By Tom Switzer
Congratulations are due to Julia Gillard, the first woman to become prime minister in this country. Feminists and Labor partisans are obviously happy, but the real news here may be that the Liberals and Nationals are equally as pleased. As a reward for hard work, Gillard's elevation to the top job is deserved. At age 48 and an MP for only 12 years, she has risen fast in ALP ranks and made a national mark on such issues as industrial relations and healthcare. She is smart, articulate and telegenic. She is also on the left wing of the ALP. And although factions owe more to personality and ambitions than to ideology these days, she is nevertheless a creature of the party's socialist culture that is divorced from the thoughts and attitudes of middle Australia. With close links to the trade union movement, which accounts for less than 15 per cent of the private workforce, she was a strident opponent of the waterfront reforms that have boosted productivity on our docks. Her close friends and mentors have included Mark Latham and Jim Cairns. In the wake of Kevin Rudd's downfall, many say the new Prime Minister should more clearly differentiate her government from the opposition and motivate the party's left-wing base. That means being more assertively committed to fighting climate change and softening border controls. But such a strategy would be counterproductive: it would alienate the battler vote. As Newspoll, AC Nielsen and reportedly both Liberal and Labor private polling indicate, the key voting constituencies that help turn federal elections are not the so-called doctors' wives from metropolitan Melbourne and Sydney who care passionately about boat arrivals and man-made global warming. The key voters are sections of the Australian working and lower-middle classes, most notably from the outer suburbs of Sydney and Brisbane and especially the sun-belt seats of Queensland. It was these people who formed John Howard's core support in his election wins, save the GST poll in 1998. It was these people to whom Kevin Rudd appealed in 2007. It was these people who fell out with Rudd over emissions trading and lax border controls. And it is these people to whom both Gillard and Tony Abbott will need to appeal in coming months. They were attracted to Howard for much of his 11∏ years in power because he championed Australian values, based on a robust patriotism and the repudiation of Paul Keating's elitist agenda. They turned off Howard in 2007 because they believed his WorkChoices and the rising costs of living threatened their personal security and prosperity. They felt reassured by Rudd, who went out of his way to mimic Howard on economic reform, gay marriage, border protection, anti-terror laws and the Aboriginal intervention. But they fell out with Rudd in recent months. Can Gillard win back this crowd? I doubt it, primarily because she and her party are wedged on several key issues that affect the battlers. Take climate change: Gillard insists that a re-elected Labor government would put a price on carbon, which is tantamount to raising prices all along the energy chain. If so, she should be forced to explain how the complicated cap-and-tax scheme affects living standards of lower-middle and working class groups. Not an easy task when nations such as China and India keep chugging along the smoky path to prosperity. Take refugees. Polls indicate that a broad cross-section of the community supports tough border protection policies. Since the Howard policies were softened 18 months ago, the unlawful arrivals have been accelerating and public confidence in the immigration system has been faltering. How Gillard reassures battlers that she is tough on boat arrivals while she woos her left-wing base on the side is a difficult challenge. Then there's the economy. Gillard will need to explain how she will plug the fiscal black hole bequeathed by the Labor government she concedes has "lost its way". Is she an economic reformer in the Keating-Costello mould or does she represent the second coming of Gough? Judging by her interventionist labour market policies, it's a fair bet she's uncomfortable with economic conservative ideas of encouraging incentives for risk-taking and wealth creation. In 1996, Howard wooed the battlers by lifting their aspirations, just as Rudd did in 2007. It is unlikely that Gillard can do likewise. Tom Switzer, a former senior Liberal adviser, is editor of The Spectator Australia and research associate at the United States Studies Centre, Sydney University.