Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

Tag: Gillard

Gillard’s need for an Indian summer

The recent whohar with India over the stabbing murder of Nitin Garg is a class A example of how foreign policy crises shape leaders rather than are shaped by them. Neither government initiated it, and whilst the Indian government is playing domestic populist and airing some grumbles over uranium, it would probably prefer the issue goes away quickly.

Though some like Gerard Henderson seem certain Australia has an anti-Indian race problem (he’d never have said that under Howard), for myself, like most of the community, the idea seems absurd. Indians are long standing residents of this country, who don’t cause trouble, seem closely integrated and love their cricket. There are racist elements in Australia who may target all non-whites, but that’s a far cry from the absolute rubbish being served up in the Indian media scaring many potential students and migrants away from the country.

This crisis however offers a potentially career defining opportunity for our Deputy PM Julia Gillard. While clearly highly competent, there is a perception that she is a little too thinly stretched across her responsibilities. Not only as Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations; Minister for Education; Minister for Social Inclusion, she is part of the governments gang-of-four who decide most policy issues, along with being a very politically important Deputy Prime Minister, and a regular Acting Prime Minister. Errors such as the spending of stimulus money on schools that had one student or were due to close were not errors of judgement so much as of editing. Gillard also needs to get some policy runs on the board given her past golden duck efforts such as Medicare Gold. Fixing the issue now would bring short term political benefit to the Rudd Government, whilst offering a point to be remembered in by colleagues in 5 or so years she begins to think seriously about becoming PM in her own right.

Having introduced the ALP’s new IR legislation on Jan 1, it might be a very good idea for Gillard to drop her role as Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations (and Social Inclusion) and focus on education, starting with international students. The Rudd Government came to office promising an education revolution. Even including stimulus spending, it has barely touched the issue, and this challenge is a perfect opportunity to make some big changes with public support.

As our fourth biggest export industry, worth $16.6 billion, the market for international students strangely came about without much government attention. Indeed it was the neglect (if not deliberate damage) by the Howard government of the tertiary sector which lead universities to seek substantial numbers of full fee paying international students as a way to cover their budget shortfalls. This turned into a boom industry, but it is one that has been badly managed and regulated, with the collapse of four private international student focused schools in late 2009 a too common story.Though already a huge industry, the potential for turning Australia into a SE Asia education hub is enticing.

Not only is this an industry that plays on Australia’s strengths in education, culture and brain power, and not only is it highly lucrative irrespective of global financial conditions, it also delivers key diplomatic and security advantages to Australia. By educating the youth of the regions elite (and up & coming leaders) we gain crucial leverage and understanding throughout the region. In 20-30 years time, these same people will be the business, cultural and political leaders, and their views of Australia will be closely shaped by their time here. A positive view could well be the difference between a key trade contract being awarded or even back channels to avoid war and conflict. That’s not hyperbole, in the case of E.Timor a large reason why there was no firefights between Australian and Indonesian troops was because of the personal links between the two armies, averting conflict.

Immediate action is clearly needed to calm the views of the Indian population in Australia, and the Indian government and media overseas. But long term, serious action needs to be taken to help improve the international student sector, as a starting plank for delivering an education revolution. This would deliver on the Rudd governments promise of an education revolution, improve and reform a key economic industry, and let Gillard and Rudd address an area that is clearly very important to both of them, both personally and politically.

For more on the India-Australia challenges faced, and potential responses, I’d recommend two publications by the Lowy Institute: After the perfect storm: Indian students in Australia by Janaki Bahadur and Troubled waters in need of oil by Rory Medcalf.

The Fight for Gillard

Perusing the newsagents this afternoon I noticed the October edition of The Monthly has a column reviewing Jacqueline Kent’s new biography of Julia Gillard (which I review here). The review says pretty much the same things I do, but what is noteworthy is that under the very weak defence of “biography wars”, the review was written by Chris Wallace the author of a soon to be released unauthorised biography on Gillard. Crikey has picked up the story, quoting Penguin’s editor Ben Ball who describes it as a “complete disgrace…shocking. ….This is the most sinister hook The Monthly have ever used to lure its readers”.

Crikey also note that on Wallace’s own site (an excellent collection of links to the days big stories) Breakfast Politics, the top story is her own review, something I had missed in my mid morning pre-coffee stupor. While there is a clear conflict of interest at work here, I think Penguin’s anger is more concocted than anything else. Book reviews should be done by other knowledgeable authors, so Wallace could offer something fresh as a reviewer. Kent’s book is solid but ultimately unsatisfying for a political audience (which The Monthly serves), so similar criticisms were likely to appear anyway. Their real fear is the loss of sales from that fact being known. Making a book review the cover story speaks more of the current interest in Gillard and paucity of material in this months edition of The Monthly, than evidence of a sinister desire to fool readers (Indeed Wallace notes it in the beginning of her review).

Rather, the real fault of Wallace’s is that having claimed the virtue of independence that outsider status grants (Kent got 3 interviews with the big G, Wallace none), she fails to deliver any worthy new tibits or hard hitting pieces of analysis. Surely these are being saved up for the book, but given that Gillard is such a careful and frankly bland character, it rather suggests she doesn’t have anything bold and new. If you want to be anti-establishment you have to show some teeth. Otherwise why bother. I doubt that this minor minor controversy will get The Monthly higher sales (I ended up dropping it back into the newsagent stands), but the new editor Ben Naparstek is showing he is willing to play for ratings. Given the great challenge of maintaining a political/literary magazine in Australia when literally thousands are giving their opinion and comment away for free (like me – but I’m willing to sell out!), it certainly can’t hurt and probably recommends the choice of one so young and inexperienced to run the magazine.

Either way, for an ethically fair review of the new biography of Kent simply click this link. Given the attention (and that my gillard review has been one of the most viewed posts here recently) I’ll be sure to purchase and review Wallace’s book when it comes out. Maybe then I’ll get a bit of a hold on our next PM, something Kent stumbles before the alter of admiration in doing.

The Making of Julia Gillard Book Review

The Making of Julia Gillard by Jacqueline Kent Melbourne: Penguin Group $36.99 rrp

Near the end of the book, the author Jacqueline Kent notes that amongst Canberra’s press gallery, there’s the view that the ALP currently offers a ‘boringly united front’ (she’s nice enough to pretend only one Journo holds it). Despite the promise of nearly 300 pages of analysis and insight into the country’s Deputy Prime Minister, Gillard remains the same sharp, cker but reserved figure she appears on the news.
The most interesting part of the book -by far- is the detail of Gillard’s early student activism, though the authors unfailing support lets her get away with glib answers about it, such as her time in the Socialist Forum. Seemingly just a quasi-think tank that Gillard used as a useful network whilst fighting in amongst the Victorian ALP left wings, it is about as close to a juicy story as the book offers up (real live commies!). Other potential juicy stories such as her 2002 relationship with Small Business Minister Craig Emerson (who was married with kids when it began) are dealt with in just over a page, likewise for the pre-leaked story about Lindsay Tanner trying to block Gillard’s rise. (He saw her as a rival, anything further is never really discussed, and no one speaks out against each other).

When I first saw the cover of the book(up on the right), I hated it. I even had to hide the book in my bag before going to lunch with a few of my mates. It is the Vogue magazine, Vaseline blurred photo cover that adorns chick lit and screams ‘I’m only skin deep’. The choice may have been by some unconnected editor, but it fits. This is in many ways not Jacqueline Kent’s fault. She writes very well, includes enough detail for the interested reader to understand the context without getting bogged down, but she has precious little to work with. Kent not only doesn’t manage to get into Gillard’s dirty linen, she doesn’t even seem to want to. Either way, Gillard hides herself well, and clearly no one wanted to go on (or off) the record to trash the most powerful woman in the country and likely next Prime Minister.

Kent’s book is well placed to meet the fascination slowly bubbling up within the political class and the wider public about Gillard, however readers are likely to come away disappointed as there seems to be very little more to Julia than what impressions you may have already formed. Her work is clearly her life, she is a stubborn fighter for the issues she believes in (Education, Immigration, and recently “productivity”) and she has made a successful fusion of being a laid back aussie with razor sharp nerdish smarts, an act her boss constantly manages to fumble (Only giving you a fair shake of the sauce bottle there kev!). But though the highest ranked member of the Left in over 20 years, she comes across as quite conservative and perhaps too pragmatic. After 300 pages I still have no idea how a Gillard Administration would differ from Rudd’s.

Gillard’s rise into parliament and then to deputy, is one more of doggardness than calculated Machiavellianism. She seems to have served her time, shown such intellect, capability and enough few core principles, that it seems almost inevitable that she would move ahead. Right now the argument seems the same for her sliding into the PM’s seat. Though you get a feeling that for all her dedication, if it never happened Gillard would have “had a glass of red wine, a cry and moved on”, which seems her answer to just about all life’s setbacks. A great attitude, but one that doesn’t lend itself to the subject of good biographies. With such source material Kent never really had a chance, but unfortunately also doesn’t seem to have had the willingness to open any wounds to try and find out. The photo cover well represents the word picture inside. Almost all biographers need to prove their loyalty in order to get access and support, but they also need enough gossip and insider stories in order to give their readers something more than they can get in the daily news. Kent has clearly gone the Bob Woodward route of trading less opinion for more access, but she doesn’t get far enough inside to justify the bargain.

If you follow politics closely, it probably wouldn’t hurt to add this book to your library, but it’s probably a better choice as a Christmas gift to a bright young niece or cousin who you’d like to encourage. Gillard’s story is a very Australian, and inspiring one. She clearly works twice as hard as anyone around her, she’s sharp, pragmatic and takes a stoic view of life, assuming Labor doesn’t monumentally f**k thing’s up, she will be our first female Prime Minister. She has already made history, already gone so far, but in life and literature, her story is yet to be fully written.

The soft bigotry of Australian politics

This sentence caught my attention over the morning coffee:

Queensland Premier Anna Bligh will be become the first female elected to the position of state premier in Australia if she retains office in an election to be held on March 21.

This is apparently thought significant by our unnamed correspondent, despite the fact that Rosemary Follett (ACT), Kate Carnell (ACT) and Clare Martin (NT) have all won elections from opposition over the last 18 years.

This reflects two of the soft bigotries that exist in Australian politics: That Territories dont count, and Women are something new in politics.

First the states: Newspapers and politicians seem the only ones who actually think in terms of their own state, or the states as apart from the territories. Everyone feels the need to belong somewhere, but Australia’s states occupy a no-mans land these days between our townships (witness the Sydney-Melbourne rivalry) and our united allegiance as Australians. I can understand a NSW premier trying to talk up the advantages of their own state over others; but that is a show for the media, and doesn’t reflect the country and way australians view the country. Its bad enough territories get less senate representation, weird HOR seat allocations and are irrelevant at referendums, lets drop the pretense that leading a state is somehow a greater honour or tougher gig than leading a territory.

Now to my main point: The election of Bligh (looking a certainty, abet with a reduced majority), will not be a milestone in Australian politics or gender relations in this country. It will tell us nothing about the publics willingness to elect women, nor give renewed hope to those like Gillard or Bishop who long to be the first female PM.
Australian’s already elect women aplenty, it is now a question of timing, luck and talent for who rises and falls. To suggest otherwise, seems to me more evidence of a private worry about the weakness of women as politicians, than a concern about male misogyny. Women undoubtedly do it tougher in politics, but they already win and take on leadership positions, and reducing every individuals setback to wider causes is its own form of soft bigotry. The main problems seem to lie more in the media’s superficial approach to female politicians (can they be mothers & politicians -or why didn’t they have kids- is their make up on right every single second of the day, what kind of clothes are they wearing) than the actual political parties which have women throughout and don’t change their behavior in attacking/defending other politicians on the basis of gender.

Thus, while the Academic research shows that the ALP’s quota for female candidates in winnable seats has been relatively successful and encouraged other parties to select more women for seats, I would argue that it is nearing the end of its usefulness. (On principle I think all affirmative action should have sunset clauses, but it is to be judged on a case by case basis)

As adopted in 1981, and last updated in 2007 the ALP’s National Constitution requires that:

Public Office Preselection
(c) Preselections for public office positions at a State and federal level shall comply with the
affirmative action model in this rule 10(c). PRINCIPLES
(i) The intention of this rule is to produce an outcome where not less than 40% of
seats held by Labor will be filled by women
, and not less than 40% by men (“the
minimum target”).
(iii)The remaining 20% of the seats held by Labor may be filled by candidates of
either gender.

The problem I have with this approach is that Legislatures are supposed to represent the people, not be representative of them. This is why we don’t simply hand over seats on the basis of gender, age, race, religion levels within the community. Instead we seek to elect the best and most capable, who can understand the full range of issues faced within the community. Whilst a situation of no female representatives (or the currently appalling situation of no Indigenous MP’s/Senators) is unacceptable, Affirmative action should only be used to ensure that the path is open, not that it is well trod. Women currently hold in Government the positions of Deputy PM, Health minister, Climate Change minister, Age Care, Youth & Sport, and in opposition those of Foreign Affairs, Finance, and Immigration (Plus Parliamentary Secretaries on both sides). No young girl who is serious about a political career could fail to notice the many women now in top positions in parliament and the possibility of they too ascending to the very top. They don’t need quota’s to get there, and such systems having done their job need to be retired.