October 2009

Arts & Letters

The other biography

By Chris Wallace
Jacqueline Kent’s ‘The Making of Julia Gillard’

If attention from biographers augurs well for a politician’s career, then Julia Gillard looks good for the Lodge when Kevin Rudd’s day is done. Rudd was the subject of two biographies in the run-up to becoming prime minister in 2007. Now Gillard is on the verge of that, too, with Jacqueline Kent’s The Making of Julia Gillard (Viking, 336pp; $32.95) published this month and my book, Julia Gillard, due out from Allen & Unwin next year. Kent’s account is the approved Julia Gillard story: Julia as Julia would have it told. It’s as close as Gillard wants us to get to her as Rudd’s prime ministership unfolds and, over time, plays out.

Kent thanks Gillard for “corrections of fact” in the acknowledgements. But the relentless smoothing away of any faint tensions, contradictions and frailties in Gillard’s personality makes for a curiously flat read. There is more to Gillard than Kent has let on or, perhaps, been let in on. It is not enough to ascribe the intense, visceral response Gillard elicits from voters, journalists and fellow political players simply to her “political celebrity”, and Kent leaves the task of unpacking the nuances of Gillard’s career outstanding.

Gillard was born in Wales in 1961. Her family migrated in 1966 and she grew up in Don Dunstan’s Adelaide. Having started university there, she went on to graduate with degrees in arts and law from the University of Melbourne, but her studies were completed almost incidentally while her political career in the Australian Union of Students (AUS) took off. She then worked her way up to a partnership in the Melbourne legal firm Slater & Gordon. Protracted attempts to secure Labor preselection and then election in the 1990s saw her spend an extended period as chief of staff to John Brumby, then the Victorian Opposition leader. She was finally elected a federal MP in 1998. Upon the Rudd government’s election in 2007, she blossomed into Labor’s dominant parliamentary enforcer, becoming deputy prime minister and holding the key industrial relations and education portfolios.

When she arrived in Canberra in 1998, it was far from obvious that she would rise higher than the other talented women in the federal parliamentary Labor Party. But nor was it obvious that fellow ‘class of ’98’ member Kevin Rudd would follow Paul Keating to become the twelfth Labor prime minister of Australia.

Kent’s book shows us a woman who is poised to go all the way and who is steady and strategic about getting there. Kent rightly defuses the minor issues that Gillard perceives as potential obstacles to her further rise. Her allegedly red-ragging factional origins, her ex-partner (the union official Bruce Morton Wilson) and her motivation in opposing and then joining Rudd’s push for power, are side issues. Kent takes, and virtually speaks, her subject’s part in nearly every conversation you imagine that Gillard has had on the up and up, not least the one in which she reassures Rudd that she’d never deliberately wield the knife against him. But, surely, Gillard and her career are robust enough for plain truths.

Gillard is no lefty and, historically, has been factional only as far as it has been useful. As a teenager, she was exposed to mainstream Dunstan and Whitlam Labor reformism, and she was a conventional student activist at university. In Melbourne, she fell in with a left inner-city Labor crowd, but they certainly didn’t sit around discussing the historical inevitability of proletarian revolution. The Labor left is ‘the other’ of the ALP; historically, it was a refuge for those repelled by the grubby, money-oriented deal-doings of some on the party’s right. In recent decades it has been, disproportionately, the place talented women in the party call home. The left is not something that Gillard is still ‘underneath’, as paranoid conservatives would have it, or even something Gillard once was and isn’t anymore. Rather, it’s a place that Gillard, a truly transfactional figure, passed through on her way to the top.

Key right-faction members, such as John Brumby and Simon Crean, played critical roles in Gillard’s advancement. She was even closer to right faction member Mark Latham during his ill-starred leadership than she now is to Rudd – another right figure. Gillard worked hard to install Latham as federal Labor leader, and she was the last person still shoulder to shoulder with him as he imploded politically five years ago. It wasn’t stubbornness or self-interest: Gillard genuinely felt warmth for a man in whom others had long sensed strange, simmering fires. In a kind of political duet, Latham and Gillard enjoyed privately demonising Rudd. Yet Gillard and Rudd subsequently made peace and forged an alliance that culminated in Labor’s 2007 election win. Likewise, Gillard spent many of her early years at bitter odds with left-faction boss Senator Kim Carr; he continually obstructed her preselection efforts, while she persistently pursued institutional innovations to circumvent his blocking power. Their relationship has travelled a long way since then: Carr nudged and mentored Gillard into the joint ticket with Rudd. Gillard is the personification of the old diplomatic saw that there are no permanent allies, only permanent interests.

Throughout her career, Gillard has had an ambivalent relationship with other caucus feminists. Many senior women in the women’s and Labor movements support her loyally, and she is admired across the rank and file for her toughness and for her effectiveness on her feet. But she is also perceived to have got ahead at the expense of other women and in ways that weren’t always fair and reasonable. Yet while competition – including, yes, between women – can leave scars, there’s nothing like winning government to make them fade. Labor’s present success means Gillard doesn’t have to worry about intra-feminist caucus tensions from the past.

What distinguishes Gillard most from other women who have gone a long way in Australian politics is that she genuinely loves power. Possessing it works as a big political multiplier for her: the more power she gets, the better she performs and the more she accumulates as a result. She is always ‘on’ politically and people respond to that certainty. They like a woman who is comfortable with power and its deployment.

Policy is a flaw discussed sotto voce by her supporters. Despite being intelligent, clear thinking and politically strategic – she is notably organised and, tellingly, a pedant for correct punctuation – Gillard can have a tin ear for policy. She has been associated with four main policy initiatives: the revamp of Labor’s immigration policy in Opposition, Medicare Gold in the 2004 election campaign, the industrial relations policy segue from Howard’s WorkChoices to Labor’s Forward With Fairness, and the Education Revolution schools policy. Medicare Gold was an all-time election-policy turkey. The Education Revolution schools policy, meanwhile, is the site of significant implementation problems and, in key respects, has a dubious conceptual base: it incorporates a fixation with conservative policy motifs, such as school reporting, that continue in a direct line from Howard government policy. Gillard’s immigration policy revamp and industrial relations system-switch worked better overall, but each was the result of major behind-the-scenes manoeuvring by significant Labor players to nudge Gillard into a workable Labor position. The background stories of these policy initiatives share the common theme that Gillard lacks both an innate feel for policy and a coherent Labor-policy compass; the secret to getting good policy out of her, it seems, is to position good advisers close by. But what Gillard lacks in policy instincts she more than makes up for in the power of her advocacy.

In The Making of Julia Gillard, the key passages on Gillard’s political philosophy reveal a concern with “social inclusion”, the origins of which Kent locates in Tony Blair’s “Third Way” politics:

It is a holistic approach that has informed policy development in all Gillard’s portfolios and the Rudd Government in general. At its core is the idea that government should be flexible and involve cooperation across different agencies, departments and levels in order to ‘join up’ the delivery of government services strategically as well as practically. Gillard’s social inclusion agenda, anticipated nine years before in her ‘equality of opportunity’ maiden speech to Parliament, is a good example of the Rudd government’s Third Way position.

Is that it? This thinness makes for a significant hole in Kent’s account because a fuller answer is becoming increasingly urgent. The Rudd government has managed several things very well and a number of other things poorly, the latter including important facets of Gillard’s own portfolio. The puzzle this presents needs to be solved; clarification of Gillard’s political philosophy and its enmeshment in government policy is central to that task.

Where The Making of Julia Gillard fits into Kent’s oeuvre is not immediately apparent. She is, deservedly, the award-winning biographer of legendary Angus & Robertson book editor Beatrice Davis, and of pianist Hephzibah Menuhin. But she seems to be slumming it with this book. Kent says the biography “could not have been completed without the work of two people”: journalist Doug Hendrie, “who researched and conducted most of the interviews”, and former public servant John Tuchin, who was “invaluable in interpreting government documents of various kinds”. But that’s almost joint-authorship territory.

 Even in a friendly political quickie like this one, readers might hope for some insight into Gillard’s private self, but Kent writes that “only once did I feel I had slipped beneath the surface”. The Gillard who “smiled out of the pages of the glossy magazines, gazed thoughtfully into the distance for the broadsheet newspapers as a woman of destiny, laughed and joked on TV and radio … ” is a Women’s Weekly construct. To be fair, though, Kent had to deal with Gillard in her maximum image-control zone. Gillard needs to beware the short-term lure of defensive micromanagement and just be herself. Relaxing into your natural game pays off in the long run.

The Making of Julia Gillard provides a plain-vanilla account of Gillard’s progress from Gillard’s point of view and an uncomplicated description of some arcane aspects of Labor’s factional history. If the truth is in the surface of things – as André Gide remarked – then Kent has done a good job of description without analysis. That will be fine with most of the people involved in this book, none more so than Gillard herself.

Chris Wallace

Chris Wallace is a political historian at the University of Canberra. Her most recent book is Political Lives: Australian Prime Ministers and their Biographers.

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