In Jacqueline Kent’s book The Making of Julia Gillard, Gillard herself tells a story of an event that took place in Hopper’s Crossing outside Melbourne, Victoria. She was at a shopping centre standing next to a board with a photo of her. "This old guy comes out of the supermarket, looks at me, looks at the photo, then turns back at me and says ‘Taken on a good day wasn’t it, love?’. I said 'And you’d be bloody Robert Redford, would you mate?'”
Gillard’s self-deprecating sense of humour is one of the crucial skills she will need to have at her disposal after her stunning accession to the Prime Minister of Australia this morning. Most people believed that Gillard was destined to become the country’s first female Prime Minister but until a few days ago no one would have believed it could happen in 2010.
But with Kevin Rudd in disarray in recent weeks and private party polling clearly telling powerbrokers they were heading to defeat in a number of key marginal seats, it was suddenly time to up the tempo. Unlike Rudd and his opposite number Tony Abbott, Gillard had kept her personal popularity in the recent political upheavals. The time was right for the kingmakers to dust off the guillotine and depose the incumbent. Rudd realised overnight he no longer had the numbers and resigned without a fight this morning.
That outcome is the best possible given that the leadership spill happened. Labor has panicked unnecessarily and would have won the next election under Rudd but by terminating his leadership they have handed an unexpected fillip to the opposition. At least the clean nature of the execution means there is no residual leadership tension that could further undermine Labor. Indeed given Rudd’s stated intention to stay on, it is not beyond the realms of possibility he could be restored as Foreign Minister under Gillard after the election.
The focus is now on the new leader. Gillard was born in the South Welsh coal port town of Barry in 1961. Her father was a brilliant student but being one of seven children in a poor family he was forced to end his education early and work in the mines. When the four year old Julia was diagnosed with bronchial pneumonia, a doctor advised her parents to move to a warmer climate. The family (including elder daughter Alison then aged 7) moved to Adelaide in 1966 where Julia’s father worked as a psychiatric nurse.
Gillard said she left the value of hard work from her father. In her Adelaide University years she was an organiser with the Australian union of students and then involved with the Melbourne-based Socialist Forum. Political views were heavily skewed in the ultra-left scene of 1970s student politics. Gillard told Australian Story that being a Labor student “you were viewed as a right-winger, I mean, we didn't really have that many sort of Liberals who were active in it to create that right-wing pole so most of student politics thought the Labor students were the enemy for being too right-wing.”
Gillard graduated from the University of Melbourne with an arts and law degree. She worked her way up to a partnership in Melbourne legal firm Slater & Gordon before several protracted and unsuccessful attempts to secure Labor preselection during the 1990s. She gained crucial government experience in her role as chief of staff to John Brumby when he was state opposition leader in Victoria during the Kennett years and she was finally elected to federal parliament in 1998.
ABC Radio National’s Peter Mares said that Gillard’s membership of the Victorian left of the ALP was “more organisational than ideological.” She is keen to promote social inclusion but wary of government heavy-handedness in social policy. “Gillard supports approaches that combine state and non-state actors in service delivery, encourage competition and individual initiative, yet maintain a safety net for those who fall,” Mares said.
Biographer Christine Wallace agrees Gillard is “no lefty” and said she is factional only so far as it is useful. Wallace described her as “transfactional” and said Gillard elicits an “intense, visceral response from voters, journalists and fellow political players.” Her talent was nurtured by Brumby, Simon Crean and Mark Latham. Gillard was one of the few Labor heavies not to suffer a tongue-lashing in the Latham Diaries and in return she is one of the few leaders not to twist the knife in Latham. By the time Rudd took over, Gillard was the obvious choice of deputy and since the election victory in 2007 she has revelled in the difficult twin roles of education and employment minister.
Wallace said what distinguishes Gillard from many female politicians is a genuine love of power. “Possessing it acts as a big political multiplier for her: the more power she gets, the better she performs and the more she accumulates as a result,” said Wallace. Gillard has now hit the jackpot when it comes to accumulation of power.
Her immediate task is consolidation to ensure it doesn’t just last a few months. But assuming she wins the 2010 election, we may see a new style of leader never before witnessed in Australia. Her policy record is mixed, but her native intelligence, a driving will to succeed and her indefatigable sense of humour will prove major allies in the fierce battles to come.