I’m perplexed by the near-disappearance of Deputy Leader, Julia Gillard.
The recent business about Rudd and the New York strip club “Scores” is a case in point. Fortunately for Rudd, political affiliation has meant that criticism from feminist groups has generally been muted (as Janet Albrechtson has noted). But rather than silence or soft attacks from such quarters, Rudd might have hoped for support, given Gillard’s front bench position. One might have presumed that having a deputy with cast-iron feminist credibility would be a tremendous asset for Rudd in his time of need, and that JG would be wheeled out in his defence. Perhaps I missed it?
It’s more than just that example. Gillard’s profile has been low for some time.
What’s the cause of the absence?
It’s can’t be the case that Gillard is neglecting the big picture in order to concentrate on her own electorate. Admittedly not aided by a small redistribution, her majority in the Lalor (Vic) has gone from a rock-solid 19.8 per cent when she was first elected in 1998, to 8.8 per cent at the last election in 2004. While this is clearly a poor result for a member whose incumbency and profile ought to see an increased rather than reduced majority, the seat is hardly a marginal and she’s not campaigning hard.
Presumably it’s not a personality problem, either. Famously, Rudd and Gillard have not enjoyed the closest of relationships (as sources within the Parliamentary ALP confirm). But this is unlikely to be the answer, given the most obvious comparison available: the Howard-Costello relationship is the source of much speculation, but the Treasurer is a constant, high-profile media performer. In any case, the Rudd-Gillard relationship has supposedly improved; she was the sole shadow cabinet member to be invited to attend Rudd’s daughter’s wedding, for example.
Nevertheless, as noted by many (the e-mail newsletter Crikey, running a “Where’s Julia?” feature, various authors of a series of letters to the editor of The Australian) the number of her frontline appearances has diminished considerably. Increasingly, attention is being drawn to that.
In Question Time last week, we saw a peculiar display from Gillard (don’t take it from me; the relevant passage begins at p.50 of the Hansard transcript (PDF 1.22MB)). Baited by Joe Hockey, who accused her of being cut out of the loop on her own subject by her own leader, Gillard asked question after question about those responsible for processing workplace agreements. The tenor of her questions became increasingly strident, stressing that they were “foreign backpackers” who were “not even Australian”.
It was apparent to me - and is (I think) apparent from the Hansard account - that the “foreignness” aspect of her questions did not come across well (and an unkind observer might also note the peculiarity of Gillard asking such questions, Pom-born as she is, like me). The angle she chose neglected her potential strong point (experience of those involved) in favour of her weak point (their race) and led to easy, good-soundbite, pro-racial tolerance rebuttals from the Coalition bench.
That wasn’t a well-chosen strategy.
But the answer can’t lie in presentation. Gillard, while perhaps a newish face to the general public, was a known quantity to Rudd and the parliamentary ALP before becoming Deputy Leader. Whether one thinks she’s a good public performer or not, her appearances since her appointment have been no worse than before.
What’s left as an explanation? Her chosen portfolio is a vital one, in which Rudd fancies himself as an expert and as a business-friendly face. Increasingly, it seems, the leader is taking meetings with business himself, and assuming the responsibility for the deputy’s role: he has had to issue denials that he has sidelined his deputy in an area in which she is supposedly a weak link, and not trusted by business.
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