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In fighting for the Labor leadership, Julia Gillard is in grave danger of making a serious mistake.

She knows that her polling is atrocious; she knows that Kevin Rudd is far more popular than she is and she knows that Kevin Rudd knows this.

After all, that’s why Kevin Rudd is calling for the Australian people to ring up their Labor MPs and make their views known. He knows the depth of his support.

This is why Gillard keeps saying that this is not “celebrity big brother”, but a question of who has the character to lead the nation. Who can deliver the hard reforms and who has the character you need to be Prime Minister. She argues passionately that she has what it takes to lead the nation and push through hard reforms. And she admits that they are hard reforms. And she admits that there is a political cost to delivering hard reforms. But she insists that she has the determination and capacity to pull it off.

She may be right. She is certainly a very tough fighter, and an excellent negotiator. She has pushes through hard reforms in an unforgiving parliament.

But look at her language.

She insists that the office for Prime Minister is not a popularity contest.

But the prime ministership is the highest office in a democratic government, so of course it is a popularity contest! Democracy is by nature and definition a popularity contest, and Gillard can’t change that.

Gillard is right to say there is a political cost to driving hard reform. That cost is unpopularity. There is nothing hard about delivering a reform everybody wants. To admit that she has been driving hard reform is to admit that the people don’t want what she’s offering. Yet she seems to think this is a strength, not a weakness.

Gillard is trying to promote her achievements, avoid Kevin Rudd’s strength (his popular support) and stamp her authority on this leadership challenge. She is trying to look like a leader who does hard things and gets things done.

The problem with this strategy is that in a democracy power comes from popular support. At least that’s what the people think. But the people are starting to suspect that party machinations and clever politics count for more to Labor than the voice of the voters. That is why Kevin Rudd’s popular appeal against the factions is so effective.

The Australian electorate is tired of political shenanigans they have no control over. For Gillard to deny that their prime ministership is a popularity contest is to remind the people how little control they have. To praise reforms the people don’t want is to remind the people what little say they have in their own government.

This language harms the relationship between the people (“demos”) and the power (“cracy”) that is essential for a healthy democracy. It increases the people’s frustration with Labor and especially with Gillard. Her fighting talk only compounds her problems.

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