Julia Gillard proclaimed today at her first set speech of the campaign that this election would be a “referendum on services for working families”. Her first offering was a speech on a sustainable Australia in which she managed to wrap up an amazing number of campaign themes, and even attempt to wedge Tony Abbott. Bravura work written by someone off the back of focus group research, but lacking in much substance. What Gillard offered today was one rebadged policy and not one, not two, but three committees into the issue, all to report after the next election.
Research certainly shows that population is an issue, although it also shows that most are prepared to accept population growth as long as appropriate infrastructure is in place. (See our polling done for the Local Government Association of Queensland). The PM’s speech seemed to accept that, concentrating on infrastructure delivery. This allowed her to dodge the issue of our immigration levels but infrastructure is not a strong issue for her.
As education minister her own infrastructure record has been patchy. The BER has not been a great success and she has admitted to mistakes. The Education Revolution hasn’t delivered the laptops it was supposed to. The whole of government reputation in this area is even worse.
As well her own party brand is in disrepute. State Labor governments are in charge of the infrastructure that supports population growth, and in Queensland and New South Wales, the two states that will determine the next election, their record is judged by the public to be poor.
If one were to take a poll in Queensland on what politician is most likely to deliver infrastructure, I think the answer would be Liberal Lord Mayor, Campbell Newman who has just completed two pieces of major transport infrastructure ahead of time and under budget. Newman, like Abbott, is an aggressive 50-something-year-old with a bristly hair-cut and penchant for running competitions. While he’s in Queensland Abbott should perhaps call in on Campbell and get some campaigning tips.
The policy announcements also lacked any real substance. The rebadged policy was a promise that 15 local authorities would get up to $15 million each to put infrastructure into place for population growth. This is expected to provide for an additional 15,000 homes over the next three years. As the current shortfall in housing was 178,400 last year the policy won’t even deal with 10% of the problem. And it is a housing problem, nothing to do with sustainability.
PM Gillard appeared to be channeling Dorothea Mackellar’s “Sunburnt Country” as she rammed home the need for a sustainability policy, given Australia’s fragile environment. Last election the fragile environment was used to leverage climate change as an issue. But while the PM mentioned water as a key issue, and the government believes that droughts will become more frequent because of climate change, we are still waiting for the new climate change policy. Greens voters will pick up on this fairly quickly.
The wedge appeared when Gillard declared that “the farmers have got it right” on the need to decentralise our population, and then pushed it further by extolling the virtues of the National Broadband Network which will impact disproportionately on rural communities. Labor is certainly worried about rural seats in Queensland.
Voters could have expected more from the Prime Minister. As the latest Galaxy polling shows they don’t like the way that Kevin Rudd was deposed, and while quantitative polling can’t tell you why, I strongly suspect from what I am being told, that part of that dislike is that they think that Julia Gillard was an active participant in the coup.
If Gillard can’t do better than this, soon voters may be asking how it is that after conspiring for the Prime Ministership and succeeding she has no developed ideas as to what she wants to do with it.
Watching Gillard and Abbott is like watching an election where there is no government and two opposition leaders vying for success.
Julia can’t run on her record because that means embracing and accepting Kevin, and she wasn’t elected leader by the caucus to do that. So while she runs the government, she can’t play the incumbency card. She almost needs to re-run the last election, casting Tony Abbott as John Howard, a fate we see Abbott trying to avoid as he runs from his record, declaring Work Choices dead and buried.
We end up with two leaders, both of whom are trying to convince us they can run the country, but neither prepared to present us with references.
We’re being asked to judge them both on the job interview and nothing else. This is theatre – not politics.