By Matthew Price:
Despite having ironed out some significant flaws of late, it seems that the PM’s leadership is in terminal decline.
Her performance on Q and A (ABC) on Monday was actually reasonably good. In fact it got better as the show went on. It appears that she has made a conscious decision not to use the clichés and sound bites that almost completely derailed her election campaign. The extent to which the principles of public relations dominated Labor’s 2010 election campaign still beggars belief.
PR theory suggests that the most important thing to do is to have a simple message and to repeat it as often as possible. The message should be non-specific, focus group tested and easily remembered. Which is great if you’re putting together a radio ad for beer, but an absolute disaster if you’re trying to make a political speech.
Of course politicians want to get key messages across, but for it to be effective, there has to be some attempt made to make it sound natural and unrehearsed. Gillard’s use of sound bites was a stunning example of how not to do it. So ‘on message’ was the PM, that many of us wanted to throw something at the TV just to make the message stop. By contrast her answers on Q and A were, for the most part, direct and in straightforward language. These are welcome changes, but her biggest problem is still her lack of confidence and charisma. Whenever the PM addresses the public, these deficiencies manifest themselves in very uptight, contrived performances.
Compared to her predecessors, who seemed to relish the limelight, Gillard looks like she doesn’t want to be there. It can be excruciating to watch. On a human level it’s hard not to empathize, and I often find myself cringing and anxious for her as I watch. It’s almost like watching a nervous applicant at a job interview – the nervous laugh, the carefully rehearsed answers, and the sense that it all could come unstuck at any moment. I get the impression that by nature the PM is fairly humourless, and generally not spontaneous. Ordinarily, these are not personality traits worthy of condemnation, and it takes all kinds of people to make a Government. But in an age when communication with the public is done predominantly on television, these characteristics are not simply interesting personality quirks -they go directly to the question of her electability.
If Gillard had remained a frontbencher, it is unlikely that any of this would have mattered. She is clearly a very capable and intelligent Minister, and an outstanding Parliamentary performer. In fact, somewhat paradoxically, she seems full of confidence when speaking in Parliament. But leadership is different. Leadership is largely about being able to inspire confidence in others and on this account the public remain unconvinced. It’s hard to see this changing. Political commentators routinely underestimate the more superficial aspects of our leaders’ performances. It’s a poor reflection on our democracy, but body language, physical appearance, and confidence all play a huge role in determining whether or not the politically disengaged voters will back a candidate.
All politicians lie and contradict themselves, but the charismatic ones get away with it because the public let them. This is why the back flip on the carbon tax is hurting the Government so much. It’s not simply because they did a back flip – the public expect politicians to lie to them and John Howard showed with the GST, that it is possible to get away with it. It’s not the detail of the policy either – few voters actually understand it, let alone have an informed view either way. The problem for the Government is that the PM doesn’t seem capable of inspiring the public to get behind her. Abbott’s task in running negative on it is thus made fairly easy.
The PM’s inability to inspire confidence is her Achilles heel. For this reason more than any other, Labor cannot win the next Federal Election with Gillard as leader. Tony Abbott is a man of few ideas, who knows only how to run a negative campaign. When he tries to assert a positive agenda he sounds incoherent, and his ultra conservative Catholicism is hugely out of step with mainstream Australia. Yet if an election were held today, the party he leads would win comfortably.
History has shown that once a Prime Minister loses the people, once they fall too far behind, it is extremely difficult to win them back. Gillard is at that point now, and nothing I have seen would indicate that she is capable of building sufficient momentum to turn it around. The ALP has to do something, and do it soon. Moving to overthrow the Prime Minister for the second time in as many years would no doubt cause a voter backlash. But doing nothing will lead the Government to almost certain defeat at the next election. If there is to be a challenge, the further it is from the next election the better. A new leader would need time to settle in, and the public would need time to get used to the overthrow.
According to those in the know, the two frontrunners are Bill Shorten and Greg Combet. Shorten is a polished media performer and very capable individual, but is so far to the right he is almost indistinguishable from the Tories on most issues. Combet is also very capable and calm under pressure, but he is not widely known among the disengaged, and can often come across as somewhat bland. By all accounts, Rudd has burned far too many bridges among his colleagues for a comeback to even be considered by the party. Despite all the risks of instability and the inevitable voter backlash, to have a real chance of winning the ALP need to replace Gillard before the next election, and probably sooner rather than later. The question is whether or not they have the nerve to do so.