Launching a book on the Gillard Governments

Last night, I launched Chris Aulich's edited book on the Gillard Governments at the University of Canberra.
Launch of Chris Aulich (ed), The Gillard Governments

University of Canberra

30 January 2014

Andrew Leigh MP

I acknowledge the Ngunnawal people, on whose lands we meet today.

It is a pleasure to be launching Chris Aulich’s edited book The Gillard Governments, the eleventh in the ‘Commonwealth Administration Series’ that has chronicled federal governments back to 1983. The title is plural: referring to Prime Minister Gillard’s Government at the end of the 42nd parliament and for much of the 43rd parliament.

As well as being a pleasure to launch this book, it’s also an honour. The editor presumably chose me because of one of the two records that I set during the 43rd parliament. During that parliament, I served for 99 days as a parliamentary secretary in the Gillard Government, making me the shortest-serving executive member of that government.[1] According to the Guinness Book of Records, people have spent more time in space, as a hostage, travelling by taxi and living in a hotel, than I spent in the executive. The other record is that during the 43rd parliament, I published two books (one on social capital, the other on inequality).

Or perhaps the honour of today’s invitation is due to the fact that I’m the local MP representing the University of Canberra, which has produced these Commonwealth Administration Series books for over thirty years.

This being Canberra, I can count among the book’s 24 contributors people who have been my boss, my co-worker, and my research assistant.

They are an impressive group, who bring expertise in policy and politics to bear in analysing the Gillard Governments.

If there is a general message that comes out of the policy analysis in this book, it is that Labor can count a significant number of legislative achievements under Julia Gillard’s Prime Ministership.

  • We kept unemployment below 6 percent at a time when many developed nations were struggling with double-digit joblessness.

  • Our GDP per capita grew more rapidly than most developed nations, taking us from 17th in the world in 2007 to 8th in 2013.

  • We implemented an emissions trading scheme covering 60 percent of domestic emissions, and saw electricity emissions decline.

  • We built a DisabilityCare model that will provide people with disabilities more resources and more choice.

  • For the first time in over a century, we struck a deal on the Murray-Darling basin that returned 3 trillion litres of water to the parched river system.

  • We won a seat on the UN Security Council for the first time in two decades, helped engineer the rise of the G20, and persuaded other members to schedule the next meeting in Australia.

  • We uncapped university places for most courses, allowing places to be set by student demand rather than centralised control.

  • We devised a funding model for schools that focused on parental resources and student need, and was underpinned by public reporting of test results and funding for every school.

  • We engaged the public service in good policy development processes, including on the Asian Century White Paper and Constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians.

The Gillard Government changed Australia for the better, in lasting ways. I particularly liked Jenny Chesters’ discussion of the underreported changes in income-contingent loans for vocational education and Andrew Carr’s recognition of the changing role of Indonesia in our security planning.

Getting a tad more political, I did appreciate Mary Walsh pointing out the crass politicking of the Coalition on asylum-seeker policy; and Andrew Macintosh and Richard Denniss pointing out the strong similarities between the CPRS (which the Greens Party voted against) and the carbon pricing legislation (which the Greens Party voted for).

But legislative achievements aren’t enough. Politics being politics, parties also need to sell their successes. And as our trouncing on 7 September 2013 showed, we did not do this well enough.

It was not for want of trying, even by those of us on the backbenches.

For my own part, I arrived in parliament in 2010, midway through Labor’s six years in office. Upon getting there, I was reminded of Spike Milligan’s account of delaying his response to enlisting in World War II. When he arrived, a senior officer said ‘I suppose you know you are three months late arriving?’. To which Milligan replied ‘I'll make up for it sir, I'll fight nights as well!’.

And yet it doesn’t matter if you’re fighting days and nights if the other side is better prepared, or if you’re copping friendly fire. Once or twice every sittings fortnight, I would dutifully turn out at the doors of the House of Representatives to answer questions of the day on behalf of the government. Almost invariably, I was proud of what we were doing in the parliament, which – as Gwynneth Singleton notes – passed 561 pieces of legislation – 12 more than the last term of the Howard Government.

But all too frequently the questions asked on the doors weren’t about policy, they were about internal management. As Tanya Plibersek said on election night, ‘I’d give us nine out of ten for governing the country.  I’d give us zero out of 10 for governing ourselves.’

As several of the chapters note, some of this tension arose because of the unique environment of the 43rd parliament. Whoever served as Australia’s first female Prime Minister was probably always going to suffer additional vitriol from their detractors, such as Joe Hockey’s statement that Julia Gillard ‘has never deserved respect and will never receive it’. Elsewhere, Anne Summers has written eloquently on this issue, and Sally Young and Matthew Ricketson discuss the gender dimension in their chapter, with appropriate discussion of shock jocks, placards, fundraising menus and so on.

Another factor that contributed to the pressure cooker environment was the hung parliament. With votes in the House of Representatives frequently passed with a margin of one, the incentive for destabilisation was greater than ever. Another was the technology-driven change in the media environment. As I argued in a 2012 lecture at the University of Canberra, technology may have created a more interesting media for the most engaged news consumers – but for most people they result is a press that is nastier, shallower and more opinionated than in the past.[2]

In the future, Labor is unlikely to face a hung parliament, but it is likely that we will have considerably more senior women than the Coalition. So all of us will need to be ready to push back – firmly at all times, politely when possible – when sexism rears its ugly head.

We also need to adapt to a media environment that is snappier than ever before. The tightening of deadlines. The rising importance of snappy slogans and good pictures. The increasing ratio of opinion to news.

There has never been a better time to be a populist politician in Australia. Correspondingly, these are hard times for anyone who believes in nuance and long-term reform. So those of us who believe that issues are complex and change takes time need to work hard to have our message heard. We need to be wittier and more interesting, tell better stories and have powerful statistics at our disposal. Yesterday’s reformers need to become tomorrow’s SuperReformers™.

But we may also need to look at changing how we talk about our programs and policies. There are a host of ways we could do this, but let me tell you about one that’s been interesting me lately.

In his new book The Righteous Mind, psychologist Jonathan Haidt argues that there are six appeals that can be made in politics: Caring, Fairness, Liberty, Loyalty, Authority, and Sanctity.[3] Haidt argues that those on the political left tend to focus on just the first three of these: caring, fairness and liberty, while those on the right are concerned with all six equally. Haidt’s work suggests that if progressives want to convey their messages more effectively, they should learn to emphasise the aspects of loyalty, authority and sanctity.

There are a range of ways that Labor might do this, but here’s one set of ideas, from UK Labour councillor Rowenna Davis:[4]

Labour used to care more about family, high streets, order and community. It used to take a stronger line on gambling and alcohol. It used to have a narrative about what it wanted to preserve as well as change. Look at the influence of co-operatives, mutuals and unions. This work is still carrying on in pockets. Stella Creasy’s work on payday loans; David Lammy on bookies. Jon Cruddas’s approach in Barking and Dagenham is part of a conservative tradition stemming back to George Lansbury. Blue Labour.

No government is perfect, but as this book illustrates, the Gillard Government achieved a great deal during its time in office. Yet there is also much for us to learn in performing even better when the Australian people next entrust us with the chance to govern. And here’s hoping that the next Labor Government is a little more long-lived.

[1] Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister from 25.3.13 to 1.7.13, inclusive.

[2] Andrew Leigh, 2012, ‘The Naked Truth? Media and Politics in the Digital Age’, ‘Challenge Your Mind’ University of Canberra Public Lecture Series, 1 August 2012

[3] For simplicity, I have listed the positive attribute of each kind of appeal. The six spectrums are Care/Harm, Fairness/Cheating, Liberty/Oppression, Loyalty/Betrayal, Authority/Subversion, and Sanctity/Degradation.

[4] Rowenna Davis, 2012, Labour needs to rediscover its conservatism, New Statesman, 20 April 2012

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Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.