Julia Gillard Is No Thatcher

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"She will hate the comparison, and it is certainly not intended as an insult, but Julia Gillard could end up becoming Australia's Margaret Thatcher.

"Tough, charismatic, articulate, ruthless, razor sharp in tongue and mind, undoubtedly effective. And to top it all off, an immaculate hairdo. Red Maggie."

That gushing commentary was the opening to an opinion piece published on these pages on June 25, 2010, the day after Gillard toppled Kevin Rudd. There was more in that vein as the author, who embarrassingly happens to be me, slobbered shamelessly over the new Prime Minister.

The fact I was not alone then in my endorsement of Gillard and assessment of her talents is little consolation. At the time I was also busily telling Liberal-voting friends and Liberal MPs alike that she was going to kill 'em. What's more, they agreed with me.

One numbers man rang a marginal seat holder in Victoria that weekend to tell him the latest polling in the state showed Labor at 70 per cent and the Coalition at 30, and to ask the MP what he planned to do about it.

"I am going to watch Mad Men, then go to bed," his friend said, feigning a calmness he did not feel, especially as constituents had already reported they had goose bumps when they heard the new Prime Minister's spiel about the importance of hard work and a good education.

The figures the rattled numbers man quoted were a slight exaggeration, not much though, and a long way from where Labor is now at roughly 50-50 in what is its best state and which happens to be about 5 per cent below the 2010 election result.

Two years later Red Maggie is dead Maggie.

Only a matter of days after her elevation, the issue that marked the beginning of her decline, one of the three that secured for her the leadership, and the one that first exposed a troubling pattern of behaviour, is the one that plagues her still, that of asylum-seekers.

On July 6, 2010, she announced to the Lowy Institute she had discussed the setting up of an offshore processing centre with the president of East Timor, Jose Ramos-Horta. Not only did she speak to the wrong person -- it should have been the parliament or Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao -- but after it became clear East Timor was not interested she first denied nominating East Timor as a location, then for months after it was dead pretended it was still a live option.

She embraced a policy she had previously declared was intolerable, she announced it before it was nailed down, then when it went pear-shaped she denied saying what she said. People are not mugs, yet she insisted on treating them like idiots.

And she has done it over and over and over, most blatantly and most damagingly with the carbon tax, then again more recently over the approval for Gina Rinehart to import foreign workers for the Roy Hill project when she claimed she did not know about it in time to stop it.

She and her staff should have treated the East Timor episode as a template for how not to operate. It should have taught them the importance of attention to detail and the need for candour. Because while she apparently can't remember what she said yesterday, others can, and if a mistake is made, fix it, move on quickly and, if you can bring yourself to do it, say sorry.

Nothing even remotely like that happened. What happened was Groundhog Day before the bit where the hero realised what he had to do to get the clock ticking again. The next time Gillard came up with an asylum-seeker policy, the people-trafficking deal with Malaysia, she announced it before it was nailed down, it blew the budget out of the water and it was repudiated by the High Court last August. Her border protection policy since has been to blame Tony Abbott.

 


 

If Gillard had reopened Nauru then, as her own Immigration Minister Chris Bowen had suggested, and it had not worked, she would have been rubbing Abbott's nose in it by now. If the boats had stopped, she would have faced taunts about pinching opposition policy, but she wouldn't have to worry about the boats because there wouldn't be any.

Neither the Greens nor the opposition was prepared to support the Malaysian deal, and plenty of Labor MPs are repulsed by it. There was no point looking to Malcolm Turnbull. The last time he tried to deliver on a Labor policy he lost his leadership.

Before the High Court decision, Turnbull had suggested to shadow cabinet the Coalition should back the Malaysian deal.

Not any more, and definitely not at yesterday's shadow cabinet meeting, which fully backed Abbott and Scott Morrison.

Abbott and Morrison will tolerate the dissent of a few backbenchers, but they will not compromise.

The timing of this is especially bad for Gillard, coming as it does when her leadership is so fractured and less than a week from C-day, but as the Prime Minister she is the one who has to resolve it or suffer the consequences.

The Pacific Solution was not devised by the then opposition, or by the public service, or incidentally by Andrew Metcalfe, the present head of the Immigration Department.

It came from within the Howard government, principally from foreign minister Alexander Downer, as the National Security Committee of Cabinet, with the prime minister at the helm, held a succession of meetings to work out what to do with the boatpeople rescued by the Tampa.

The Prime Minister has to accept the Malaysia Solution is kaput and the present situation is untenable, and adopt the opposition's policies or devise acceptable ones of her own.

First she has to discuss with Indonesia precise steps to be taken next time -- and, the way things are, there will be a next time -- a vessel in its waters sends out a distress call.

Gillard has squandered the enormous goodwill that greeted her prime ministership. She would probably kill for the Thatcher analogy now, but the promise and the expectations remain unfulfilled, and she threatens to leave a legacy of sequential policy miscalculations and political misjudgments.

It has left her colleagues in a state of despair and suspended animation. They don't expect a move on her leadership this week, saying the July 1 deadline must pass to prove a point that the arrival of the carbon tax will not restore the government's credibility. Sensibly, they also refuse to rule it out completely.

"There could be a Karl Rove moment," one backbencher says, referring to Kim Beazley expressing sympathy to the US political operative when he should have been extending it to Australian entertainer Rove McManus over the death of his wife.

It finished off Beazley's leadership and convinced even the most ardent Rudd haters in caucus to switch. Such a moment, on top of all the other moments, could see history repeat itself.

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