In Jacqueline Kent’s “The Making of Julia Gillard”, Gillard speaks about an event 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 will need her self-deprecating sense of humour after her stunning accession to the Prime Minister of Australia this morning. Most people believed Gillard was destined to become the country’s first female Prime Minister but until a few days ago no one believed it could happen in 2010.
But with Kevin Rudd in disarray in recent weeks and private party polling telling powerbrokers they were losing key marginal seats, it was suddenly time to up the tempo. Unlike Rudd and Tony Abbott, Gillard kept her personal popularity in the recent political upheavals. The time was right for kingmakers to dust off the guillotine and depose the incumbent. Rudd realised he no longer had the numbers and resigned without a fight.
Labor has panicked unnecessarily and would have won the next election under Rudd but 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. Given Rudd’s intention to stay on, he could be restored as Foreign Minister under Gillard after the election.
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 work in the mines. When 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, aged 7) moved to Adelaide in 1966 where Julia’s father worked as a psychiatric nurse.
Gillard said she learned the value of hard work from him. At Adelaide University she was a student union organiser 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 being a Labor student meant she was 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 with an arts and law degree. She worked her way up to a partnership in Melbourne legal firm Slater & Gordon before several unsuccessful attempts to secure Labor preselection during the 1990s. She gained government experience as chief of staff to John Brumby when he was Victorian opposition leader during the Kennett years and she was finally elected to federal parliament in 1998.
ABC Radio National’s Peter Mares said 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 was “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 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 power jackpot and her immediate task is consolidation to ensure it doesn’t just last a few months. Assuming she wins the election, we may see a new style of leader 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.