Cloak of authority can be worn at last

david-day-thumb Dr David Day


First published in The Age on 28 February, 2012

Yesterday's dramatic vote of the Labor caucus has provided Julia Gillard with two things she has lacked as prime minister. Ever since she moved quickly and surgically to replace Kevin Rudd, her Brutus-like behaviour has detracted from her moral and political authority. It is these deficiencies that have prevented her from translating undeniable policy successes into the political support required to ensure victory in 2013.

The lack of moral authority is partly because she failed to explain properly why one of Labor's most popular and effective leaders had to be dumped after little more than two years in the job. Without a convincing explanation, voters rightly felt aggrieved when they awoke one morning to find that the person they had installed as prime minister had been removed in an overnight coup, apparently by Labor's machine men. She has been equally troubled by a lack of political authority.

Whatever the machinations and motivations behind the scenes, it is true that our first female leader has been hobbled in office by the unprecedented manner in which she came to it. She made a serious error of judgment in listening to the siren calls that assured her the prime minister's office was hers for the taking.

'Although Julia Gillard has finally been cloaked with some political and moral authority, she needs to show that she has learnt some political lessons from the past 18 months.' Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

Labor leader John Curtin also heard those calls in late 1940, when an inconclusive federal election left prime minister Robert Menzies hanging by his fingertips. Curtin was urged by some colleagues to pick away at Menzies' tenuous hold on power so that Labor could form a government. He refused to listen, counselling his more ambitious colleagues that a government coming to power in such a way would lack political and moral authority.

Curtin only agreed to become prime minister in October 1941 after Menzies had been deposed by his own colleagues and his successor, Artie Fadden, had lost the confidence of Parliament. By biding his time, Curtin joined the pantheon of Australia's great leaders.

Although it did not seem like it at the time, Rudd's decision to resign as leader without forcing a caucus vote in 2010 compounded the problems for Gillard. She was never able to show to the public a convincing demonstration of her support within the caucus and the extent to which Rudd had lost the confidence of his colleagues.

Even though she was now Prime Minister, Gillard implicitly acknowledged her lack of political authority by declining to move into The Lodge until after her position had been confirmed by the people at an election. While it may have seemed the right decision at the time, her refusal to live in The Lodge only confirmed her lack of legitimacy.

Gillard then compounded her political errors by installing Rudd to a high-profile position as foreign minister rather than appointing him, say, as ambassador to one of the world's capitals.

When Billy Hughes deposed popular prime minister Andrew Fisher in 1915, after Fisher had won a resounding election victory a year before, he appointed him Australian high commissioner in London. This astute move prevented Fisher acting as a popular rallying point for the anti-conscriptionist Labor MPs in 1916 and shored up Hughes' political position during his next eight years as prime minister.

The 2010 election could have cloaked Gillard with the political and moral authority that she lacked. But the close-run race did the opposite. For several weeks it seemed as if the Australian people had chosen Tony Abbott as prime minister. The see-sawing of the poll results, and the drawn-out negotiations with the independent MPs and the Greens, only added to the impression of a leader who still lacked legitimacy. And she compounded this impression by introducing a carbon price after promising not to do so.

The Prime Minister's problems have been further compounded by mistakes of her own making. Continuing questions about her authenticity should not be difficult to deflect. She has shown, albeit rarely in public, the ability to project a warm and confident persona, but she too often appears on television as a cold and wooden figure who rote-learns her lines and refuses to stray from them. The past week has seen some passion and even anger, but it requires a whole range of human emotions for a leader to be regarded as truly authentic.

The lack of an overarching political narrative has also been one of Gillard's failings. An inspiring Australia Day speech would have allowed her to begin the articulation of such a narrative. But she chose not to give such a state-of-the-nation speech, leaving television audiences instead with the spectacle of the barefoot Prime Minister being dragged to her car by security men. She seemed to be on an inexorable slide to political oblivion.

And she may still be, despite yesterday's strong caucus vote in her favour. Although Gillard has finally been cloaked with some political and moral authority, she needs to show that she has learnt some political lessons from the past 18 months. To do that, she needs to move on from her years as a student politician and her role as a backroom apparatchik for state politicians. National leadership demands much more.

Floundering politically since 2010, and only kept afloat by the public's comparable distaste for Abbott, it's time for her to start swimming.

David Day is an honorary associate at La Trobe University and the biographer of three Labor prime ministers. He is currently writing biographies of Paul Keating and Bob Hawke.