IDSA COMMENT

Julia Gillard’s Political Moves

July 29, 2010

To distance herself from the adverse fallout of the unpopular policy decisions taken by Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard has decided to seek a fresh mandate from the electorate.

It is often said that in politics there is no middle way at all. Julia Gillard seems to have realised this message quite comprehensively. Barely three weeks after she became the first female Prime Minister of Australia, the Australian Labor Party leader announced to move up the dates for the next federal elections. Contrary to popular assumptions, the elections will now be held in late August 2010, which has invited massive criticism from the Liberals. Surprised by Julia Gillard’s move, the Liberal Party of Australia led by Tony Abbott has gone to the extent of calling the announcement an attempt to ‘con’ the voters. Clearly, the days ahead for Australian politics are not going to be tranquil.

Observers of Australian politics will agree that the country is going through a unique and never before phase of history. A phase where for the first time a Prime Minister had to leave office prematurely due to pressures from within his own party, which was concerned about Kevin Rudd’s falling popularity. This is coupled with the fact that a range of fundamental debates concerning the economy, polity and the very nature of society are hovering in the minds of policy makers and the common man alike. Under these circumstances, Prime Minister Julia Gillard is poised to tread the road less travelled by way of going for elections; which has the potential to ‘make or break’ the Labor Party in the years to come.

The current situation ‘Down Under’ reminds one of the United Kingdom where, in 2007, due to similar electoral reasons, Tony Blair had to resign and Gordon Brown took over as Prime Minister. However, Brown’s ascendancy to the Prime Minister’s office did not help the Labour Party win the 2010 elections, which it lost to the Conservatives led by David Cameron.

Unlike a conventional leader who would have treaded a safe path by running the government for the remainder of the term, thus buying time to set things right for the Labor party before the next elections, Gillard is all set to advance the date of the polls. This clearly shows her resolute stand to prove that she has ascended to power not just because of the so-called ‘bloodless coup’ but that she has the capability to lead the nation. This is evident from her Clarion call to her constituencies that the general elections are all about ‘trust’ (read, trust in her leadership). In order to further boost the trust she has repeatedly indicated that Labor’s principal priority under her leadership is the ‘people’ and their day-to-day issues and concerns. She has, in no ambiguous terms, also signposted that domestic issues outweigh foreign policy concerns in her scheme of things.

While discarding the conventional middle path, Gillard has also taken the opposition by surprise. Her move to advance the elections has been motivated by the results from a recent opinion poll in which the Gillard-led Labor was ahead of the Liberals, and Gillard does not want to miss the chance by giving the Liberals an opportunity to prepare for elections.

There also seems to be a realisation that the impact of policy decisions taken by Rudd cannot be undone in the short span Gillard has in hand. Rudd’s choices on asylum seekers, climate change and super profit tax on mining proved too costly, and the Gillard-led government is under immense pressure on these issues. In a way, advancing the date of the elections seems to be Gillard’s attempt to distance herself from the Rudd years. How far she will be a success in all this only time will tell.
Widely acknowledged for her charismatic style and terrific diplomatic skills, Gillard seems to have realised that after making a smooth transition to the zenith of federal politics, it is time to start afresh, which, in her own words, will ‘move Australia forward’. This will happen, of course, when she is able to command a fresh three year term for herself.

A multitude of challenges, however, are on her way and she may not be in a comfortable position to amply respond on some of the tough questions of her times. The recent spat with Timor-Leste on energy and asylum seekers’ issues, the diplomatic deadlock with Fiji and the problem of rehabilitating Sri Lankan and Afghan asylum seekers and boat people are pressing issues for her. The growing number of Australian martyrs in the war on terror in Afghanistan is another foreign policy challenge. On the domestic front, issues such as health care, state of economy particularly the issue of budget surplus and tax on mining, education sector as also the protection of the multicultural nature of Australia which of late has been bruised by incessant attacks on Indians, pose critical challenges. Climate change is another challenge, to which she intends to respond in the course of the electoral campaign.

Gillard appears as a promising leader for India because of her leanings towards India. On the other hand, the Liberals too are reassuring in their own way as they have been supportive of uranium supply to India, which India has been keen on for a long time now. For India, the Australian general elections and the outcome thereof will be particularly interesting for several reasons including the issue of supply of yellowcake as well as the safety and security of its Australia-bound students.