterthought to refer to the fact that they couldn't be there unless their partners were at home looking after the kids. And that's the point. If couples are to pursue independent careers, then someone has to compromise and pay a price.

Sorry for the diatribe, but its something I feel very strongly about.

Anonymous said...

Hi Jim

'diatribe' away; it's your blog.

I simply disagree with your "I just don't think that it was important as a real dynamic impeding Ms Gillard's effectiveness" comment.

That's all.

No personal attack upon you or your own attitudes; certainly no suggestion that you "have to defend my opinion on gender based discrimination since I have been opposed to it for a very long time".


Jim Belshaw said...

I don't get upset with you, kvd, and its not totally my blog. It's actually yours, too! Where would I be without you and my other dialogue partners.

Anonymous said...

"Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays instead of serving you if he sacrifices it to your opinion" - Edmund Burke

Sorry Jim; it's been niggling at me that I couldn't remember this quote when we were discussing representative democracy.


Jim Belshaw said...

Thank you for this, kvd. That provides me with tonight's short post