Fight first, negotiate later
EASTER - surely an appropriate time for Julia Gillard to break the mould of her prime ministership and declare peace.
After all her long-time foe Kevin Rudd is now finally vanquished and, as the humble backbench member for Griffith, once again off to tour the furthest reaches of the Earth.
He is unlikely to disappear from the news altogether; a Rudd- obsessed media will see to that. But if not entirely out of sight, he can be considered out of mind, which gives Gillard the breathing space to reassess the situation and to decide if, at last, it is time to give peace a chance.
It is true that as the leader of a minority government and the first woman to hold the office she has been the target of unremitting hostility from large sections of the media; she did not start all the battles.
But she has certainly given as good as she gets, and in recent times appears to adopt the somewhat unchristian slogan of the late unlamented Joh Bjelke- Petersen: Do unto others as they would do unto you, but do it first.
And this has meant that Australia has become a country somewhat like Oceania in George Orwell's dystopia 1984 - always at war with somebody, somewhere. It doesn't matter whom, let alone why. War is the natural state of things. War is Peace.
Thus every announcement becomes a new bulletin from some front or other; good news only means a transitory victory in the never ending struggle against the enemy, whoever it may be.
To be fair, it did not start with Gillard, or with Rudd. John Howard had his own feuds and vendettas against the unions and asylum seekers and the so-called elites, to name but three. But Howard always maintained that he was trying to unite the populace, not divide it - that he was governing for all Australians.
"The things that unite us are greater than the things that divide us," he proclaimed constantly.
In practice this was not quite true. Not only did he make every attempt to demonise and marginalise his enemies, but he lavishly rewarded his friends (and those he sought to make his friends) with tax cuts and handouts. But he maintained the façade. His announcements were always couched in terms of the public good. For instance, the massive re-direction of funds from public health and education to the private sector was always portrayed as reforms in the best interests of patients and pupils.
But when the government changed, so did the story.
As the Global Financial Crisis took hold, Kevin Rudd penned an essay denouncing the failure of the advocates of free market capitalism, which of course included the business establishment of Australia. And in 2010 his long-awaited response to Ken Henry's tax review was not to take a broad approach to reform, but to attack the mining industry for not paying its fair share.
He may have been factually correct, but it was a political blunder which Gillard was to magnify and repeat. She mended fences with the miners, but only by capitulating to their demands.
Immediately afterwards her new deputy, Wayne Swan, made it clear that the war was far from over with a savage personalised assault on some of the mining magnates.
Instead of attempting genuine tax reform by an inclusive process that brought the parties together in the manner of Bob Hawke's famous summits, it was "us against them", no holds barred.
In trying to implement Andrew Wilkie's demands for measures to protect gambling addicts, Gillard took the same approach to the clubs industry, with the same result - a politically costly back down.
It was not all defeat. Nicola Roxon's head-on clash with the tobacco industry over plain packaging ended with a spectacular victory. But the atmosphere was always one of crisis, of confrontation, of resorting to battle without having tried negotiation first.
Gillard spelled out her approach in her speeches to the AWU and ACTU conferences this year: She was with the workers and the unions, no ifs and no buts, one side right and one side wrong, and she would not be taking a backward step. And she didn't.
The next confrontation was Stephen Conroy's ultimatum on media reform. It invited and received massive retaliation and ended in tears. And now Gillard and Swan are preparing for a showdown with the superannuation industry ...
There is a better way to achieve your aims. Bob Hawke and Paul Keating showed that there was.
And even if Gillard lacks the vision and resources available to those two grandmasters of politics, she could always emulate Howard and finesse things through using cunning and trickery. But it appears that she has decided to go further back in history for her inspiration, to Gough Whitlam and his all or nothing maxim, crash through or crash.
But even here she has missed the point. Before Whitlam reached the point of no return, he spent months, even years, in careful preparation; the cultivation of allies, the discussion of tactics, painstaking surveys of the battleground. And even then it was a weapon of last resort, only to be used after all other strategies had failed. With Gillard, it appears to be her first and only choice.
It must be some small comfort to know that her enemies frequently adopt exactly the same approach.
Is there anything sillier than to read in The Australian constant exhortations to Gillard to be more consultative, more ready to listen to abroad range of opinion, more - yes - tolerant of dissent?
This, while every other page of the paper is devoted to Rupert Murdoch's Generalissimo Chris Mitchell's crusades against union bosses, the Greens, the ABC, the Fairfax press, public school teachers, intellectuals, chardonnay quaffers, latte sippers, political correctness, Julian Assange, Tim Flannery ...
But of course, that's all right. That's a free press just doing its job. Julia Gillard's in a quite different position. I mean, it's not as if Rupert Murdoch and Chris Mitchell are trying to run the country. Well, is it?