There is a gathering storm about Julia Gillard’s leadership. Pundits express learned opinions about the leadership she exhibits, and more stridently about what they believe she ought to. Some predict that she will never make the grade. Mungo MacCallum believes she is an example of the ‘Peter Principle’, elevated beyond her capabilities. So does retired columnist Alan Ramsay promoting his new book on ABC 774 Melbourne radio this week.
Nothing much has changed since I wrote: The enigma of leadership
on 15 August of last year. It is worth re-reading.
There was another piece on 12 August 2009: Brendan Nelson says leadership is everything - how does Malcolm Turnbull rate?
Then there was What does Julia Gillard stand for?
on 21 November and What does Tony Abbott stand for?
on 7 December. Both focused on leadership.
Still further back there was The media’s specifications for an Australian PM
on 14 June that outlined some expectations. I won’t go over that ground again, but it’s as legitimate now as it was when it was written.
Today’s talk about Gillard seems different though. Although ‘vision’ is still mentioned, the focus now seems to be on her appearance, her way of speaking, her demeanour, her face to the world. David Williamson, cashing in on his reputation of Australia’s greatest playwright, seems to be the one who first used ‘wooden’ to describe Julia’s performance through the flood and cyclone crises. He expected her to be more animated, more theatrical (even if artificial), to have projected more empathy when making statements about them, notwithstanding the acknowledged difficulty of playing ‘second fiddle’ to Anna Bligh whose responsibility was to keep Queenslanders informed, a task she performed brilliantly and with feeling. It was never going to be possible for Gillard to match her, a fact most observers acknowledge. Yet she was demeaned for her performance by Tony Abbott and many journalists who quickly picked up on the ‘wooden’ epithet, and repeated it endlessly. In fact the first Q&A
for this year devoted a large part of its discussion to this attribute, so much so it became boring with ‘wooden’ repeated over and again. It was the same on the first Insiders
for 2011. Groupthink took hold and ‘wooden’ was the ‘word of the day’. Journalists use the word in almost every comment about Gillard’s demeanour.
So what is wrong? What do they expect?
It seems as if they expect more animation, more ‘sincerity’, less ‘political-speak’. Yet her role in the crises was not to explain what was going on, or to utter warnings, but what the federal Government was going to do to alleviate the distress – army support, grants for those bereft of possessions, promises of long term relief and rebuilding, mobilizing all the Government’s resources to tackle the emergency and its aftermath – not exactly a breath-taking role that invited lively animation. So how did they expect her to bring to that task the animation Bligh was so easily able to bring to hers? If they had taken a moment to think, not something many journalists do in this pacy media environment, they would have realized that this was not possible or even appropriate. As one commentator observed, Gillard was under pressure to make accurate statements about what the federal Government had committed itself to do, and so needed to watch every word lest a slip-up occur for which the media and the Opposition would pillory her relentlessly. Indeed many of Gillard’s public statements are in that category, and push her into cautious mode where every word is critical. Try being animated when trying to speak with legalistic precision.
Another criticism of Gillard has been her performance among victims of the disasters. She has not been properly attired, she has lacked empathy, and she has been stilted among those affected, so they say. All this of course is a matter of opinion. For my part, she has seemed to be sincere, helpful, willing to embrace the distressed, able to mix it with emergency personnel. I ask, what else did they expect? Did she do anything different to what Bligh did when she was out and about with the people? Take a look at the footage – don’t accept the perceptions of journalists with their inbuilt biases, afflicted by groupthink, looking for what they hope to see. When attire becomes the critical focus of media attention, what on earth has journalism come to?
Yet despite these criticisms, several commentators agree that her address to the NPC and her Australia Day speech were sound and well presented. They were important speeches, but what have we heard of them? Presumably, in the eyes of the media, they were not able to compensate for her ‘wooden’ ones. When you’re on to a good descriptor, stick to it and flog it to death!
On the first Insiders
for the year, Dennis Atkins made a cogent point – that the political context in which Gillard’s speeches are now being made is that of a Government that hasn’t got the authority that most governments do, that she has to negotiate everything through the legislative process, and that as a result she is rather stilted and legalistic. Yet Atkins insisted that if her Government had a solid majority, most of her speeches would be seen as appropriate, even lauded. Context is always important, but how many journalists are even vaguely aware of this?
Lenore Taylor pointed out the difficulties John Howard had in his early days with his shoulder twitch and his eyebrows, elements of his presentations that our superficial media people pathetically thought were of great import. She felt Gillard would grow into her role, especially as she notched up legislative successes.
Then of course there is incessant talk about ‘the real Julia’. Show us ‘the real Julia’ the commentators chorus. Have they considered that ‘the real Julia’ has many parts? Sometimes serious and even legalistic when spelling out her program; sometimes animated when answering questions as she was on Four Corners
last week where she performed well, sometimes joking with the interviewer; and assured, smiling, even animated in press conferences. Surely we all govern our behaviour to fit the occasion. Why not Gillard?
If you haven’t seen her condolence address at the commencement of Parliamentary sittings last week, please do so. You will see snippets on TV; the whole address shows ‘the real Julia’: comprehensive, sincere, earnest, articulate and emotional, yes emotional to the point of tears. Some will insist that this is the fake Julia; Williamson would likely say she was well rehearsed like any good play actor. Anyone with a modicum of perspicacity would see the very real Julia with her feelings laid bare for all to see.
Tony Abbott’s condolence speech, while workmanlike, while giving due acknowledgement to the Government’s response and Julia’s presence among the victims, could be classed by comparison as somewhat stilted, even ‘wooden’, like so many of his pronouncements. If you want to see a supremely wooden, and at times mute performance, take a look at his interview with Channel Seven’s Mark Riley over the ‘shit happens’ remark Abbott made on a visit to Afghanistan.
Look at Julia Gillard’s performance in the House last week, which even critics acknowledge was good. Look at her press conference last Friday to announce changes to health reform and you will see someone on the top of her game, across the detail, able to answer any question articulately and accurately. Not the wooden Julia that journalists love to lampoon. Of course she talks slowly, and has a broad Aussie accent, but that is Julia. For goodness sake, let’s get used to it and attend to what she says rather than how she says it.
How much longer will the ‘wooden’ slogan be used? When will the media become tired of it and seek another? I long for the day when they put this tiresome mantra back in its box and strike a more imaginative phrase. It’s boring, inaccurate, inappropriately applied, and serves only to demean and make this pejorative label stick harder, perhaps to the point where it can’t be removed. I suppose though that is what is intended.
So what do the people want? My guess is that they do not fully know. There are vague notions out there about what leaders ought to do, what they ought to look like, what they ought to say, how sincere they ought to look. But ask a hundred people and you will likely get a multitude of answers. So who conditions the people to a way of thinking? Largely it is the media, who through slogans, ten second grabs, poor research and superficial analyses regrettably lead the people up the garden path.
What do you think?