AUSTRALIA’S messy political scene has uncomfortable parallels for the UK, writes Steve Cramer
There are lessons to be learned in the UK from the collapse of Julia Gillard’s premiership in Australia, not least in relation to the obsession with spin in politics. It is, of course, particularly relevant that at the very heart of Gillard’s media relations was a Scot, John McTernan, a former adviser to Henry McLeish and Tony Blair. His last and most disastrous idea of setting up the intelligent and reserved Gillard as a matronly Aussie toy kangaroo knitter seems to have been a pouch too far.
The fall of Gillard comes at a time when, very much as in the UK, people have become cynical about politicians in general, on a level not seen in living memory. Certainly, until recent days, each of the leaders of the main parties in Australia has been genuinely mistrusted by the public, with low personal approval ratings compared to rivals within their respective parties.
Gillard never quite outlived the manner of her disposal of her predecessor, Kevin Rudd, who last week finally avenged what he saw as a betrayal, while Tony Abbott of the Liberal Party is often seen as misogynistic, and too socially conservative for the taste of much of the Australian electorate. The perception of both is summed up in the popular TV satirical troupe the Chasers who produced the lyric “one’s a Bible-bashing hack, one’ll stab you in the back”, followed by the lyrical recommendation that we may as well use our ballot papers in the manner of Andrex.
Each leader as well has suffered from the perception that they are governed by often youthful media advisory staff, sometimes with embarrassing results. Abbott’s notorious swim in the Sydney surf early on in his leadership, wearing semi-pornographic “budgie smugglers”, leaving little, in more sense than one, to the imagination didn’t help his public image. So, too, such off-the-cuff comments as his response the description of the death of a Queensland soldier in Afghanistan, “sh*t happens”, was followed by a catastrophic interview with a Canberra TV correspondent in which a silent and deeply menacing stare gave the Liberal leader the appearance of a pub psycho about to pick a fight, rather than a potential prime minister.
Various other outbursts have left the opposition leader with a reputation as a white, middle-aged man with little tolerance for women, gay people or anyone else who fails to share his devout Catholicism.
Meantime, if Gillard does not suffer from Abbott’s political Tourette’s syndrome, her problem seemed to arise from a general lack of presence. Aside from a singular moment a year or so back in the Australian parliament, when after another of many misogynistic gaffs by Abbott, she ranted wildly, yet engagingly, at his dumb myopia to all but his own kind of man, there has been barely a moment where one felt anything like a real human being present.
While Gillard promised “the real Julia” after forming her minority administration of 2010, there has been little of an authentic person in evidence, unless her true personality is one that delights in mechanically reeling off vacuous press-office shibboleths.
Even her slightly affected working-class Aussie accent grates, a rare thing in Australian politics – like Americans, we like to imagine our leaders as folks we could have a beer with, quite in contrast to the British, who seem to delight in being spoken down to in the superior tones of the class system. Abbott does better here, speaking like a trusted family doctor with the common touch, albeit one given to sudden and unaccountable outbursts of violent bigotry.
The real parallels in political leadership terms are less with Scotland than the UK for, until last week, each main party leader had a more popular rival. Abbott must fear his smoother and more generally accomplished colleague Malcolm Turnbull, the previous leader of the Liberal Party, despatched in a coup every bit as bloody as that which accounted for Rudd, as much as David Cameron dreads Boris Johnson.
Gillard’s worst fears were realised, but her anxieties about her lack of public impact must surely be paralleled in the mind of Ed Miliband. Rudd’s ascent means that the landslide-by-default predicted by the Australian media for the Liberal National coalition in the coming election may no longer be inevitable, so the prospect of the return of the more left-leaning “liberal” Liberal Turnbull, a much more appealing figure for the Aussie voter will no doubt be looming large in Abbott’s mind.
The popularity of both Rudd and Turnbull was demonstrated only recently. On the equivalent of Question Time in Australia, Q&A, these two were guests a couple of months back, and a query from the audience about the right-wing Labour man and left-wing conservative forming their own party drew rapturous applause. Abbott’s spine must still be chilling – his appearances with Turnbull have become more frequent recently, and the clear injunction by spin doctors that Turnbull does all the talking while his accident-prone party leader remains silent has begun to look increasingly embarrassing.
There are shades of Nick Clegg and Vince Cable in the 2010 elections, here as much about the ineptitude of the leader as the popularity of his shadow minister.
This is where the real problem with the spin doctoring of both McTernan and the string of right-wing spin doctors who have followed Lynton Crosby (now working for David Cameron) into the Liberal Party is thrown into sharp relief. Rudd and Turnbull each have reputations as mavericks.
Each has frequently disobeyed their media offices, as well as the ideological strictures of their parties to the point where they were genuinely unpopular with both their party machines and media advisers. But each as well has enjoyed vastly greater popularity with the public for their disregard of the rules. While Abbott and Gillard have shown incompetence at playing the media game, and fallen behind the respective popularities of their parties, Rudd and Turnbull have benefited by seeming to ignore it altogether.
There can be little doubt that there is an element of calculation in the apparent careless disregard of party and media sacred cows to these two, just as there is the whiff of burnt midnight oil about the apparent spontaneousness of Boris Johnson. But there is a difference between these two and Johnson, in that there is an element of conviction politician in the way that each has willingly risked political survival for principle.
Turnbull’s commitment to acting upon global warming cost him his job as party leader. Abbott’s business-friendly climate scepticism seems increasingly strange as we endure the worst bushfires and droughts since white settlement and the Great Barrier Reef withers under a heating sea, even its fish migrating south to cooler waters.
While Rudd and Turnbull opposed each other across parliament, there seemed a likelihood of bipartisan agreement on this issue, a far more pressing one in Australia’s climate than Britain’s. Instead, Turnbull was accused by his own colleagues of joining the wrong party, while Rudd lost an always politically dangerous battle to increase the corporation tax on the vast mining multinationals that dominate the lobbying sector in Canberra, and was forced to abandon his plans for a carbon tax. This latter was revived and introduced by Gillard, but with a political awkwardness that need not have cost her the votes that it threatened to.
The first poll post the Rudd ascent was released on Sunday, showing Rudd at 51 per cent, 18 per cent above Gillard’s rating, and eclipsing Abbott on 34 per cent. First-preference voting still has the coalition leading, but by a narrow 51 per cent to 49 per cent. I wonder whether conviction will win out over spin in the Liberal Party, too, soon, and whether we might learn something from this in the UK?
• Steve Cramer is an Australian academic and freelance writer