The 'real' Julia needs new advisors

Julia Gillard had the chance to get on the communications front foot yesterday, but as we've come to expect it was another missed opportunity.

The Prime Minister's media conference yesterday was another reminder of why Julia Gillard should sack her entire communications staff, and start afresh. Send them all to whichever beach former advisor Tony Hodges is sitting on (one hopes he's had the sense to fly somewhere nice) and do her own comms if necessary. She could hardly do worse.

From the start, the story of the Gillard government has been a series of missed communications opportunities. The PM has played her role and spoken her lines. Ministers and backbenchers have dutifully memorised daily talking points. And the public perception of Labor has slid steadily lower (albeit with some relief in the four-point primary vote lift in this week's Nielsen poll).

There was a small buzz yesterday that the PM was showcasing a feisty 'new Julia' by aggressively selling Labor's economic successes and job-creating/preserving measures for the future. That would be a 'new-new-Julia', one supposes, after her advisors let her make a fool of herself during the 2010 election campaign with the 'real Julia' nonsense.

For all the tough talking yesterday about how Tony Abbott would enjoy watching 46,000 auto workers lose their jobs, and how Labor's commitment to prop up those jobs was just the realpolitik of a global market in which everyone subsidises their auto sectors, the low-hanging fruit for the prime minister was left ungrabbed.

Asked by a reporter what she thought of Bob Brown's suggestion that she was copping too much flak as a result of 'subconscious' sexism among male media commentators, Gillard simply said she'd spoken on that before, and had nothing to add.

Why? She's spoken on the economy before too, and seems happy to repeat ad nauseam the lines on who saved the economy during the GFC, how many jobs have been created, and what would happen in difficult economic times if Tony Abbott's $70 billion budget-cutting agenda is ever realised.

By ducking the sexism question – presumably because that's what her all-powerful advisors told her to do – she leaves Bob Brown looking statesmanlike (okay, statesperson-like). Why should his be the only voice raised above the hubbub to remind us of the subtle ways Australian women do it tougher than blokes?

Saint Bob can be many things, but he'll never be a woman. The PM is uniquely placed to, with that somewhat patronising laugh, brush aside the idea that she's being victimised by male commentators – and then, in the next breath, to remind bosses across Australia that this indeed is still part of the life of Australian women.

With slightly more than 50 per cent of voters cocking an ear to what she has to say on the subject (and a good percentage of the other half of voters), she says nothing.

She might just as well have sent a runner over to Senator Brown's office with a note saying something like:

"Well done for pointing out that sexual discrimination is still a big problem in Australia; that it's mostly unconscious rather than a calculated evil; and that we all need to be vigilant on this issue ... PS: you can collect the votes on that one Bob! I've got more than enough. Julia xx"

Let me stress again – the PM does not need to accept Brown's premise that it is men frustrating her political career. She simply needs to acknowledge a problem that faces many talented women every day. Whoever is feeding Gillard the instruction to duck such questions, man or woman, should be shown the door.

As the parliamentary year begins, the Gillard team holds some powerful cards in 'sellable' policy terms, though you'd hardly know it by reading the papers.

In 2011, as promised, Labor defied the odds to pass a reform of epic magnitude – putting a price on carbon pollution that from 2015 will be set by the market. In the same moment it created a set of tax reforms that, besides boosting workforce participation and productivity, will be a major incentive to more than half the population to vote Labor at a 2013 election. That's right, a bribe to get the tax/ETS over the line.

But that knowledge will be spread not predominantly through the newspapers or TV news, but at the ATM or in bank statements, because even this 'good news' for so many Australians is lost in Labor's desultory communications performance. Too much effort is going into fighting fires of the Hodges or Craig Thomson variety, and too little is spent on crafting the cut-through messages that Tony Abbott is so good at; messages that resonate with voters rather than with the political classes.

The mining tax, which is now under consideration of the Senate Economics Committee, may yet be tweaked, but is unlikely to be defeated, having already passed the lower house. That legislation should give the government massive leverage with voters who probably don't know that the mining sector is still roughly the same size, as a proportion of GDP, as the manufacturing sector. Most probably don't know that it employs far fewer workers and, because of skyrocketing wages, pulls down national productivity figures despite the best efforts of our smartest manufacturers.

Voters don't know for sure (but have the uneasy feeling) that allowing manufacturing to collapse carries big costs, both long and short term – not only because taxpayers incur the huge cost of social services for laid-off workers, but because the cost of rebuilding industries such as auto-manufacturing 'after the boom' would likely prove to be prohibitive.

There's a lot of things about Labor's reform agenda voters don't know. And if Julia Gillard's advisors can't tell them, perhaps the prime minister should do it herself.


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