WHEN Julia Gillard flew into Perth for the first time as prime minister last week, she had two key objectives.
The first was to calm growing concern on several key policy fronts. The introduction of a resource super profits tax had turned into electoral poison for Labor, and she had to sell the new alternative approach.
Then there was the stoush with Colin Barnett over federal grants for public hospitals. The premier had said the Commonwealth could keep its money. He wasn’t surrendering the state’s control of GST revenue worth many times more than the federal handouts.
And the federal government’s approach on asylum seekers was also threatening to become a vote loser among many of Labor’s traditional supporters.
And the overall goal? Rebuild federal Labor’s vote in WA, which had been threatening to go through the floor, before the imminent federal election.
So this wasn’t a visit aimed at the boardrooms along St Georges Terrace to speak to the state’s movers and shakers; it was a visit directed fairly and squarely at the 1.2 million Western Australians on the electoral roll – the voters.
How do you reach them? Through the mass media of course.
And in contrast to her predecessor, who must have felt he didn’t need to stoop to such basic contact with the people who had put him in the job in the first place, Ms Gillard did the job relentlessly.
Within hours of her arrival she was in the studios of 6PR talking to veteran host Howard Sattler.
Never mind that one of her predecessors, Paul Keating, once referred to the station as “that right wing adventure down the road”. The prime minister was there to speak to the audience and answer their calls.
Then it was out to Channel 7 and Today Tonight with host Monica Kos.
Next morning, she was addressing 550 people at a city breakfast hosted by The West Australian.
Ms Gillard was 30 minutes late, setting the tongues wagging as to what had gone wrong.
Was it because of a flurry of international phone calls linked with the faltering plan for the offshore processing of asylum seekers, for example?
Nothing like it. Traffic congestion linked with the morning’s wet weather was given the blame.
Yet the reception she received was a real eye opener, with some similarities to a welcome I saw Bob Hawke receive from 700 middle aged women in Sydney, when made his first successful run for parliament in 1980. Mr Hawke was swamped. Most of the women wanted to touch him.
In Ms Gillard’s case there was a rush of younger women who wanted to take her photo. It was similar to the previous evening when many women staffers at 6PR lined up to be photographed with her as she left.
Labor’s strategists would have been delighted.
In her 20-minute speech she made her priorities clear. First there was a shameless appeal to WA parochialism, praising the state’s role in the federation. Then there was the reference to great Western Australians such as John Curtin and Bob Hawke.
But when she got down to business, it was clear that the asylum seekers dilemma, and the continuing rumblings over the new resources tax, were top of the agenda.
On asylum seekers and the push for offshore processing, Ms Gillard had a clear and direct message for her detractors: “Those critics who want it declared dead in a week are mistaken. I think they will be disappointed.”
On the mining tax, she referred to the agreement with three of the biggest miners as a breakthrough adding, “I believe we have struck the right balance”.
The prime minister also stressed there was a dividend for WA. The planned national $6 billion infrastructure fund included $2 billion earmarked for the state’s needs to build ports and other facilities essential to a growing economy.
On the surface it looks good. But Chamber of Commerce and Industry WA chief economist, John Nicolaou, remains to be convinced.
He says WA miners are likely to generate half the revenue raised by the tax, but only one third of the infrastructure money will come back to the state.
“Given that major economic building projects are worth billions, not millions, CCI is concerned that the proposed fund won’t be enough to build the infrastructure we need,” Mr Nicolaou said.
But there seemed genuine interest in what Ms Gillard had to say, and how she said it.
It was as if the city’s movers and shakers were sizing her up. Even though most won’t vote Labor, the question seemed to be what sort of leader she would be if Labor gained a second term?
Then it was off to ABC 720’s morning program, with Geoff Hutchison, where she dodged an egg from a disgruntled voter. And after photos with Labor candidates – the old ones with Kevin Rudd had to be junked – she met mining representatives, many of whom are unhappy with the new tax.
Finally there was a meeting with the premier, Colin Barnett, where the issue of the hospital money would have been high on the agenda.
Mr Barnett says the Commonwealth offer of $350 million for public hospitals over the next four years, for which the state is required to hand over one third of its GST revenue, is not on.
And he’s dared Canberra to withhold the money from Western Australians, especially in a pre-federal election climate.
So how did the new prime minister fare?
Unlike her predecessor, she was accessible, upfront, and – even though she didn’t answer all the questions – spoke in terms that were easily understood.
Her task at the breakfast forum was not to scare the horses in a state that had become deeply suspicious of federal Labor under Kevin Rudd.
It could be only a matter of days before Australia’s first female prime minister makes the trip to see the governor general at Yarralumla in Canberra, and set the election date.
Then the effectiveness of her Perth visit, and subsequent campaign, will be put to the test.