Sometimes, I think somebody should hand Gillard a hardbound copy of Plutarch’s Life of Cato The Younger. If she had read and followed this from the start of her Prime Ministership, she wouldn’t be in the mess she is now.
The latest twist in the Slipper Affair is emblematic of what I mean. Gillard recruited Slipper in the first place to give her more votes on the floor of Parliament. At the time, everybody recognised how much this stabilised her power base. Yesterday, she decided to continue fighting for that power base, instead of taking a principled stand against Peter Slipper’s misogynistic texts.
She did this very well. I haven’t the internet bandwidth to watch her performance on youtube, but from all accounts, it was very impressive. She hit all the right notes against sexism and, once she raised the spectre of misogyny, effectively tunnelled it against her political opponent. Brilliant.
But Gillard’s Ciceronian oratory could not change the truth. Her attack on sexism was a defence for a man who compared female genitalia to seafood.
This contradiction drives at the heart of the Gillard Prime Ministership. She always chooses political expediency over principle.
This is par for the course in Canberra, on both sides of the ideological fence.
But it is nevertheless true. The fundamental weakness of the Gillard Government is that it has always preferred political gain to the moral high ground.
In the short term, this works. Recruiting Slipper was crowned as a coup by most journalists at the time. Reverting to a carbon tax after the election earned the undying support of Bob Brown, his senators and his crucial member in the lower house. The Malaysia solution gave her credence on asylum seekers without admitting she was wrong about the Pacific Solution.
But in the long term, it is destroying her.
Consider a completely different political animal. Cato the Younger was the crankiest, most stubborn, narrow-minded, argumentative and downright eccentric man in the Senate. This made him into one of the most revered, respected and successful statesmen in Rome.
Cato was contrary and cantankerous in his opposition to bad law. He became renowned for his unbending opposition to the dictatorial designs of all the greatest and most powerful men in Rome- Julius Caesar, Pompey the Great, Crassus, popular demagogues, the whole lot.
This was the path of madness. Without allies, without benefit, without hope of victory, Cato would oppose a law because it was wrong. That was all the justification he needed. If Caesar was wrong, then Cato would fight, come hell or high water. It would eventually cost him his life.
But it worked. Every time Cato defeated Caesar in the Senate house, or in the popular assembly (and it happened many times) Cato won because he held the moral high ground.
Ironically, Cato’s principles were successful because they were unpopular. People listened to Cato because they knew he spoke from conviction, not self-advancement.
It was those years of being sidelined, mocked and criticised for his principles which gave Cato the reputation of being the most honest man in Rome, and it was that reputation that catapulted him to the greatest heights of Roman politics.
Gillard could learn a lot from Cato. So far she has been characterised by short-sighted lunges for political gain, instead of taking the costly and principled high road.
But the truth is that reputation counts in politics, and the reputation of a man, or a woman, who does what’s right no matter what the cost, even at the expense of their career, is nigh-on unstoppable.