Some months after the 2000 presidential election Al Gore was asked in a particular interview what he would have done differently. He answered simply that ‘He would have rested more’. I think that Gore was acknowledging that the constant travel and lack of sleep of his hard driving campaign caused his judgement to deteriorate and his public personality to change. The personality change was especially evident, and damaging, in the presidential debates in 2000 where the normally well humoured and winning personality of Gore was degraded by lack of sleep into a bitter and angry Gore.
This last week I have wondered whether Julia Gillard might look back on her prime ministership and think something similar — that more rest would have given her better judgement and a let her winning personality shine through. The PM’s travel schedule, in my opinion, is unrealistic and unsustainable. Constant long distance flying is very tiring over time, and the PM undertakes long trip after long trip. Canberra – New York – Canberra last week. Canberra – Bali – Canberra this week. Parliamentary sitting days give her only the shortest breaks from endless long distance travel.
My concern has nothing to do with gender. The PM’s predecessor Kevin Rudd had the same problem. Rudd became PM, without being a factional leader in the Labor Party, in large part because of his public popularity which arose from his cheery and winning public persona (if not a private one). But Rudd pushed himself (and his staff) too hard when he was PM. His public personality became angry and gloomy and his popularity declined with it. The good judgement, which he had as a shadow minister and leadership aspirant, left him. The end came for Rudd after he exhibited hopeless judgement in the abandoning of an emissions trading scheme and the implementation of the mining tax. Rudd should have gotten more rest.
Australian Prime Ministers before Gillard and Rudd did not travel nearly so much. Howard, Keating, Hawke, Fraser, et al. spent more time in The Lodge and at Kirribilli. They did not feel the need to campaign without end or try to win the news cycle every day. But then they did not face hung parliaments that could collapse at any moment.
The PM’s role is naturally a stressful one. I once heard Tony Blair say that the most shocking thing about becoming the British PM was the relentless pressure of constantly making important decisions. Julia Gillard’s stress levels are exacerbated by the constant long distance travel, but there are other factors that are unique to Gillard’s Prime Ministership:
1. The stress of the hung parliament. The necessity of constant bargaining with the inconstant Greens and independents and the never-ending danger of losing the numbers.
2. The poor polling numbers and the pressure from supporters of Kevin Rudd.
3. The focus on gender. I am not thinking here of recent events or anything to do with Tony Abbott. But, from the beginning the overall Australian public response to having a female PM has not been good. Think of Germaine Greer’s remarks about the PM for an example of the everyday tackiness of the treatment of our first female PM.
3. The Opposition’s strategy of opposing and denigrating virtually every Government initiative. Most conservatives would agree that Opposition has been relentless in the pursuit of this strategy.
4. The bonfire of the PM’s principles. Think, for instance, of the Malaysia solution, poker machines, the carbon tax promise, support for Craig Thomson and the elevation and backing of Peter Slipper.
5. The recent death of the PM’s father John Gillard.
I am not sure how well the PMs judgement has held up under these pressures. She was a very good minister for education (and a so-so minister for industrial relations) before taking over as PM. I expected Julia Gillard would exercise much better judgement as PM than she has done. In terms of public personality she has, in my opinion, held up very well — until last week.
Julia Gillard’s furious and angry tirade in the Parliament last week was quite shocking. I know that views on her outburst are mixed but I am firmly of the view that it demeaned the office of the PM and was the ugliest moment in the parliament for a long time. Certainly the worst moment since Malcolm Turnbull made an false accusation of corruption against Kevin Rudd (which so weakened his standing that he was soon replaced as leader of his party). Consider what happened. The Prime Minister rose in the Federal Parliament to address a very important constitutional matter — the removal of the Speaker. Instead of doing her duty, she unleashed a vicious and deliberately personal attack on the Leader of the Opposition. The PM claimed that Tony Abbott hates women.
An analogy will demonstrate how outrageous this statement was. Imagine that Ken Wyatt, the only Aboriginal member of the lower house rose to speak in the Parliament and made the following observations about Julia Gillard. You send dark-skinned people to detention in Nauru and would never do that to white skinned Europeans. You don’t care in the least about the problems of Aboriginal people. You never visit remote communities. You shun Noel Pearson, Warren Mundine and me. You are a racist.
Julia Gillard is not a racist and Ken Wyatt is a very decent and honourable person (I live in his electorate) and he would never make such an accusation. Nonetheless, this is a good analogy. An accusation of racism — the hatred of people of different skin colour — is not worse than the accusation of misogyny — the hatred of people of different gender. An accusation that Julia Gillard is a racist has as much substance as her accusation that Tony Abbott is a misogynist. I put forward this analogy to show how disgraceful her outburst in the Parliament was.
My guess is the PM will come to see this moment as low point of her Prime Ministership. I think she should seriously consider travelling less and not feel the need to front the cameras several times every day. The PM should spend more time in Canberra and Sydney and focus on policy for a while forgetting about constant campaigning and politicking. It will be good for the PM, good for the Labor Party and good the country.