Julia Gillard should not get too excited just because her poll results are a fraction better.
Maxine McKew, former Labor MP and former long-time ABC commentator, injected some reality to the current assessment of the PM's political standing when she said in last Sunday's Age ( 20 November 2011):
"There is no doubt ...Abbott has cut through with a clarity that people are finding compelling and comprehensive".
Of course the PM looks like she will finish the year in slightly less dreadful strife than has been expected. The Queen's visit, attendance at APEC, abandoning Labor's policy on uranium sales to India, supporting free trade and agreeing to the stationing of US marines in Darwin are positive steps for an Australian PM. But, not very positive, when the background of these decisions are better understood and especially if the implementation falters.
The three issues, marines, free trade and uranium are not new.
Support for selling uranium to India was announced by the Howard government before 2007. Labor, under Kevin Rudd, reversed that policy, so Julia Gillard, as a senior Cabinet Minister, has been part of the problem. But at least her backflip and inferred recognition of Labor's past mistake is welcome.
Apparently, this initiative was encouraged by the US. The US could see that Australia needs to improve its standing with India and the removal of the uranium issue paves the way for better Australia-India relations. In turn, Australia can play a more useful role in regional security matters. India's population is expected to exceed Chinese population by mid-century and as India is also a democracy, the relationship with India is going to become ever-more important. Australia needs to work harder on the relationship and a prod from the US has done PM Gillard no harm whatsoever. Labor is slowly being dragged to accept that the use of uranium for power generation is not the taboo subject that it has been for too long. Maybe one day, the sale to India will be seen as opening the option for Australia to buy American nuclear powered submarines.
The concept of free trade in our region is also not new. It was at the core of APEC's Bogor Declaration in 1994 which set the objective of free trade by 2020 with some meeting the objective earlier by 2010. In the meantime, of the nine parties interested in the proposed Trans Pacific Partnership, most already have free trade agreements with Australia. It is good policy to promote free trade but back at home the Gillard Government is funding foreign car companies with taxpayer monies in breach of the spirit of free trade now championed by her government.
PM Gillard has also taken a lead from the US on stationing marines in Darwin. John Howard did a great job in promoting our close ties with the US. Coalition ministers advanced the idea of stationing marines in Darwin to US counterparts prior to the 2007 election. PM Gillard has now taken another step. It is in Australia's interest that our military alliance with the US should be renewed and expanded. Our military alliance is not aimed at any country. It is aimed at ensuring that we have the military capability to meet any contingency. The defence of Australia must be the highest priority of any government. Working closely with our allies can only enhance Australia's defence. If one day in the future, there was a benefit in having a US base on our soil, then the latest arrangement will be seen as a step on that road.
Pinching your opponent's policy can be a good idea if the policy is right but it does raise the prospect that some voters might think that if Labor keeps implementing Coalition policy then voters might as well vote for the Coaltion.
And whilst good policy usually ends up as good politics, when the stench of hypocrisy is so strong, it is hard to believe that the public will fall for the spin of the last week. And, in the medium term, if nothing is agreed on free trade, then the pall of failure will only encourage disappointment. The PM has partially followed the Coalition on asylum seeker policy and yet failures on implementation have left her floundering.
Many in the Labor Party will also be confused about Labor's views on issues now abandoned by PM Gillard. President Obama has not closed Guantanamo Bay. If John Howard was still PM, Labor would have demanded that Howard raise the issue with Mr Obama. Of course, with Democrat president Obama, the matter was never raised. Likewise, the PM could have told him that the US was on the wrong side of history on the climate change debate, but that point was merely ammunition against Tony Abbott, not the US president.
The current, and probably temporary, lull in the carbon tax debate has helped Ms Gillard. Her carbon tax policy undermines her poll results for various reasons including the obvious fact that Australia is way out in front of international opinion on the issue so nothing we do will make any discernible difference to the world's climate. In contrast, her recent forays on more practical policy issues have seemingly had an impact for the PM and thus suggest that the PM's obsession with the carbon tax has been a negative for her. As soon as she moved off the carbon tax she has looked more confident.
In the meantime, it takes two to tango in the polls. The Opposition has dumped long-standing policy on superannuation, raised questions about fiscal policy, opened a new front on anti-dumping that might undermine free trade and squibbed on IR policy. Few, if any, of these Coalition policies have generated widespread support and some initiatives, undertaken without party room support, have met with strong internal resistance.
If Gillard can keep off the carbon tax, especially over the summer break, she will deny Abbott his negative campaign and unless he can go on the front foot, her polls will lift again. But a little lift here and there, especially whilst Labor's primary vote remains disastrously low, is not a substantive response to the political drubbing that the PM has suffered in 2011 at the hand of a very effective Opposition Leader. The chances are that he will continue to cut through and PM Gillard will need to announce many more Howard policies if she wants to remain in the Lodge.