Time to pinpoint Gillard's irresponsibility

The weight of Kevin Rudd's deposition lives on in futile attacks over Julia Gillard's Slater & Gordon role. It should be focused on the prime minister's asylum policy failures.

Who can forget that teary, rambling, emotional roller-coaster of a performance by Kevin Rudd just hours after Julia Gillard had deposed him as prime minister.

More than two years have flown by, but the memories of Rudd’s excruciatingly painful farewell to the prime ministership remains vivid, unforgettable.

But it’s hard to remember much about what he actually said. Much of what he said was self-indulgent, but one thing he said was prophetic.

He warned that with his removal, there would likely be a sharp move to the right on asylum seeker policies by a Gillard-led Labor government.

At the time, no-one much paid attention to this warning about what would happen to Labor’s boat people policies if Julia Gillard became prime minister. Looking back, Rudd clearly knew something about Gillard and her supporters, especially in the New South Wales Right, that wasn’t apparent at the time.

At Gillard’s post-victory news conference and in the days immediately following her win it became clear that Rudd knew what he was talking about. The government under Gillard’s leadership would indeed end up as hardline on asylum seekers as the Howard government had been.

At that first press conference, Gillard justified deposing Rudd because, she said, a good government had lost its way. This was a lame and disingenuous explanation and justification for deposing a first-term prime minister.

Gillard had to fight the 2010 election with the weight of this excuse for Rudd’s demise weighing on her credibility and legitimacy. Rudd of course made sure everyone understood the outrage that had been committed against him.

Gillard has not fully recovered from the fiasco of that post victory explanation for why she had agreed to Rudd’s removal as prime minister. It still weighs on her leadership. Just look at the potential damage that is being done to her by the raking over of her work 20 years ago as a solicitor for Slater & Gordon.

This exhaustive and exhausting examination by journalists and the coalition of Gillard’s role as a solicitor in establishing an Australian Workers Union fund which involved her then boyfriend Bruce Wilson, who was a senior AWU official, has been and remains, mind-numbingly opaque.

Scores of stories by journalists at The Australian, and now by journalists at Fairfax Media, have been published about this affair. Most recently, the ABC and the commercial news networks have joined the fray. No doubt journalists are herd animals.

Yet it remains unclear what Gillard has to answer for, except that she had a boyfriend who turned out to be more than a little dodgy. Virtually every story published has stated explicitly that there is no suggestion that Gillard had acted illegally. There is no 'smoking gun.’

Nothing has changed as a result of deputy opposition leader Julie Bishop’s relentless questioning of Gillard in parliament. The questioning has been relentless but fruitless.

And Tony Abbott has looked increasingly uncomfortable sitting there in silence at the dispatch box as Bishop has pursued Gillard, taunted by Gillard to get up the courage to ask a question himself instead of leaving it all to his (female) deputy.

It is hard to imagine that any former prime minister could have been subjected to such sustained media and opposition scrutiny over something that was in their distant past and based on such a paucity of evidence of wrongdoing.

Julie Gillard came to be PM in circumstances that were unprecedented and then was unable or unwilling to forthrightly justify her role in the Rudd removal. As a result, she was unable to clearly establish her legitimacy.

And the result of the 2010 election did nothing much to establish her legitimacy.

But Gillard did more than offer her justification for Rudd’s removal at that press conference after she had vanquished Rudd. She talked about what needed to be fixed – the mining tax was the main issue – and she talked about her vision for Australia.

Her vision consisted in part of a rejection of Rudd’s 'big Australia’. She did not support the size of Australia’s migration program. She was for 'sustainable’ population growth. Australia’s migration intake was too large.

Context is everything. A short time after that press conference, Gillard boarded an Australian coastguard patrol boat with a Labor MP from one of those crucial western Sydney electorates in tow. She said she wanted to acknowledge the role of the coastguard in protecting Australia’s borders.

She was committed to border protection. She didn’t spell it out, but there’s no doubt that Gillard was talking about protecting Australia’s borders from boatloads of asylum seekers.

Her proclaimed opposition to a 'big’ Australia and that coast guard boat ride were connected. Gillard was signalling that unlike Rudd, she understood that the voters of western Sydney wanted migration scaled back and wanted a tougher policy on asylum seekers. She connected the dots where in reality, no connection existed.

She would deliver for those voters in western Sydney electorates that Labor needed to survive. Gillard’s position was, it seems, based wholly on political considerations. Rudd was right. His removal would eventually mean a move to the right under Gillard on asylum seeker policy.

After the fiasco of the Timor plan, after the failed Malaysia solution, after the excision of the whole of Australia from the country’s migration zone, after the Houston committee’s recommendations, political considerations remain at the heart of the Gillard government’s treatment of asylum seekers.

Apart from inflammatory, indeed disgraceful rhetoric from Tony Abbott, there’s hardly any daylight between this Labor government’s asylum seeker policy and that of the opposition. Rudd was right about what would happen if he was deposed as prime minister.

There are many people who believe the Labor Party no longer stands for very much. It is a party in need of renewal. It has lost touch with its reason for being and its connection with its roots. This is not entirely true. There is much that this Labor government can point to that any Labor government would willingly own.

But a Labor government that has more or less abandoned a commitment to international humanitarianism when it comes to asylum seekers, has lost its way as a social democratic party.

The fact that dealing with the asylum seeker issue is difficult and complicated is no excuse. We live in a difficult and complicated world in which tens of millions of people are displaced and living hopeless and helpless lives.

The Slater & Gordon affair will, in all probability, prove to be much ado about nothing much at all. It’s highly unlikely that anything will emerge that will nail Gillard as a wrongdoing lawyer 20 years ago.

But Julia Gillard is responsible for her government’s fiascos and moral failures when it comes to Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers.

She is responsible for the fact that her government has adopted virtually every policy position that in the eyes of many voters, was a stain on the Howard government’s time in office.

The irony is of course that nothing her government has done to asylum seekers or, for that matter, the nonsense she spoke about ditching the idea of a 'big Australia’, will save Labor from an electoral disaster in those western Sydney seats.

It will all have been for nothing.