The PM who would be premier

Julia Gillard has been campaigning as though she wants to be NSW premier. In her desperate position, the local circus is the only hope for 'cut through' against an opponent who's been on his own election trail since 2010.

It was going to be like this even if Julia Gillard had not announced the date of the election, an election which anyway was more than likely to have been called for the first half of September.

This election year was bound to be one long election campaign even had Gillard waited with the election announcement until the last possible moment.

There are several reasons why this would have been the case.

Tony Abbott has been in campaign mode from the time Gillard formed her minority government after the 2010 election.

From the start, Abbott’s strategy was to bring down the Gillard government as quickly as possible and force it to an election. The 2010 election campaign did not end for Abbott with the establishment of the Gillard government.

Abbott never considered the result 'fair’ even though he probably reluctantly accepted its strictly legal legitimacy.

It wasn’t fair because the two New South Wales independents came from conservative electorates, electorates that voted by a fair margin for coalition candidates in the senate.

And so most days, often day after day, Abbott offered up photo opportunities of him visiting every factory and a fair number of the small businesses in the industrial suburbs outside of Canberra. He was relentless with these visits, just as he was relentless in repeating over and over again the slogans about boats and the carbon and mining taxes.

And about how Gillard had lied her way into office by promising no carbon tax and then promptly delivering one.

Abbott’s great strength as opposition leader has been his sustained campaigning and the discipline with which he has campaigned over almost two years now. This relentlessness and discipline has clearly turned off some voters, but it has helped make the coalition almost certain winners of the September 14 election.

As for the Gillard government, the idea that it could spend most of the election year 'governing’, was absurd. There was nothing wrong with Gillard announcing the election date eight months out from the poll, except for all the things that went wrong immediately after the announcement.

Who knew that a day or so after the announcement, Craig Thomson would be charged with fraud or that Eddie Obeid would be such a compelling and interesting witness at the New South Wales ICAC inquiry?

Yes, you could argue that someone should have known, but that’s another story.

Announcing the date of the election was one thing but how Gillard framed the announcement was really stupid. And literally unbelievable.

There was almost something liturgical about her line that there was 'a time for governing and a time for campaigning’ and that at this time, she was governing. You have to wonder who writes this stuff for her even if the sentiment is all her own.

Here was a government awash with leadership speculation and with a caucus full of media tarts, hysterical, wondering out loud with journalists what they would do if they lose their seats.

In these circumstances, surely even Gillard should have realised that this idea that she would 'govern’ until the official campaign in August was ridiculous and would be perceived that way by most people.

People aren’t stupid. They know this government really has no other way to 'cut through’ – announcing policies, rabbiting on about the number of bills they’ve passed is not working to say the least – than to campaign, full-on, promising locally targeted stuff while recommitting to the big national projects. And to be as negative about Abbott as possible.

And that’s what Gillard is trying to do out there in western Sydney. That’s what she’s going to do in other regions of Australia from now until September 14. Abbott of course will be out there with her. Abbott is always there to greet her.

And he was there to greet her when she arrived and checked in to that rather modest Rooty Hill hotel. As it turns out, the rather bizarre climate change denier Lord Monckton, who had taken a room in the very same hotel, was planning a greeting of his own.

Then there’s the media. There’s nothing like a campaign to give you a range of stunts and talking point grabs – colour and movement – that you can run as news updates all day long on digital media and which can be produced at relatively low cost.

Covering a campaign is relatively easy and relatively cheap which is the main criteria it seems, for what gets covered, given the cuts in journalist numbers at a time when digital media needs new 'stories’ every minute or so in order to keep eyeballs coming to websites and mobile devices.

It is therefore disingenuous for some journalists to pretend a sort of cynical world-weariness, almost disappointment, about the fact that what lies ahead is six of months of western Sydney style circuses. The western Sydney circus very quickly degenerated into a dog whistle contest between Gillard and Abbott about foreign workers and asylum seekers. There’s more of this coming as well.

What is strange about the western Sydney campaign this week is how much it feels like a local campaign with virtually no resonance outside of the target area. It has been focused on issues – roads, gun violence, gangs – for which the state government is responsible and about which most people outside western Sydney don’t give a proverbial.

Gillard is a diminished prime minister, and not just because she is likely to lose the next election. Neither Paul Keating nor John Howard, who were clearly heading for defeat in 1996 and 2007 respectively, were thus diminished.

This is in part due to political ineptness, in part because Tony Abbott has attacked her so ferociously and successfully and in large part because Kevin Rudd is there, always there, as an alternative leader.

Not only has Julia Gillard lost – and she had it for a few months late last year – most of the advantage that goes with being an incumbent prime minister in an election campaign, she has sounded more and more like someone who wants to be the premier of New South Wales.

You have to admire Gillard’s determination to keep campaigning. She has nothing really going for her. Her MPs are in despair, including her supporters, and the media almost daily presenting us with another draft version of her political obituary.

You have to wonder whether, like Keating before the 1996 election, Gillard is inside a bubble, isolated, a bubble in which she is able to believe the election can still be won.


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