Best of 2011: Australian Politics, Leadership and the Polls

The year in Australian politics was one characterised by tumult, indifference and a degree of soul searching – but there were big changes, too. Julia Gillard succeeded in introducing the controversial carbon tax, which some argued in our Intelligence Squared debate would have questionable effect on climate change. Facing off against record growth in emissions, the bills' passing marked a legislative defeat for climate change denial and earned Gillard a place in Atlantic’s top 50 Brave Thinkers of 2011.


While the PM fended off suggestions of internal party dissent (and the niggling threat of a Rudd challenge), and grappled with the challenges of a minority government, the broader question of leadership took the spotlight this year. In her Lunchbox/Soapbox presentation, Christine Nixon argued that Gillard is a progressive, consultative leader who has been wrongly judged against an outdated model.

Speakers debating the proposition that ‘Both Major Parties are Failing the Australian People’ lamented a lack of ‘real policy debate’ and questioned the ability of Labor and the Coalition to ‘govern for all, but also to govern for the national interest’. And Susan Mitchell courted the ire of the Opposition and its supporters when she criticised Tony Abbott’s ‘narrow worldview’ and ‘political opportunism’.

In one of our biggest events this year, Paul Keating blamed John Howard for throwing Australia’s moral compass overboard, whilst recounting the reforms of his own government and reiterating key concepts of his vision. On his party’s current woes, he offered: ‘Labor hasn’t lost its soul, but it has lost its story.’


Keating was speaking to promote After Words: The Post-Prime Ministerial Speeches. Former Keating speechwriter Don Watson appeared in a separate event earlier in the year, amongst other things explaining his relationship with his former boss.

You may recall the Keating-Watson disagreement over whose words were spoken by Keating in the 1992 Redfern speech; it was among many favourite speeches reread at our Unaccustomed As I Am event in July. (Elsewhere, some wondered whether Gillard’s woes in the polls were linked to her scripted speech style).


Speaking of the polls, we invited a formidable political brains trust to examine the effect of the news cycle and polling on the political process in our Greasy Polls Talking Point event. Their assessment somewhat echoed the earlier observations of Lindsay Tanner, who lamented the behaviour of the media and described parliamentary question time as ‘performance art for the six o'clock news’.

Who we are

Amidst the political back-and-forth, we continued to examine our changing national identity. Our So Who The Bloody Hell Are We? series turned the lens on blokes, the quarter-acre block and the fair go. Judith Brett talked about the relationship between city and country, while Guy Rundle explored the essentialist, adversarial racial politics emerging from a crisis of identity in the West.

Finally, Thomas Keneally finished our year of Lunchbox/Soapbox polemics with a presentation about twentieth century White Australia’s relationship with its Aboriginal and Asian ‘others’.

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