Friday, June 28, 2013

Gillard too quick to turn to the law

Julia Gillard's ascension to the prime ministership was greeted with a degree of cautious optimism from quite a number of conservatives.

As education minister she had spoken passionately about things like performance pay for teachers and for the need to make schools more accountable to parents.

In 2010, she defeated Kevin Rudd for the Labor leadership because she was the government's best minister and best communicator.

But when Gillard became prime minister things changed.  She almost seemed diminished by the prime ministership.  It's as though the Peter Principle applied to her.

Because she was an effective minister she got the job of prime minister, but she was promoted beyond the level of her ability.  Gillard was in trouble from the beginning as she failed to explain why she and her party deposed Kevin Rudd.  (As we now know, one of the reasons was that his colleagues hated him.)  And things never really got any better after that.

There are many lessons that will be drawn from Gillard's time as prime minister and one of them is that the job is harder than it looks.

An assessment of Julia Gillard's legacy must ask the basic question — did she use her three years as prime minister to ensure Australia was in the best possible position to take advantage of the future?  The answer is, unfortunately she did not.  If a recession eventuates, Australia will be less able to deal with it than we were in 2010.

By the end Julia Gillard spent more time talking about herself than about the future of the country.  Her speeches about men in blue ties and the photo opportunities of her and her knitting were self-indulgent.  At a time when Australians are with good reason worried about their economic future, and about whether their children and grandchildren will enjoy the same standard of living as they've had, the prime minister of the country was using the question time box in Parliament attempting to change the definition of misogyny.

Her achievement as the country's first female PM and her gracious and dignified speech on Wednesday evening after she lost the leadership ballot to Kevin Rudd can't obscure the fact that as prime minister Julia Gillard made some very bad decisions.  Those decisions will have long-term consequences and will take a long-time to recover from.

Julia Gillard spent her years in power doing two things.  She spent money she didn't have and she imposed or attempted to impose government control in a way that was literally unprecedented.  The re-regulation of the labour market which started under Rudd and which quickened under her is the most obvious example of Gillard's tendencies.  But her efforts to have the government regulate the press and the expression of ''offensive'' political opinions shouldn't be forgotten.

Kevin Rudd does have at least one thing going for him — he's not a lawyer.  Gillard's legal background predisposed her to think that more regulation was the solution to every social and economic problem.  And if something couldn't be regulated to her liking she simply banned it.  The ban on the export of live cattle to Indonesia must stand as one of the worst failures of her government.  The ban damaged Australia's reputation as a reliable supplier of food to the region, put hundreds of people out of work and it meant that Indonesia got its food from countries with a far worse animal welfare record than Australia.

One of Julia Gillard's signature policies the so-called ''Gonski reforms'' to school education encapsulates all that was wrong with her approach to policy.  She promised to spend billions of dollars more on schools, without saying where the money would come from, and she sought to burden principals and teachers with the requirement to report to a Canberra bureaucracy on practically everything they did.  When Julia Gillard did talk about the future it was nearly always in terms of what the government would do for the people.  There was no vision of what people could do for themselves.  At the very time she should have been talking about the likelihood that in future, the government would be able to do less, Gillard was intent on promising the opposite.

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