Abbott v Gillard: Believing in What’s Awful, or Nothing at All

Here’s a question exercising some voters: What is worse? Casting one’s vote for a man who strongly believes in what’s awful, or for a woman who believes in nothing except getting herself elected?

The conundrum exposes the two central items on our wishlist for political leaders: that they stand for something, and for something we like.

Liberal Opposition Leader Tony Abbott’s strength is his believability. Having observed him for years as a high profile Howard government minister, we trust that he is as he appears: a conservative Catholic man guided in his political judgement by Vatican dictates on personal moral issues like abortion, stem-cell research and euthanasia, and by small government neo-liberal orthodoxy on much else.

The consistent visibility of Abbott’s beliefs reassures us. It promises certainty with regard to the direction he would take the country. This is not just because such values direct some choices while prohibiting others but because, having held fast to these values for so long, we feel he won’t relinquish them easily. When challenged by economic hard times, boisterous community groups or international recalcitrance, we see Tony Abbott as someone who will fight for his beliefs, not cut and run.

But Abbott’s strength is also his weakness. This is for the simple reason that his strongly held moral values are an anathema to most of us. For instance, reputable polls show that around 80 per cent of Australians support legal abortion, stem cell research and voluntary euthanasia. So, too, do we know that the economic agenda of the big business leaders who have his ear will leave most of us – and the public institutions and infrastructure on which we rely – worse off.

The Prime Minister’s problem is different. As personable as Abbott – when in “real Julia” mode, anyway – she remains a lesser-known quantity. Where she has distinguished herself, or been noted by others, it is most often for matters of form, not substance. She seems smart and articulate, yet we have little sense of what direction she’ll steer the country because we don’t know the things that really matter to her – what she’ll fight for and never compromise on, no matter what.

Gillard rarely discusses the things she believes in. Because of this, we tend to assume. We assume that because she has a working class background and made education the centrepiece of her parliamentary maiden speech that she favours a first class public education system. Having bravely asserted her lack of faith in God, we assume she will defend the barrier between church and state. Because she is Australia’s first female PM, we think she’ll stand and fight for the policies women need to succeed.

But we are often proved wrong. In her short time in the top job Gillard has refused to alter the way government funds state and private schools and has expanded the school Christian chaplaincy program by a third. She opposes gay marriage and was the strongest opponent in Rudd’s kitchen cabinet of the miserly paid parental leave scheme Australian feminists battled for decades to achieve.

To make matters more confusing, when Gillard moves against what we thought she’d defend, she tends to laud her stance as proof of her metal. The MySchools website is a textbook case, though what she expects us to draw from it is anyone’s guess. Does she view her willingness to screw an expected adversary – in this case, the education union – as proof of a practical even-handedness that she sees as the essence of her character? Or is this dispassionate judicial-like persona, concerned with formal process rather than substance, all she is willing to share with us, preferring to keep private the aspects of her character that would reveal her policy preferences and her heart.

Whatever is the case, the real problem is that Labor’s tactics have undermined any claim to evidence-based policy at every turn. Whether it’s setting aside the Henry Tax Review to placate West Australian miners, or pre-empting its own assessment of the National School Chaplaincy Program to expand it by a third or proposing a citizens assembly to address the science of climate change, Labor has done little more than hand out taxpayer funds to marginal electorates or interest groups that scream the loudest throughout the campaign. And since week three, when Gillard shook of the shackles of Labor’s election strategists, she has been in charge and doing it her way.

Having said this, Abbott also seems determined to undermine his own strengths on the character front. Avoiding press forums that might see him go off message, he looks at times to be visibly straining on his lead. While his pounding of the “no means no” mantra in response to Gillard’s request for a debate was widely lauded as a blunder, I suspect it did him good. It affirmed that, despite the muzzling, he remains the same man: oblivious to a feminist anti-rape slogan familiar to many 12-year-olds, and one sincere in his illogical assertion that men with daughters can’t be sexist.

There is something dispiriting about watching people we call leaders try to suppress their souls, or pretend they never had one in the first place. This is particularly the case when there seems no reason to have gone to such lengths. As respected social researcher Hugh Mackay has explained, campaigns have little impact on the election results. History shows that polls taken just before campaigns begin usually point to the result.

This appears to be confirmed by the latest Neilson poll, which has Labor ahead 53 to 47 on a two party preferred basis, figures almost identical to the 52 to 48 split the same poll recorded a week before the election was called.

Publication history

Belief is Abbott's weakness, lack of it is Gillard's  ABC The Drum Unleashed