Australia’s first female prime minister, assailed by media outlets owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Ltd., which controls 70 percent of newspapers in the country, said her government’s inquiry into the news industry won’t result in any change in ownership.
The probe, announced earlier this week by Julia Gillard’s Labor government, was prompted by concern that the illegal telephone hacking pursued by Murdoch’s News Corp. in the U.K. would spread to Australia. Gillard demanded and received an apology for a falsehood published last month by the Australian, a newspaper owned by News Corp.’s Sydney-based News Ltd.
“We’re not in the business of trying to unpack media ownership,” said the 49-year-old Gillard in an interview yesterday from her office in Canberra in between parliamentary votes as she discussed China, carbon pricing, minerals taxation, international politics and increasing female leadership. “We can’t go back in time and re-engineer the ownership of newspapers in this country today and in this world of change I actually think our eyes have to be on the big things that are changing -- the economics of newspapers themselves.”
In a week that began with a slump in her approval to a record-low 32 percent in a Nielsen survey taken Sept. 8-10, Gillard has started the media probe, introduced legislation to tax carbon emissions, proposed an overhaul of refugee laws and, in the interview, pledged to forge ahead with a “big reform agenda.” Gillard is betting that her record will turn polls around by the election in 2013.
“She could be our Iron Lady because she is determined and tough,” said Ian McAllister, an expert in voting behavior at the Australian National University in Canberra, likening the U.K.-born Gillard to former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who in 1980 refused to abandon unpopular policies and went on to win two more elections. “A year after the carbon and mining tax are introduced and she has dealt with refugees, the polls may well have turned for her.”
The prime minister, whose government has a one-vote majority and who faces the worst approval rating of any predecessor in almost 20 years, is battling a hostile media and a surging currency that has pushed companies such as toll-operator RiverCity Motorway Group into bankruptcy protection. Gillard’s public backing plummeted after News Ltd. newspapers this month said that unidentified Labor party members wanted her to quit.
Murdoch’s Australian last month published an opinion piece including false allegations concerning Gillard’s former relationship with a union official. She telephoned the newspaper to demand a retraction and an apology. The Australian complied on the same day and withdrew the article from its website.
“I’ve had some things to say about media quality and bias by certain media outlets and that national conversation will continue,” said Gillard. “But this isn’t a mathematical formula where you can go x plus y necessarily equals z. Politics, community sentiment, community mood, the nature of reform, the opportunities of the future are far more complicated than that.”
The prime minister told parliament this week that her government is “on the right side of history” as she submitted legislation for the nation’s first levy on greenhouse-gas emissions. Polluters will pay A$23 ($24.74) per metric ton of carbon emissions as the government seeks to wean the country off its dependence on fossil fuels.
Scale of Ambition
“What all of this is about, our domestic debate, is how to get there and when do you start,” Gillard said of reducing emissions. “I’m for starting next year.”
Gillard plans a tax on mining in a nation that’s seen its economy propelled by China’s demand for iron ore and coal. The 30 percent tax on iron ore and coal profits, taking effect in July should it be approved by parliament, is forecast to raise A$7.7 billion in its first two years. It will be used to cut the corporate tax rate to 29 percent from 30 percent, encourage retirement savings and pay for roads and railways.
Asked whether a slump in Chinese demand would prompt her to abandon the proposed mining measure, Gillard said “there’s no advice to me that would cause me concern about Chinese demand collapsing,” predicting it will be “strong.” The Asian Development Bank this week projected that China’s gross domestic product will rise 9.3 percent this year after a 10.4 percent jump in 2010.
“We have a resources sector that is turbo charged by the growth in our region, we’ve got more than A$400 billion of investment in the pipeline,” said Gillard, who was a labor attorney before entering parliament. As China’s population increasingly concentrates in cities and people are lifted out of poverty, Australia will see “large exports of resources as a result,” she said.
Australia, the only major developed nation to avoid a recession during the 2008-2009 global slump, saw economic growth of 1.2 percent in the second quarter from the previous three months, the most in four years, a government report showed last week.
The mining boom and interest-rate increases by the central bank have enhanced the nation’s currency, which has climbed almost 20 percent in the past two years, reaching $1.1081 on July 27, the highest level since it was traded freely in 1983. It closed at $1.0335 at 6 p.m. in Sydney.
The gains made it harder for Australia’s non-mining industries to compete, with BlueScope Steel Ltd. last month saying it will cut about 1,000 jobs because of a second-half loss due to high raw-material costs and exchange-rate gains.
“As far as the eye can see in terms of predictions we will be very strong against the U.S. dollar,” Gillard said. “The minerals resource rent tax is really about taking a fair share of taxation from the highly profitable companies in the sector of the economy that is turbo charged and using some of that to bolster growth in other sections.”
The prime minister, who took office in June 2010 after leading an ouster of Kevin Rudd as head of the Labor party, has refused to back down on the mining proposal in face of opposition by industry executives. Fortescue Metals Group Chief Executive Officer Andrew Forrest called it “dangerous.”
Gillard continues to press for an overhaul in how refugees are processed for asylum claims. After the High Court on Aug. 31 ruled that her plan for a refugee swap with Malaysia was illegal, she said that she would submit amendments to the migration law to parliament.
Without the support of the Greens party, which opposes her asylum plan and on whom she relies for a majority in parliament, Gillard has turned to opposition leader Tony Abbott.
While Abbott has criticized the prime minister for failing to stem the flow of boat people, Gillard told the opposition leader at a Sept. 12 press conference that the vote on amending migration laws was “a test as to whether he is guided by the national interest, or he is always guided by his political interest.”
Abbott has yet to say whether he’ll support Gillard’s proposed legislation on refugees. He criticizes her media opposition, saying it “looks like a naked attempt to intimidate the media.” He separately pledged to repeal the mining tax if he comes to power.
“All the evidence so far is that Abbott’s focus of attention is on negativism rather than building a substantial policy alternative,” said Peter van Onselen, a professor of politics and journalism at the University of Western Australia in Crawley. “When you’ve got a polling lead that he has, an opposition leader never gets a better time to show what they’re made of rather than extend their political advantage.”
Van Onselen, who co-wrote a biography of former Prime Minister John Howard, said that Gillard faces a struggle to turn support around. She’s been undermined by a reversal on the carbon-tax issue, after she pledged to refrain from a levy during last year’s campaign, he said. Gillard suffers from opposition criticism that she lacks a mandate after the election result didn’t give her party an outright majority.
“It would be unprecedented if she could come back from as far behind as she is,” said van Onselen.
Gillard is the first Australian prime minister who isn’t married, and she doesn’t have children. She said in a 2006 interview with Australia’s ABC television that “I’m kind of full of admiration for women who can mix it together, working and having kids, but I’m not sure I could have. There’s something in me that’s focused and single-minded, and if I was going to do that, I’m not sure I could have done this.”
Abbott, 53, heads the Liberal-National coalition, which Labor ousted in 2007 after an 11-year rule under Howard. Married with three daughters, Abbott introduced “family” values as one of his themes in his campaign for the August 2010 election that resulted in the narrowest division between the main parties in 70 years.
In an Aug. 8, 2010 campaign speech, Abbott said “the most conservative instinct of all” is to have a family. He has kept up such comments, saying in prepared remarks on June 25 that “as conservatives, we support the family and values that have stood the test of time.”
The prime minister said that “I’ve always thought the Australian culture is blokey in some ways, yes, but also egalitarian.” She said that “me doing this job has caused people around the nation to lift their eyes and think, well, for the future it’s not something that just my son can aspire to and that my daughter can aspire to as well.”
Gillard, who was born in Wales and emigrated to Australia when she was four after contracting bronchial pneumonia, said she aims to boost female representation across government boards.
The lack of women on the central bank’s board, which has had only three in half a century of existence, “is reflective of a problem we have with corporate boards around Australia,” she said. Women account for a majority of consumer spending in the nation, according to the Australian Women Chamber of Commerce & Industry.
“It’s not acceptable to me in the modern age that we can look at boards of major corporations and not see one woman” at a time when the government’s cabinet has women representatives and is led by a woman, she said.
It’s a challenge being the first female to lead the government, said Gillard, who was mocked by some in 2005 when a video shoot of her home showed an empty fruit bowl, a symbol of her life-choice as a professional.
Gillard said she shared her perspective with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, finding common belief in fortitude. “I’m a big believer in the power of perseverance, of keeping going, showing determination, of getting it done.”
“I don’t want to overcook it, but if it makes a difference for one woman, one girl whose idea for opportunity broadens because I am doing this job, it’s a great result,” the prime minister said.