Can Gillard build a real government from the rubble?

Now the landscape is flattened, Julia Gillard has the chance to prove she’s not the caricature she was made out to be. A potentially generational budget will be the marker of her nation-building ability.

The dead woman is still walking – and now, smiling.

A weight has been lifted, a boil lanced, and now Julia Gillard has an opportunity – long wasted – to spend the next six months actually governing.

She should forget the campaigning. It’s not her job and besides, it will get her nowhere.

With the hundreds of firm predictions of her political demise from the highest sages in the Canberra Press Gallery to washed-up former hacks and leaders now blown to smithereens and with Rudd and his ministerial groupies back where they belong, and in harness, Julia Gillard will appoint a new lesser cabinet today and get back to work.

The unprecedented events surrounding the implosion of the nation’s government has, paradoxically, left Gillard with no choice.

Forget the traipsing round the nation to marginal seats followed by a hungry pack wanting answers to the daily headlines; forget the speeches to ‘friends’ in the union movement; forget your political opponents and the fights they seek – go back to your office in that big building in Canberra and act like a managing director focussed on a few key tasks. And don’t even think of responding to now irrelevant polls.

The curmudgeonly and pragmatic head of the Business Council, Tony Shepherd, put it succinctly on cable TV on the day of the unravelling when he called on the government to “govern with Australia’s future as a productive and competitive country” as the only goal. Forget about electioneering, just govern.

He is right. The task ahead is to act as the managing director of the corporation undergoing generational change and focus on the big tasks, not the minutiae. The job is to sit at the desk in that office in the big building in Canberra and make the big calls.

The issue here is the method. Up until now it has been a dysfunctional, amateur hour performance as exemplified by the internal political game-playing on media reform.

Gillard botched the policy, botched the timing and botched the consultation. She was – along with Stephen Conroy – consumed with internals and Rupert’s newspapers. She was worried about leaks and backgrounding from the Rudd camp. So it was all done on the run – and what a shambles it turned out to be.

Well, the landscape is now bare. The incompetent Rudd forces have gone and it’s now her show and hers alone.

The immediate and crucial task is the budget.

It won’t be, and can’t be, your standard election year bribe-fest. It won’t be handing out dollars and asking for votes in return – it will be, or should be, a budget that dismantles middle and upper tax bracket welfare. The nation simply can’t afford it.

It will be an opportunity for a generational budget that forces the government to show that its key public policy priorities – competitiveness, productivity incentive, a fair workplace, top to bottom education reform and disability care – are clear and sustainable.

The next task is to sell that policy priority.

And that won’t happen by standing in front of branded microphones in Canberra fending off questions about politics.

It will only happen by setting the scene – in the seven weeks before the budget – through one-on-one radio interviews from the prime minister down, through alternative media, and through direct contact with voters.

But the key is how the message is framed.

What it’s not about is policy in isolation, or dollars and cents. It’s about nation building, the Asian century and a contracting globe. It’s about connecting. In other words, it’s setting public policy within the framework of a big picture.  It’s what got both Clinton and Obama re-elected.

This is not a call for the re-election of this government. That won’t happen. It has no chance. It’s a call – in the prime minister’s final six months – to, finally, do the right thing by the country and think big. The budget will be the marker.

That six months on the calendar is set firm. Demands by the Opposition and media for an early election are just noise. A proposed vote of no confidence in this government in budget week will fail. Its lead-up will create headlines, but they will be only words.

The implosion has happened. The ground still shakes – but it will settle if the prime minister ignores the daily rubbish from observers. She has no choice but to govern and to prove she is far from the front page characterisation that got it forever and indelibly so wrong.

Alister Drysdale is a Business Spectator commentator and a former senior advisor to Malcolm Fraser and Jeff Kennett.