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3 May 2012

The Gillard Government ultimately has no-one to blame for its poor standing but itself (Getty Images)


Tim Dunlop

Tim Dunlop

To read the mainstream media at the moment, you would think Australia was being ruled by Visigoths or that we had somehow returned to subsistence survival.

Things have gotten so bad in our poor country, apparently, the nation is in such a dire predicament, that a leading journalist has seen fit to say that the prime minister should “fall on her sword”.

A former Liberal staffer, a mainstay of media talkfests and panel shows, declared on national television that Julia Gillard should be “kicked to death”, a comment that drew virtually zero condemnation in the mainstream media.

Violent metaphors dominate the discussion of the Gillard Government.

A recent article in (appropriately enough) The Punch managed to use all of these expressions in the course of its ranting: “assassination”, “bloody execution”, “swung a sledgehammer into its own political heartland”, “knifed”.

The same article put the PM’s problems down, in part, to her not having had a baby, and offered this brilliant piece of analysis:

Meanwhile … middle-of-the-road voters have written her off as bulls**t artist and are declaring themselves for a Liberal leader they largely hate because anything is better than a leader you simply cannot believe.

Yes, that’s right. People are longing for the honesty of Tony Abbott.

Lying is, of course, at the heart of the attacks on the Prime Minister herself, which personally, I think is fair enough. Politicians should be called out if they lie.

The hilarious thing about such attacks is that their intensity and the level of sheer repetition they garner would make an outsider think that this was the first time in the history of Australian politics that a government had reneged on a commitment or said one thing and done another.

As anyone who dared criticise John Howard’s tangential relationship with the truth will know, many of those now getting the vapours about Julia Gillard’s dishonesty were more than willing to excuse such behaviour from him.

In fact, a standard theme of commentary throughout the Howard years, recycled as holy writ by journalists and other sage readers of the political entrails, was that ‘the punters’ didn’t care about Howard’s lying.

Anyone who brought up his “non-core promises”, his selling of the Iraq War on the basis of Saddam Hussein’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction, his and his ministers’ knowledge of matters to do with the AWB’s dealings with the same Hussein, or his appalling behaviour regarding the children overboard affair, was liable to be treated to chapter and verse about about how such complaints were the sort of thing that only concerned ‘Howard haters’.

Decent, ordinary people were too busy getting on with their lives to concern themselves with hairsplitting about what Howard did or didn’t say.

Part of the logic governing rationalisations of Coalition dishonesty was that people didn’t worry about it because the economy was going so well. Low interest rates, low unemployment, and a booming mining sector stopped any temptation to hand-wring about ethics.

Oh, how times have changed!

Now, we are regularly told, it is the decent ordinary people who are mortally offended by any and all political dishonesty. We are told that they are shocked – shocked! – that a politician might not be as pure as an angel riding a unicorn in the land of clouds and sugar. We are told that having the most successful economy in the world is irrelevant.

The change of narrative is simply extraordinary.

Of course, none of this is to excuse the various problems of the Gillard Government. But there is a point to make about the level of aggressive hysteria that currently infects mainstream commentary about this government.

It cannot simply be explained by the performance of the government or the behaviour of the current prime minister. If economic issues are what matter, then this government is performing as well, arguably better, than the Howard Government, and in much more difficult circumstances.

It cannot simply be explained by the ‘scandals’ each government brought upon itself.

Maybe you can argue that Gillard’s problems with Slipper and Thompson are more serious than Howard’s with, say, Mal Colson and the plethora of ministers he had to sack for breaching the code of conduct.

But the differential doesn’t explain why so many commentators were willing to excuse Howard’s problems but portray Gillard’s as some sort of existential crisis for Australian democracy itself.

And honestly, what is more serious than a government committing the nation to war on the basis of demonstrably false intelligence? Compared to that, shifting positions on a price on carbon is small potatoes.

So what’s going on?

Stripped of all the self-justifying nonsense used to maintain the rage that currently fills our newspapers and airwaves, there are three pertinent distinctions between this government and the Howard Government: it is a Labor Government, it is a minority government, and the current prime minister is a woman.

Being a Labor government not only alienates the dominant right-wing media, it brings business into public discussion in a way that simply never happens with a Coalition government.

Bad behaviour by Howard was excused by a phalanx of media apologists. Policy disagreements that would have been discussed in backrooms with a Coalition government are now made the subject of multimillion dollar advertising campaigns.

The hung parliament forces the government into deal making that is nearly always interpreted as weakness by the media, and they also tend to preference stability (interpreted as ‘strength’) over achievement. The buzzword is ‘authority’.

Gillard being a woman means she is judged by a different standard, and let’s not pretend otherwise. It may not be a decisive matter, but it is one that shifts the balance of interpretation.

When she is tough, she is seen as treacherous and unbecoming. When she prefers compromise and negotiation, she is seen as weak. Oh yeah, and she doesn’t have kids: how can she relate to ‘normal’ people?

The Gillard Government is far from perfect, and ultimately has no-one to blame for its poor standing but itself. All I’m trying to put my finger on is why their bad behaviour is deemed so much more unacceptable than the bad behaviour of the previous Coalition government. Those three reasons are key.

Tim Dunlop was the author of two of Australia’s most successful political blogs, The Road To Surfdom and Blogocracy. View his full profile here.


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