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Gillard and the ghost of Tampa

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COMMENTS

7 July 2010 12:11

Labor polling, focus groups and backbench MPs are all sending clear sentiments to the new Prime Minister. And Julia Gillard is echoing those messages back to the voters with all the force she can muster.

From opposition, Labor won the 2007 election by sticking closely to John Howard on key issues. In the 2010 election, Labor aims to hold office by sticking closely to John Howard on key issues.

Don't take the word of the commentariat. The professionals from both ends of the spectrum agree. From the Liberals, here is Alexander Downer on the beauty of the off-shore solution. From the Greens, here is Bob Brown on 'dog whistling' the electorate.

Julia Gillard's speech to the Lowy Institute was a reflection of the John Howard tactics Labor used in the 2007 election. It also carried echoes of the deep wounds Howard inflicted on Labor in the election of 2001, when the new age of terrorism merged with the asylum seeker drama played out on the Tampa.

So Gillard's speech seeks to encompass immigration and population and draw a series of links with border protection. You can hear the new Prime Minister trying to grapple with, and resolve, the messages coming to her from Labor pollies and the polling.

Give the Prime Minister points for directly discussing the way these messages are framed. She accepts the truth that the boat people arrivals are a relative trickle – 'it would take about 20 years to fill the Melbourne Cricket Ground with boat people.'* But to worry about this is not to be one of those 'rednecks in marginal seats...expressing a desire for a clear and firm policy to deal with a very difficult problem does not make you a racist.' For Labor, the Tampa memories run deep.

The reaching out to East Timor and New Zealand is a fascinating moment in the new Prime Minister's understanding of the region. Reflect that Kevin Rudd's first big foreign policy adventure was to head off to Bali to sign the Kyoto Agreement. This was international policy played as triumph. Julia Gillard first foreign policy venture plays as a desperate domestic manoeuvre.

The overture to East Timor underlines the crucial relationship we have with what I’ve called Australia's Arc. Australia has given security guarantees — formal or de facto — to most of the countries in the Arc, running from East Timor into the South Pacific. East Timor is now confronting the Nauru truth. Sometimes the guarantor wants something back.

*The MCG is clearly established as an Australian means of measurement. For quite a while, the way of giving Australians an accurate understanding of the size of their Defence Force has been to make the point that the ADF's total strength would fill half the MCG.

Photo by Flickr user iwona_kellie, used under a Creative Commons license.

 

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