Julia Gillard learns to lead


Julia Gillard pointingJulia Gillard's carbon tax announcement was more than just a policy announcement. It was also a death notice for the low risk political strategy that characterised the first six months of the Gillard prime ministership. Unlike many such notices, this one was welcome and well overdue.

Having worked for four opposition leaders and prime ministers, and against four opposition leaders and prime ministers, I'm not the dewy-eyed type. But I know a change of prime ministerial strategy when I see one, and the carbon tax announcement was just such an event.

For the first six months of her prime ministership Ms Gillard's core strategy was based around risk management. Rather than an agenda, she had a plan. Reduce the risk of tax reform by doing a deal with the miners. Reduce the risk of health by doing a deal with the states. Reduce the risk of climate change by doing a deal with no one. Risk reduction sat at the heart of the first Gillard campaign.

Until the carbon tax it seemed it would also sit at the heart of the second.

By announcing a carbon tax the prime minister put an end to all that and took the biggest political risk of her career. It equals any of the risks taken by Rudd or Howard as prime minister. It is about as far from her low risk political strategy as Gillard could possibly get.

If risk elimination no longer sits at the heart of Gillard's political strategy, what does? It is early days but the carbon tax announcement suggests that low risk has been replaced with leadership, and that is a very good thing.

The announcement was just that — an announcement — so it's important not to get carried away. But to even announce a carbon tax shows Gillard's thinking about her role as prime minister has come a very long way.

It is important to remember that it is not just Tony Abbott and an army of hyperventilating climate change sceptics who would have been obstacles to making the carbon tax announcement. A battalion of cabinet ministers, factional bosses, backbenchers, advisers, party officials and pollsters would also have been telling Gillard that low risk, not leadership, was the correct course of action.

Being prime minister is the loneliest job in the country. The more risks you take the lonelier your life in the Lodge becomes. But if Gillard sticks to her guns, and withstands the mountain of pressure that will assail her, she will fight her second election with much more strength than her first.

Modern politics is a game of winning, and no new strategy will ever change that fact. But by replacing low risk with leadership Gillard is starting to think about winning the next election the right way.

Gillard's leadership will be sorely tested in the coming months. Not just on climate change, and not just by the opposition parties. The ferocity of the attack on the carbon tax by some media outlets will be the most aggressive media campaign this country has ever seen. The continuous opinion cycle that now dominates political coverage in Australia will be unleashed with all its formidable force.

The debate surrounding immigration and refugees will also be a high explosive minefield for the Gillard Government. Principle will risk popularity. Popularity will risk principle. The temptation to eschew leadership for low-risk compromises in such a high stakes political environment will be profound. All we can hope is that once again Gillard's taste for leadership will hold the day.

This change of strategy did not come a moment too soon, because Gillard was in real danger of slowly but surely fading away. She was never suited to a low risk prime ministership, and is a significantly better prime minister now that she seems to have found her way.

Lachlan HarrisLachlan Harris is a columnist for the Sunday Telegraph and was Senior Press Secretary to Prime Minister Kevin Rudd between 2006 and 2010. 

Topic tags: Julia Gillard, carbon tax, risk aversion, cliamte change, tony abbott



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Existing comments

Yes, Julia has the loneliest job and she understands the risks in managing and maintaining bi-partisan support with safe,popular policies and voter confidence compared with pushing for reforms.She must stand for her own authentic beliefs and values as she has been elected to do.She must take Australia into the next era and as she said last night on Q and A,China and India have managed to make big reforms,and Europe and the rest of the world must all do the same.Australia sits alone in many ways,with a blinkered or at least filtered view of global realities.

Julia must stand firm and lead this big reform, which will be seen as responsible and visionary.Electricity prices will go up anyway,and oil and gas exploration has become so dangerous; drilling to 15 kls and further it is very unsustainable.We have wasted our abundant sun and wind power,simply to keep old infrastructure and business.Car companies have been propped up for too long while alternative technologies have been kept to the side.
Julia has to lead and really, there's little doubt now.

catherine | 15 March 2011  

I've seen titillating glimpses of this in Julia from time to time. There is no doubt in my mind that she has the makings of an outstanding PM. Just wish I'd been capable and confident enough to write the article.

Patrick Quinlan | 15 March 2011  

Only the most one eyed labor supporters would see this as a change in leadership style, to everyone else its Bob Brown flexing.

Michael | 15 March 2011  

Well observed, Lachlan. The 'stoop to conquer' notion is probably known to Julia too. As for a carbon tax, perhaps it could be named a polluter's tax. Thanks.

Joyce | 15 March 2011  

Julia Gillard is certainly a striking contrast to the cold-hearted, dissembling, inarticulate flip-flopper Tony Abbott. Abbott would have already passed into obscurity by now had he not had practically all the media onside, including the ABC. Given a level media playing field Abbott would be toast.

Cuppa | 15 March 2011  

Julia Gillard has become a leader and follows Bob Brown's orders very well. A carbon tax is and remains just a silly tax, which allows you to pollute. If you can afford to pollute, the carbon tax is not relevant. If you are poor, then the massive increases in power and fuel costs from the new Gillard tax will hurt. In Australia we have so many win-win alternatives, which can provide for a low-carbon economy without having to punish the people. We have an active carbon sink on our land and in our oceans and it is far easier and cheaper to enhance these carbon sinks. For example if we improve land management on only about 2.5% of our landmass, then we can meet all our current obligations. I can see no harm in having more badly degraded land rehabilitated and turned into National Parks. I don’t see any harm in having more renewable energy, more energy conservation and less waste. I see harm if the Government starts taking more money from the people to feed its massive bureaucracy. Taxes just provide pain and no gain

Beat Odermatt | 15 March 2011  

You say, Beat Odermatt, that 'taxes provide pain and no gain'. Where then does the funding for our hospitals, schools, pensions, roads and bridges come from? And is it possible that a temporary polluter's tax could pave the way towards cleaner energy resources? Besides, Labor will compensate the poor
among us.

Joyce | 15 March 2011  

We are gambling that the vested interests in academic institutions are right, namely that we as humans are the chief cause of climate change , if indeed there is real climate change. There is no doubt it is appropriate and expediant to reduce all emissions, including carbon, but lets do so for no other reason than we should tread lightly on the earth. My worry is that if this is, as Y2K proved to be, a beat-up, then we will be cynical about any future proposition to reduce our impact on the creation. Be wary of the polarised political debate. The outcomes are too important to leave to the clash of egos between Tony and Juia.

graham patison | 15 March 2011  

I agree with these views and it is nice to see Lachlan Harris with his unique career background writing on politics for Eureka Street. Gillard on Q ahd A last night was excellent - quickwitted, intelligent, human snd humourous. I note Laurie Oakes gave her high marks in a recorded tweet too. There is hope yet for a good carbon pricing outcome and for Labor's reelection in 2013.

tony kevin | 15 March 2011  

To Joyce: “Taxes provide pain and no gain” is a slogan and it seems that Gillard supporters just love slogans. Nobody has anything for moneys to be used for the public good, but taxes are mainly wasted in massive administrative and bureaucratic red tape activities.
I wish to thank you for the strong support of my argument against the new Gillard Carbon Tax. You said that the “poor will be compensated”. This means that people on low incomes have no incentive to conserve energy. I did argue that the extra cost would be a nuisance for the rich. I cannot see that they sell their jet boats and V8 cars in a hurry. The majority of Australians are not rich and they are not poor. Julia Gillard will hurt middle Australia, people working for a salary and maybe paying off a mortgage. These people will not be able to buy a more energy efficient car or to get solar panels on their roofs. New taxes will be useless in trying to achieve a low carbon use economy. Julia Gillard and her master Bob Brown may be the biggest environmental hazards of Australia.

Beat Odermatt | 16 March 2011  

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