Media focus before today”s budget turned on the Gillard government”s intention to bring down a surplus. However, the real impact of this year”s budget – in both economic and political terms – is that it will enshrine a carbon tax leading to an emissions trading scheme.
Budget surpluses and deficits will come and go. But the scheme is intended by Labor to remain forever.
The available empirical data indicates Labor began losing support, and Julia Gillard her authority, following the decision announced in February last year to introduce a carbon tax. The tax was unpopular in itself – especially since neither the US nor Canada has gone down the emissions trading scheme road. More seriously, the decision represented the most significant breaking of an election promise in recent memory.
The Prime Minister”s political problems begin and end with this broken promise. She did relatively well in leading Labor to a break-even result in the August 2010 election and successfully negotiated a minority government with three independents and one Greens MP.
Gillard”s problems are political and not related to her sex. Gender did not prevent her succeeding Kevin Rudd in late June 2010, nor did it work against her in the subsequent election or the political negotiations that came after. But you would not know this following much of the political commentary.
At the weekend, Jonathan Green interviewed Wendy Harmer, the editor-in-chief of The Hoopla, on his ABC Radio National Sunday Extra program. Harmer referred to her compilation of the “ugly top 10” barbs directed at Gillard over the past couple of years and specifically named such right-of-centre types as George Brandis, Bill Heffernan, Sophie Mirabella, Janet Albrechtsen and Grahame Morris. She made no reference to various “ugly” comments that have been made against the Prime Minister by such left-of-centre types as Bob Ellis, Mark Latham and Dr Germaine Greer – although her original piece mentioned the latter two.
Harmer”s thesis turned on an implied suggestion of rampant sexism. Green opined that “there”s maybe not sexism so much as misogyny”. Maybe. What is more likely is that the criticisms of Gillard merely reflect a deterioration in the political debate, in Australia and elsewhere, which demonstrates the bad manners of the internet age.
Green should be the last to lecture about bad language, or indeed, misogyny. As editor of the ABC”s The Drum website, Green allowed Marieke Hardy in September 2010 to describe the Liberal MP Christopher Pyne as a “douchebag in many ways”. This was withdrawn by the ABC management. In January last year, Green ran a piece by Ellis on The Drum in which Ellis referred to the NSW Liberal MP Jillian Skinner as “like a long-detested nagging landlady with four dead husbands and hairy shoulders”. Barry O”Farrell was also abused.
Once upon a time, the ABC regarded itself as an arbiter of good taste. Not any more, it appears. In private correspondence, the ABC managing director, Mark Scott, defended Ellis”s misogynistic attack on Skinner as merely “colourful” and “particularly robust”. That”s all. The episode suggests that, to the likes of Green, misogyny is in the (political) eye of the beholder.
It”s true the Prime Minister is the victim of undue personal criticism. This was evident again at the weekend when The Saturday Age announced the Cambridge-based expatriate Greer would become a weekly columnist. Greer used the occasion to declare that Gillard “looks as if she”s wearing clothes that don”t belong to her, like an organ-grinder”s monkey”.
There is reason to respect the office of both the prime minister and the alternative prime minister. Sure Gillard is, at times, the victim of misogyny. But Tony Abbott is, at times, the victim of anti-Catholic sectarianism along with personal mockery for his sporting attire. Last week, for example, The Age ran a cartoon by Dan Boermans of an erect Abbott clad in budgie smugglers, having his confession heard by an excited and perspiring Catholic priest. Enough said.
The electorate is mainly interested in policy outcomes that affect the cost of living. It is unlikely voters will be influenced by misogyny or religious sectarianism at the next election.
Labor”s problems under Gillard primarily stem from the broken promise that led to the carbon tax. Rightly or wrongly, many voters in the suburbs and regional centres associate the Prime Minister with rising power bills. The former NSW Labor premier Kristina Keneally is correct in stating that the government needs a “game-changer” and this should lead to “ameliorating further or cancelling the carbon tax”.
This, however, would require a new budget beyond that which Wayne Swan will announce today.
Gerard Henderson is the executive director of The Sydney Institute.