Gillard allays fears with centrist path

By Greg Ansley

Prime Minister Julia Gillard yesterday moved to calm the nerves of an Australia she believes is afraid of the future, mapping out a conservative route through the political centre that sheds many of the aspirations of the left.

In her first speech as leader to the National Press Club yesterday, Gillard emphasised that she was no longer the activist of her student days, and that Australia's economy could no longer afford ideological divides.

She said Labor would go to the election "clean and green", but without providing any details of the climate change and environmental policies the Government has yet to announce.

And the perennial Labor promise of a republic is not on her horizon.

Gillard's speech was more aspirational than informative, dealing in broad policy, rather than detail, and clearly designed to market her Government as conservative, mainstream economic managers.

There was still no hint of when the election would be called.

Gillard did not directly address the problems that have been mounting since she ousted Kevin Rudd three weeks ago, but questioning by reporters reflected issues that will plague her campaign.

Polls have indicated that while a majority of voters support Gillard's leadership, many are still unhappy at the way it was achieved.

During question time, she was faced with her most direct grilling yet on the subject, when she refused to answer a series of questions from veteran political reporter Laurie Oakes about the coup that deposed Rudd.

Oakes had asked if it was true that during their meeting the night before the June 24 leadership challenge, Rudd had offered to stand aside if plunging polls showed he was an impediment to re-election, that Gillard had agreed the offer was "sensible and responsible" but that she had later changed her mind after finding Rudd did not have the numbers to defeat a challenge.

Gillard repeated her commitment to confidentiality, but the stature of Oakes, a distinguished journalist who has broken many major stories, ensured the allegation's wide coverage.

Gillard sidestepped attacks on the figures supporting the rosy forecasts of revenue from the new resources rent tax agreed in a deal with the nation's biggest miners, repeated in economic forecasts released by Treasurer Wayne Swan on Wednesday. Instead, she criticised Opposition leader Tony Abbott for his rejection of the deal.

"Essentially, when people weigh up political leaders, they've got to make an assessment," she said.

"They've got to make an assessment on the question of trust, and I'm happy for Australians to go into the election - whenever it's held - and have the question of trust in the forefront of their minds and ask themselves the big question - who do they trust to lead this nation forward, not back?"

Gillard warned Australia not to expect an "old-style, spend-up" campaign, saying that all election policies - including climate change - would be subject to strict discipline and fully costed and funded.

"The upcoming campaign will have strong elements of clean and green, but it will be very, very lean [with] some hard choices and some unpopular cutbacks."

Key policy targets would include education, health and reforms that would aim at reducing overlaps and red tape between federal, state and local government, and a seamless national market that would pick the best from public and private sectors.

"The challenge is not whether to combine public and private resources in these essential sectors, but how best to do it."

She also said she did not think Australians were ready for a republic, that previous debate had not reflected community attitudes, and that the level of community activism and engagement needed to increase to the point where a referendum could succeed.

- NZ Herald

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