More rest for the PM


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.


11 Responses to "More rest for the PM"
  1. I think you are overplaying the misogyny accusation. This word has just become a meaningless part of the phrase “sexism and misogyny.” And it is very common to accuse people of being racists when they argue against say more welfare for aborigines. “Racist” and “,misogynist” and “homophobic” are terms that are thrown about as easy insults these days. You are right that people should not be so accused, but it is a result of the dilution of language. I would not take it too seriously. I think the charge the Abbot has old-fashioned views about women is a pretty sound one, though he manages to avoid revealing it most of the time. One might reasonably label him as “sexist” if the term has any meaning at all.

    As for the speech being a low point – I am in two minds. It is true that the motion to remove the speaker is technically a major one and she declined to address it. But the hypocrisy of Abbot in saying Slipper had to go because of so-called sexist private text messages is just so breath-taking that I really enjoyed him being called on it.

    And while we are at it – I am dismayed that a silly text messages about shell-less mussels is deemed offensive to the point of sack-able. Do women never ever talk about the ridiculous appearance of the male genitalia? Last-turkey-in-the-shop comes to mind. The problem for me is not that the text was offensive. The problem is that the speaker is so pathetically adolescent!

  2. Chris
    I agree with your comment, except that I think there is a problem with the hyperbolic use of words such as racism, misogyny and homophobia — it denigrates the real victims of those forms of hatred. If Julia Gillard is the victim of misogyny then what are the girls of the Swat Valley or Helmand Province the victims of?

  3. Sam, I think you make excellent points about the effects of stress on high profile politicians, It must be extremely difficult to deal with, and also to try to reject some of the incessent demands for attention that go with the job.

    On the subject of Gillard’s response, though, I disagree, Tony Abbott had repeatedly used the phrase “died of shame,” which is not an innocent phrase after the Alan Jones controversy. Abbott is not a moron. I find it hard to believe he used such a phrase accidentally.

    It was a phrase with deep personal implications for Gillard, but Abbott had used it in a way where he could plausibly deny that interpretation. It was either cunning or stupid.If it was cunning, then it was contemptible and it was bullying, and Gillard was right to respond in fury. There should be no room for thuggery in parliamentary discourse.

  4. The analogy is weak here. Had Gillard, in her days as a minister, said on the record “what if non-aboriginals are by physiology or temperament, more adapted to exercise authority or to issue command?” , or something to that effect, this would be an apt analogy, and indeed she would have been deemed a racist and I’m sure many would have blasted in her in parliament about it.

    But that didn’t happen.

    It’s a little silly to claim that we need to reserve words for hateful acts that meet a certain threshold of harmfulness. There is a world of difference between a hateful joke about gays made by a 14 year old boy at school, and the physical assault on a gay man on the basis of his sexuality, but yet they are both instance of homophobia that can be safely labelled as such.

    I agree with you that in our society these are incredibly serious accusations, and that any such accusation should never be made lightly in the public discourse. Just as casually throwing around the terms devalues the power of the accusation, denying the content of the speech (which, other than having to tie it back to Slipper, was incredibly composed and a long time coming) devalues the seriousness of the problem of pervasive discrimination.

    Ugly, bigoted views such as the ones expressed by Abbott in many media appearances hold consequences, and I think that defending this along the lines that you are attempting to is wilfully misleading, presenting an analogy where the person being attacked is ascribed views that they do not hold because of policies that may have been arrived at on other grounds. Her speech was clearly aimed at various directly misogynist statements and other things that are much more direct than that.

  5. I agree with your concerns about the effects of fatigue on clear thinking, judgement and decision making. There is even laboratory evidence on that. So, Sam, I think your point is well taken on that count.

    I completely disagree with your assessment of Gillard’s speech. If, in the wake of the latest Alan Jones affair, you stand up in the Parliament and say ”Standing in this Parliament to defend this Speaker will be another day of shame … another day of shame for a government which should already have died of shame”, you may be cunning or stupid but surely you must know that you are asking for a reaction.

    To my mind Gillard delivered. Quite brilliantly actually, given that public speaking seems not be one of her fortes. She brilliantly related Abbott’s shame comment to a systematic pattern of questionable and/or unacceptable utterances and showed – relying on verifiable evidence — that this particular comment was symptomatic of a broader pattern. To judge from the various comment(arie)s in SMH over the last couple of days, there are many people who think the speech will be a classic. That strikes me as quite possible.

  6. Andreas
    The PM flew from Bali on to Afghanistan and who knows where next, so there is no sign of her travel schedule slowing up.
    I understand that people feel that the PM’s outburst was a seminal moment. My objection is twofold. First, that it was a highly personal attack on the Leader of the Opposition. The problem with personal attacks is that there is no going back from them. That’s why personal invective is kept out of the discourse of diplomacy, the courts and well functioning Government. It is surely the most vicious personal attack by a Prime Minister on the Leader of the Opposition in Australian history, by a long way. Gough Whitlam called Malcolm Fraser ‘Kerr’s kerr’ on the steps of Parliament House in 1975, but by then he was no longer the PM. Keating was very acerbic at times but he also laced his comments with some humuor. Highly personal attacks are damaging to the Parliament. The PM could have made the same comments in some other forum and they would have been less damaging. Julia Gillard put her personal feeling above the interests of the parliament. It was, in my view, a highly indisciplined act. Which is what got me thinking about travel and tiredness. Why would the PM act in such a indisciplined way — I think the stress of travel and the job is catching up with her, like it caught up with Rudd and Gore. She should get more rest and get back to being the disciplined, likeable person she is.
    The second issue is the timing. There was an important matter to address — the sacking of the Speaker. But the PM decided that a personal attack on the Opposition Leader was more important than the nation’s business.

  7. By the way: Gillard was apparently reading from a script (or at the very least detailed notes). So I don’t accept the view that the speech was a spontaneous angry reaction to Abbott’s goading. Adn deliberately goad he did! I honestly think politicians are almost impossible to offend, their skins are so toughened. I think the speech was planned, or quickly sketched by staffers when they knew Abbott’s motion.

    I thought the speech started off very well but kind of lost its momentum. Well suited to a short youtube highlight clip.

    • Chris, agree. The speech was not improvised, It is clear that Gillard looked at her notes all the way through and clearly some of the “soundbites” [he does not need a motion, he needs a mirror] were, I conjecture, scripted and well-practiced. I personally thought the whole speech was good; I certainly saw the whole 15 min and did not get bored one sec.
      Sam, I don’t think there was a major issue to discuss here. The gov’t had long deided (at least according to this Coorey & Maley piece here: that the publication of the private tweets had made Slipper untenable; they just did not want the Opposition have a win. Defeating the motion was just political theatre with those in the knowing knowing that Slipper would resign. As to who started the row, and the degree of nastiness that pervades the public and parliamentary discourse, I can only say that I was shocked when I first (I moved here in 2009) heard bits and pieces from what goes for parliamentary discourse here. (The kind of vitriole and endless and pointless heckling u see in Australia is un-imaginable in the German parliament, for example.).
      I think Gillard made a good case. To repeat myself, If, in the wake of the latest Alan Jones affair, you stand up in the Parliament and say ”Standing in this Parliament to defend this Speaker will be another day of shame … another day of shame for a government which should already have died of shame”, you may be cunning or stupid but surely you must know that you are asking for a reaction. Possibly the kind of reaction that Gillard produced.

  8. Chris and Andreas
    The lack of restraint and civility in the discourse between the parties is partly a result of a long period of peace and prosperity. If the public perceived the country to be in crisis or facing serious threats to our peace and prosperity then the disgraceful behaviour of our politicians would not be tolerated. There is probably more civility in contemporary German politics for the same reason.
    The deliberately personal nature of the PM’s remarks towards the Leader of the Opposition rule out any effective working relationship between the two in the future. That is ok, so long as no crisis requiring co-operation arises.
    The way that the PM burnt her bridges with the opposition leader was quite reckless really. There are good reasons for going over the top in personal abuse in that way.

    • Sam,

      I assume u meant to say, “There are *no* good reasons … ”
      Not sure who burned bridges here first, in my reading the causality runs the other way round (and that Gillard was fairly restrained up to that point) but that claim is for historians to test. And dictionarians, this just in:

      Key paragraphs:
      “In the wake of the row, the most authoritative dictionary in Australia has decided to update its definition of the word, ruling that a contemporary understanding of misogyny would indeed imply “entrenched prejudice against women” as well as, or instead of, hatred of them. Sue Butler, editor of the Macquarie Dictionary, admitted that, on this occasion, the dictionary had failed to keep pace with linguistic evolution.

      “Since the 1980s, misogyny has come to be used as a synonym for sexism, a synonym with bite, but nevertheless with the meaning of entrenched prejudice against women rather than pathological hatred,” she said in a statement.

      While the Oxford English Dictionary had re-worded its definition a decade ago, staff at the Macquarie had only been alerted to the issue in the aftermath of Gillard’s extraordinary speech in parliament, she added. “Perhaps as dictionary editors we should have noticed this before it was so rudely thrust in front of us as something that we’d overlooked,” Butler told the Associated Press.”.

  9. I guess this leaves us with a linguistic gap. What are we going to call women-haters? Well.. I guess “women-hater” works OK and would, one imagines, not be subject to linguistic drift in the future!

    It is always interesting to get a recent arrival’s view of our political “process”. It is pretty toxic and it seems we are not imagining it. I think it is difficult to return to civility once the invisible barriers of politeness have been shattered. But I am sure if Turnbull were leader the parliament would sound considerably better. Sam – you ascribe it to national crisis. I can see a political science paper here! Though there would be some subjectivity in measuring the level of civility in parliament. I guess you would need to search on abuse terms (in all the various languages of the countries you included).

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