Julia ‘moving forward’ Gillard seems to be going backwards

Despite the surprise ditching of Kevin Rudd as Australia’s 26th prime minister last month, a large proportion of Australians heaved a sigh of relief when he walked the plank. True, he once enjoyed record levels of public support, but people had become heartily fed up by the time he was “assassinated”. Despite his tough talk about pulling Australia up by its bootstraps, there was a distinct lack of progress to show for it. Policy around issues such as climate change, asylum seekers and healthcare seemed confused and shambolic. Plus, Rudd proved to be a truly incomprehensible communicator.

So quite apart from the cheers that went up when Australia (belatedly) got its first female PM, there was a real sense of hope at Julia Gillard’s self-appointment. Here was a heavy-hitting woman, known for her straight-talking ways and sense of humour. Indeed, with former PM Bob Hawke – Australia’s beer-loving reformist – as her political idol, we assumed we’d be in for some conviction and some fun.

But just over a month since Gillard was sworn in, the buzz of the honeymoon has most definitely worn off. Call it Groundhog Day, but in Gillard, it feels like Australia didn’t just get another PM, it got another Kevin Rudd. In her first address as Labor party leader – speaking about the importance of “hard work” and setting your alarm clock “early” – Gillard was eerily reminiscent of Rudd’s 2007 vow that he would celebrate his election victory with a cup of tea and a biscuit. No partying people, there’s work to do!

The straight-talking Gillard has gone with the wind. Since the start of the federal election campaign, she has been driving Australians to distraction with meaningless catchphrases. As former prime ministerial speechwriter Don Watson observed, she used the phrase “moving forward” 24 times in five minutes when calling the election two weeks ago.

Despite the pleas of journalists and online mockery, she has no intention of stopping: “I believe it captures a spirit about Australia. We are a confident, optimistic, forward-looking people”. In the much-anticipated (insufferably boring) leaders’ debate earlier this week, it took less than 10 seconds before “moving forward” was mentioned.

Even more alarmingly, Gillard is not offering any new solutions to the issues dominating Australia’s public agenda. On climate change, Gillard has responded to public frustration at Rudd’s inaction by reaffirming that the government will do nothing until 2013. In the meantime, she has countered the stalemate with more talk, announcing a “Citizens Assembly” to thrash out the issues and build “consensus”.

The bungling of her government’s response to the increased number of asylum seekers has all the hallmarks of Rudd, who was famous for rushing policy decisions and dismissing consultation. After announcing that Australian-bound boats of asylum seekers may be diverted to East Timor for processing, it emerged Gillard had failed to get East Timor completely on board before doing so.

In healthcare, things look no rosier. Earlier this year, Rudd government adviser John Mendoza quit in protest over inaction on mental health. This week, Gillard bumped mental health from the election agenda, announcing it would be a “second-term” priority for her government – prompting outrage from mental heath experts, including 2010 Australian of the Year, Professor Patrick McGorry.

To be fair, Gillard has only been in the top job for a month and is trying to negotiate the perils of an election campaign, complete with damaging cabinet leaks and bizarre jokes about the size of her earlobes. But as the fresh new face of the Australian government, it seems counterintuitive, ridiculous even, that she is trying to win votes by doing her best impression of the man she deposed.

Judith Ireland, an Australian journalist and researcher in the Journalism and Media Research Centre at the University of New South Wales.