Gillard's commission for change

After 12 months of fevered leadership speculation, the ground is settling for Julia Gillard. And her Royal Commission into child sex abuse has shown governments can do big things.

As the political year meanders to an end we are all reminded of that great truism: if a week is a long time in politics, then 12 months is eternity.
Just hark back.

Almost every pundit beavering away at almost every news organisation was predicting the end of Julia Gillard and the rebirth of Saint Kevin. An early election was a near certainty. Editorials even demanded such an event.

Week after week, program after program, Richo after Reith after Hewson after Latham said it was only a matter of days.

Many even demanded she quit.

The contest between Gillard and Rudd happened. It was a slaughter. Gillard had to find a new foreign minister. Bob Carr was the stand-out, according to the press gallery. But she botched that too – until, she didn’t. Ah, the gasps as she strode into the press conference with Carr at her aide.

The Craig Thomson farce lingered as FWA fell over backwards not to do their job. Gillard had no choice but to "fall on her sword”. Peter Slipper stood aside – another tainted vote. More demands came for an election to "clear the air”.

Weeks and months passed and the polls were a disaster for a government seemingly lost in its own intestines.

Then July 1 came and – nothing happened. Despite Barnaby’s predictions, Australians could still afford their roast lamb.

We know the rest. The polls started to edge back with the ALP still facing defeat, not decimation. Gillard’s approval ratings lifted slowly after she turned attention to education reforms, NDIS, budget management – and the issue of how we benefit from the Asian Century.

In between she faced the Canberra press gallery on long past – but legitimate – issues of her time as a lawyer.

That too was another turning point. "I’m here, as long as it takes, give me anything you’ve got and I’ll answer," was the attitude. Voters agreed with her tactic and her openness and her answers. She was backed by her former employer.

The current little internal game being played out on the front pages and the tabloid columns about a supposed, maybe, $5,000 cheque paid, perhaps, if my hazy memory serves me right, to Gillard, is called news. The media’s lawyers have made sure the right caveats are added in every story. In reality, it’s a non-news farce.

Now with just a week of the House of Representatives left this year, the unthinkable has happened. Tony Abbott has become the story for many.

He’s faced accusations as well of behaviour from a distant past. He’s faced criticism of his political tactics in continuing to focus on the carbon tax. His missteps, authentic or otherwise – standard fare for any opposition leader – are being magnified.

Twelve months ago an Abbott slip-up may have made page 15 but today it makes page one or three. Commentary has started to focus on the meaning and viability of Opposition policies.

Abbott is also quietly altering his role and tone, as I pointed out two weeks ago (Abbott's changing the sermon, November 5). He’s leaving the dirt to others and starting to argue some fresh policy ideas, including the family worrying issue of cyber safety.

Gillard is preferred prime minister, according to public opinion. Of course, it’s almost inevitable that these results favours the incumbent, according to history.

And in the past week or so, the ground has settled even more.

We watched live as Obama was convincingly re-elected, with a resounding delegate victory and a three million popular vote win. The big issues in America were the economy, jobs and fairness for the middle class. He won the female vote, and the vote of minorities and urbanites. He defied Rupert’s urgings. There’s a lesson there.

Of course, the prime minister's announcement of a Royal Commission into child sex abuse by state and private institutions has dominated domestic news over the past few days. It showed that governments can do big things, and control the agenda.

The atheist Gillard has done the right thing. So has the Catholic Tony Abbott with his unequivocal support and early call.

Australians are horrified at what they are hearing from the Baillieu government’s parliamentary inquiry, ABC current affair programs and elsewhere. Cardinal Pell’s vain and embarrassing self-serving defence of his organisation has alone validated the political decision to proceed with a Royal Commission.

It will take years and cost untold tens of millions or more, but its effect will be cathartic and permanent. It has public support today that will never wain.

So, the fevered speculation and repetitious editorial demands of 12 months ago regarding Gillard’s standing and character is but a distant echo.

The game has changed. While voters can be attracted to the thrust and heat of the daily political contest, in the end they want strong, steady and principled leadership and decent public policy that passes the smell test of a 'fair go' – while, all the time, still yearning for a coherent vision.

And they want exactly all of that from the alternative government of the day, as well. Playing games just doesn’t cut it.

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