Her hair may be red, but she’s no bleeding heart



In 16 days as prime minister, she has already disappointed many gay couples by ruling out a change in the law to recognise homosexual marriage.

Many voters have bought Gillard based on the personal packaging. They see a prime minister who breaks the mould. Not a man, not married, no kids, no careful positioning for the cameras in front of a church, not a hint of a white picket fence anywhere.

And her background as an industrial lawyer working primarily for the union movement, a member of the Victorian Left of the Labor Party, seems to confirm the obvious – in life choices, in career decisions, in factional identification, this is a left-wing person. Peter Costello liked to call her Red Julia, and he was not just talking hair colour. Surely all of this builds clearly and consistently the profile of a progressive character, perhaps even a closet socialist?

About a million voters seem to think so. This is the number of electors who have rushed to say they will now vote Labor based solely on the change of leader, and apparently on the assumption that she is the progressive politician they have been craving.

How do we know this? Adding together the first three credible opinion polls taken after her elevation – one Nielsen, one Newspoll, one Galaxy – 8 per cent of the electorate abandoned stated support for another party and embraced Labor immediately she took the leadership.

Extrapolating from that sample of 2900 to the total electorate equates to 1.1 million voters, as the poll watcher Andrew Catsaras has pointed out.

Of these, only one in 10 had been planning to vote Liberal. The rest, or 990,000 voters, were until now saying they would vote for the Greens or “other”. These were the left-leaning people who supported Kevin Rudd in 2007, grew disenchanted with him, and decided they could not vote Labor at the next election.

They wanted Rudd to be more progressive. The big deal-breaker for these voters was Rudd’s decision to shelve the emissions trading scheme for at least three years. But they were also let down by his decision to take a harder line on asylum seekers. This disheartened progressive vote became a classic “protest vote”. Sullen and frustrated, they “parked” their votes with the Greens and “other” minor parties.

Gillard’s ascension has given them a surge of hope. They are now back, telling pollsters they intend to vote Labor. They think they see in the new Labor leader the embodiment of their progressive ideal.

Catsaras has dubbed the prodigal progressives “Gillard’s grateful”. I think it would be more fitting to call them “Gillard’s gulls”. They are destined to be disappointed. They have bought the personal packaging, without heeding the political contents. Gillard does not pretend to be anything she is not. Indeed, if you read the list of policy ingredients printed clearly on the pack, you will see why.

As education minister, she confronted the unions, and the Australian Education Union, the big left-wing umbrella public-school union, in particular. She outwitted it, out-campaigned it, and out-manoeuvred it. She got what she wanted – a national curriculum, with mandatory national testing, and a public disclosure of school performances on the My School website. Her agenda was pro-student and pro-parent, and it left the union angry and badly battered.

As industrial relations minister, she gratified the unions by abolishing the remnants of Work Choices. But she also infuriated one of the biggest left-wing unions, the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union. Withstanding all its demands, Gillard preserved the coercive powers that the Howard government had given the construction sector cop, the Australian Building and Construction Commissioner. The commissioner has forced the building unions to observe the law, and they hate it.

Remember when Gillard addressed the ACTU Congress last year? Heckled and booed by hundreds of union delegates, some of them turning their backs on her, it was blindingly obvious she is no favourite of the unions, and the left-affiliated unions in particular.

Now, as PM, she has briskly, systematically demolished the hopes of the progressives on half a dozen issues.

First, she yielded to the intimidation of the big mining companies and cut a deal to appease them. The government has admitted this will cost the Treasury $1.5 billion in the first two years of the tax, compared to the Rudd proposal. The investment bank Goldman Sachs has told clients that, over 10 years, the Gillard deal will reap $20.9 billion in taxes, which is $35 billion less than Rudd’s plan would have produced.

Second, she has moved to harden the government’s treatment of asylum seekers. Like the Howard government, the Gillard government wants to have all boat people processed in another country. Where Howard favoured Nauru, Gillard prefers East Timor, a proposal the East Timorese government has now challenged. Gillard did not propose going quite as far as Howard – at least she wants the processing done within the rules of the UN. But it is nevertheless an unmistakeable move to the right that will dishearten the progressive side of Labor.

There is nothing new or confected about Gillard’s position. At a meeting of the Left faction caucus at the Labor Party’s national conference in 2004, Gillard proposed toughening the party’s stand on boat people.

Among the hundreds in the room, she could not find anyone to second her proposed amendment. Once again, Gillard stands far to the right of her putative factional position.

And on climate change, too. By promising no attempt to put a price on carbon until there is “community consensus”, she has effectively put the government’s climate policy in the hands of Tony Abbott. Action is on the never-never.

What about foreign policy? She told the Herald that the fundamentals of foreign policy would remain unchanged: “So, obviously, support the American alliance; support the continued deployment in Afghanistan – I had a comprehensive briefing about that; our support for Israel; focus on our region.”

The missing words? The US gets pride of place, but no mention of China. Israel is supported, but no mention of the Palestinians. There is absolutely no hint of any of the residual favourites of the traditional Labor Left, not even a token gesture.

What about cultural or social issues? Gillard this week reaffirmed government determination to press ahead with the proposed internet filter, a move to censorship which has driven younger progressive voters to distraction. Yesterday, in a backdown, the government decided the filter would be put on hold while a review of classified material was undertaken.

And then, as we’ve seen, she is not budging on gay marriage.

So much for the surging hope of the centre-left vote. Gillard is, on the whole, more conservative than Rudd. Where he had started to edge his way to the right on climate change and asylum seekers, she has raced there. Why? First, because it’s authentically her. She has been consistent on these issues for years. She is only a member of the Left in name. Second, because it is her support base. She entered Parliament with the support of the Right faction, defeating for preselection a candidate backed by the Socialist Left. And the coup that delivered her the prime ministership was also mobilised by the Right. Why do you think that the Left – outside Victoria – was the last bastion of support for Rudd?

And third, because of the electoral logic that was pushing Rudd in the same rightwards direction. Labor treats its left-leaning voters with contempt. It assumes that even if they leave Labor for the Greens or “others”, their votes will always flow back to Labor through preferences. Rudd, and now Gillard, assumes the progressive vote is captive.

The voters Labor worries about are the ones on the right end of the spectrum, the ones most likely to desert Labor and go Liberal. That’s why it caters with slavish devotion to the proclivities and prejudices of the people Rudd deified as “working families”, previously known as “Howard battlers”.

To vote for Gillard because she looks like a leftie would be like buying a red car because you think it will go faster. If you want to know about performance, you have to look under the bonnet.

Peter Hartcher is the political editor.