The Australian Financial Review

by Tom Switzer

When Kevin Rudd won the 2007 election, conventional wisdom suggested Labor’s victory would mark a political realignment in Australia. Not only did the Coalition’s defeat spell the end of John Howard; we were told it signaled the nadir of conservatism and dawn of a new era of progressivism.

Somebody forgot to tell Julia Gillard.

Consider what the PM has done in the past month. She has backed down on her predecessor’s economically crushing mining industry super tax. She has changed Labor’s tune on asylum seekers and promised to toughen up border protection. She has repudiated a big spending fiscal policy and praised the economic reform agenda of Paul Keating and Peter Costello.

She has distanced herself from the emissions trading system. She has pledged her support for the war on terror in Afghanistan. She has thrown up the white flag in the culture wars, vacating the battlefield to Tony Abbott on citizenship, gay marriage and constitutional change. Add to this her opposition to teacher unions over league tables and schools curriculum, and it is no wonder some commentators have depicted her as Australia’s Margaret Thatcher.

It is a measure of Abbott’s success that the ALP not only ditched Kevin Rudd within months of his becoming opposition leader. It’s also installed a leader, Gillard, who either embraces Abbott’s positions or substantially modifies Labor policies to make them less threatening to Middle Australia.

All of which shows what conservatives have long believed about Australia: that we, like America, remain essentially a center-right nation.

In the US, Barack Obama’s liberal overreach is generating a strong conservative backlash. So much so that Republicans could even regain the House of Representatives and even the Senate in November’s mid-term elections.

In Australia, meanwhile, polls continue to show that the key voting groups that help turn federal elections are not the so-called small-l liberal elites from metropolitan Melbourne and Sydney who care passionately about refugees, multiculturalism and man-made global warming. The key voters are sections of the culturally conservative 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 during most of his 12 years in power. It was these people to whom Kevin Rudd appealed in 2007. And it is these people to whom both Gillard and Abbott will primarily appeal in coming weeks.

They may not read Edmund Burke but they are a temperamentally conservative lot, wary of change, believing that efforts to transform anything quickly will have, as Burke wrote, "pleasing commencements" but "lamentable conclusions".

In this political environment, it’s hardly surprising that Gillard is running as a don’t-rock-the-boat conservative. Just don’t believe her sincerity.

Take border protection. In 2007, Gillard said the Labor government was “committed to ending the so-called Pacific Solution, we would not have offshore processing in Manus Islan and Nauru.” Just last year she insisted: “We also said to the Australian people… we were going to end the Pacific Solution which had cost so much money for so little result.”

And now, 18 months after Labor substantially softened border controls, culminating in a huge increase in unlawful arrivals? Gillard proposes something that looks an awful lot like the Pacific Solution: processing refugees not in Nauru, but in East Timor. Apparently, asylum seekers have become such a red-hot button issue that internal ALP polling showed it would kill Labor’s chances of holding onto power if it did not toughen up policy.

Nor is border protection the only area where Gillard has done a volte face. Take climate change. Whereas until Copenhagen she deemed it blasphemy for Coalition MPs to dare question Labor’s plans to implement an ETS, today Gillard stresses there is no consensus for a complicated cap-and-tax scheme.

Of course, it makes no sense to raise prices up and down the energy chain in Australia when China, India, and the US are doing very little to reduce carbon emissions. A pledge to lead the world on slashing greenhouse gases may warm the hearts in Labor’s inner-city seats of Melbourne and Sydney’s Grayndler where Labor faces stiff opposition from the Greens.

But in the absense of a genuine global post-Kyoto deal, such grandstanding would be economic and political suicide. Economic, because it would threaten our energy intensive industries, and the accompanying jobs. Politically, because it would alienate the battlers in outer suburban seats who are mortgaged to the hilt.

The choice for the electorate on August 21, then, is clear: would Australians rather have a centre-right government led by a man who is sympathetic to their values, ideals, and lifestyles? Or a pale imitation playing catch-up, led by a woman hoping no one notices her sudden change of heart?

Tom Switzer, a former senior Liberal adviser, is editor of Spectator Australia and a research associate at the United States Studies Centre, Sydney University.