Gillard proves a tough nut to crack in rough week

Prime Minister Julia Gillard impressed even those in the most unlikely of quarters with her 50-minute retort to accusations about an event 17 years earlier.”SHE’S a tough bastard,” said one Labor man who’s not the greatest fan of Julia Gillard, after Thursday’s marathon news conference about her rather complicated professional and personal life before she entered parliamentary politics.
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That message would resonate with several audiences. Everybody from voters (pro and anti) to the Coalition to Kevin Rudd’s forces must realise by now that, as Tony Abbott so succinctly put recently, the Prime Minister isn’t going to ”lie down and die”.

Gillard and her backers think she has had a good few weeks. They genuinely believe the atmospherics of politics have changed. And so do her internal critics – who are depressed by what they see. They fear a somewhat stronger Gillard reinforces the reluctance of caucus to change to a leader who, they are convinced, could save more seats. The Liberals know that if Gillard lifts her game even marginally, they have to improve theirs too; instead, Tony Abbott has been making some unforced errors.

But the political mood swings from poll to poll. This week’s Newspoll had Labor’s primary vote on 35 per cent. If the next major poll is around that, the government’s positive mood will continue. If, however, it is significantly lower, fresh gloom is likely to descend. And, while it is only tangentially related, Labor’s vote today in the Northern Territory election will also feed into the mood.

The Gillard camp ticks off the past month’s achievements. First, the PM stared down the states over the trials for the National Disability Insurance Scheme – an initiative that has almost unanimous political support.

Then, with the carbon tax finally operating, Gillard (in a counter-intuitive tactic) elevated electricity pricing, blaming the states for gouging revenue, thus seeking to inoculate Labor against getting all the blame for higher bills. Abbott slipped up when he tried to confine the electricity debate to the carbon tax, with senior Liberals such as Ian Macfarlane admitting wider issues of over-investment and ”gold plating” were involved.

Meanwhile, many people were not just being soothed for the carbon price with cash and a tax cut, but reminded of the fact. In May, before the government started an advertising campaign, only 17 per cent had known of the household assistance package; by late July, after the advertising, 84 per cent were aware.

Gillard tackled another problem front with her instant acceptance of the Houston panel’s blueprint to break the political deadlock on asylum seekers. Never mind that this meant largely embracing the Coalition’s approach. Or that, her internal critics note, she should have gone down this path a long time ago.

The government is rushing to set up offshore processing and this week announced details of the Houston-recommended program for taking extra refugees. The test will be whether the boats will stop or slow (there’s no sign yet). If they don’t, Gillard will be in a very bad spot. If they do, Abbott will be deprived of one of his most potent issues.

This week Gillard started to swing major attention onto education, although the government has delayed its response to the Gonski report on a new system of school funding. When that comes it will involve controversy, because government schools will be the relative winners, and there is also likely to be a fight with the states. Gillard is trying to minimise the downside by promising all schools will be better off. The government got a bonus when Abbott fluffed by suggesting the present system was unjust to independent schools, allowing Gillard to warn the state school sector that they were looking at ”Jack the Ripper”.

BHP Billiton’s cold storage of its Olympic Dam plans was bad news for the government but the PM was able to exploit Abbott’s admission – later rescinded – that he had not read the company’s statement (he actually had read the press release). Abbott tried to blame the carbon and mining taxes, despite the company not doing so.

It wasn’t just Abbott who tripped this week: after Resources Minister Martin Ferguson declared the resources boom over, there was a good deal of faffing around by the government to soften that line.

Amid some better news, Gillard’s past caught up with her (again). In a front page story in The Weekend Australian, a former partner in Slater & Gordon, the law firm where she had worked, claimed in effect that she had had to leave after a scandal involving her former boyfriend, then Australian Workers’ Union official Bruce Wilson, who allegedly siphoned off funds from an entity into which companies paid money supposedly for training. Gillard gave legal advice when the entity was being set up.

What followed in this resurrection of old allegations was an amazing retrospective public battle between former Slater & Gordon partners about Gillard’s 1995 insistence she had done nothing wrong. One partner leaked the transcript of an interview the firm did with Gillard during its internal inquiry into aspects of the AWU-Wilson affair.

Gillard’s initial tactic this week was to deny the story oxygen by refusing to be drawn on any detail. By late in the week this had become untenable. She decided to carpet bomb. After 50 minutes on the subject at Thursday’s news conference, no journalist present had anything more to ask. Gillard didn’t kid herself the allegations would go away; she lashed out at what she described as the ”misogynists and nut jobs on the internet” who circulate them.

Jacqueline Kent, author of The Making of Julia Gillard, looked into the AWU-Wilson affair during the research for her book. She recalls that discussion of it was ”one of the stickiest bits” when interviewing Gillard (who was deputy PM at the time). Gillard didn’t like to be reminded of it. But Kent believes her account.

”All the investigations I did, including with Slater & Gordon, would lead me to believe what she said [at Thursday’s news conference] was the absolute truth,” Kent told The Saturday Age. ”Her discomfort at having it mentioned was the normal discomfort of being reminded of something unwise she did 17 years ago. I’m quite convinced she did not know anything about what Wilson did.” She believes Gillard chose (rather than being forced) to resign. In her book, Kent writes: ”Gillard said nothing about the episode in the [Slater & Gordon] office except to make a few mordant jokes about her taste in men.”

On The Pulse blog this week Katharine Murphy posted a ”poll of polls”, aggregating the two-party vote from Newspoll, Age/Nielsen, Essential Media, Morgan and Galaxy. The trend is tiny, but from about budget time there has been a slight movement up by Labor, with the corresponding slight move down by the Coalition. There is still a huge gap. But at the moment the Gillard strategists are more cheerful than before. They report that in the focus groups people laugh when Tony Abbott’s name comes up.

Make of that what you will.

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.