Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Double entendres dog PM's search for spotlight

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BRISBANE -- Australia's prime minister this week left the sanctuary of her Sydney Harbour-side home and headed west to see how the other half lives.

Julia Gillard's decision to leave Kirribilli House and spend a week in the Sydney suburb of Rooty Hill did what it was no doubt designed to do -- grab the nation's attention.

Unfortunately for the PM, the word "root" still thrives in the national lexicon as a crude slang for sexual intercourse, despite the trend toward importing our profanities.

A "root rat,'' by way of example, is a person (commonly, but not exclusively, male) who spends a great deal of time pursuing sexual congress.

It's a national quirk that still leaves visiting North Americans puzzled. When, for instance, they proudly boast that they "root" for a sporting team, it is met with snorting, sniggering merriment from their Australian hosts.

And so there was much nudging and chortling as the commander-in-chief bedded down for a few nights in Rooty Hill, which is far removed from the sexually charged atmosphere its name suggests.

Rooty Hill, about 40 kilometres from Sydney's business district, is a respectable address with plenty of millionaires among its inhabitants.

But it, and the wider environs of western Sydney, are also home to many lower-income workers Australians affectionately call "battlers.''

The PM's arrival was a bit like a 21st-century version of that old Hans Christian Andersen fable The Wild Swans, where little Priness Elisa is banished from the palace and made to go and live with the peasants.

Only it's not a wicked stepmother who has sent Gillard on her way, but something far more terrifying -- polling.

The nation's first female PM has a grip on power so tenuous many pundits have written her off in the Sept. 4 federal election, which she called in January, overturning the long-standing tradition of snap election calls.

The powerful political barometer Newspoll suggests satisfaction with Gillard's performance as prime minister has crashed six points to 30 per cent in the first few weeks of the year.

On the matter of who would make the better prime minister, Gillard's support also fell from 41 per cent at the beginning of February to 36 per cent.

What exactly is wrong with Gillard in the voters' eyes is hard to identify, but it's obvious the outwardly amiable PM has never managed to make that vital connection with a constituency that guarantees a long tenure.

Opposition Leader Tony Abbott does not exactly have the nation under his thrall, but at this juncture, his elevation to the prime ministership seems inevitable.

By Thursday, Gillard appeared to have won over many of the locals, with some embracing her or chatting easily as she wandered among the shopping centres and side streets.

As she prepared to leave her hotel and head back to the more comfortable Kirribilli House, she told reporters she'd had a "good week" in the west.

But she would not be drawn out on suggestions the ruling Labour Party might be "dead in the water" in the crucial seats of Sydney's west.

Accused of everything except being a quitter, the diehard spirit of the working-class girl from Adelaide was still evident.

"We're not here to talk about opinion polls, we're here to talk about issues that matter for the people,' she said. "People will make their own decisions in September about how they want to vote.''

Michael Madigan is the Winnipeg Free Press correspondent in Australia. He writes mostly about politics for the Brisbane-based Courier Mail.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 8, 2013 A11

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