September 2012

The Nation Reviewed

Comment: Gillard and her Attackers

By Chris Wallace
Julia Gillard, Canberra, October 2011. © Commonwealth of Australia

The wounded leader who refuses to lie down and die is not without precedent in Australian national politics. Robert Menzies and John Howard come to mind. But it’s hard to find a leader who has lost as much political blood as Julia Gillard and survived. And yet, in the last month or two, she appears to have staunched the bleeding, steadied and even begun to regain strength.

Gillard is a tough politician – flawed, yes, but undeniably tough. Most prime ministers have a hyena tearing at their belly as they dash across the political landscape. Gillard has not one, but many. As well as Tony Abbott, there is Kevin Rudd the internal assassin, Rupert Murdoch with his dominance of the local print media, and a clutch of snapping, snarling commentators, bloggers and shock-jocks – a veritable pack of scavengers and would-be predators all.

Each day Gillard survives makes it more likely that she’ll make it to the election. Abbott and Rudd both know this. If an ‘ordinary’ prime minister (as opposed to a ‘natural’, or someone who is exceptionally talented or well prepared) can stay in the job for long enough, he or she may well learn how to do it. At autumn’s end Gillard’s position looked so shaky that her political longevity was being counted in days. Now, by early spring, many in Parliament House wonder whether Gillard may have learnt enough to make her prime ministership work.

Where does the steel come from? Gillard is a secure person, and that’s a good start. Her early family life was exceptionally warm. Getting an education and getting ahead were the keynotes in a household that, while British in origin, was classically ‘migrant’ in its outlook and values. Work hard, get ahead, don’t give up, compete.

Gillard grew up in a virtual matriarchy in which her mother, Moira (whom I met in the course of researching Gillard’s life some years ago), was a loving but driving personality, and a physically and psychologically confident woman. Gillard’s father, John, worked long hours and was often absent, but nevertheless lavished on her the attention and encouragement traditionally directed to sons – there was no brother to compete for it. Educated in Adelaide state schools during the salad days of Dunstan and Whitlam, Gillard has always seen herself as a person competing hard, not a woman competing hard, and that’s meant less psychological baggage.

Gillard has put getting ahead above everything else in her life. It’s not that there haven’t been important relationships – romantic and otherwise – but when it comes to the crunch, Gillard’s default response is to put position and advancement ahead of personal association. Consequently she has risen to the prime ministership unconflicted and undistracted by domestic concerns, which allows for tremendous focus. (Personally, I always encourage ambitious girls and women – not entirely jocularly – to marry tradesmen. I generally have plumbers, electricians and carpenters in mind but, as in Gillard’s case, a hairdresser can be no less a handyman.)

Gillard lives in the moment, unburdened by the self-reflective qualms and second-guessing of more sensitive souls. She has a poker player’s temperament. There’s no revealing physical ‘tell’ under pressure – no beads of perspiration on the upper lip or quavering voice when the heat is on. And she’s well practised in the arts of political bastardry. In this she resembles one of those newspaper editors who, in confidence, promises the same foreign posting to three different journalists, and then gives it to a fourth when the time comes without batting an eyelid.

Such practices store up problems, of course. There are so many allies operating on the basis of so many understandings and promises, so many of which lie unfulfilled or, more damagingly, dashed. Until now, because of key cabinet members’ deep loyalty to the party, Gillard has got away with it. But you can’t accumulate as substantial a group of enemies as Gillard has without some sort of reckoning eventually. For the foreseeable future, the opinion polls will be devoured by her foes in the hope that this is the one that will render her position untenable.

That day of reckoning is not now, and may not be any time soon. Rudd’s vote-gathering has stalled: on the most credible estimates, only six votes (Kelvin Thomson, Richard Marles, Joel Fitzgibbon, Stephen Jones, John Murphy and Daryl Melham) have shifted his way since the last leadership ballot, when Gillard smashed him by a ratio of two to one.

Nor are things going to script for Tony Abbott. The three big policy messes left to Gillard to fix are behind her: the mining tax, carbon pricing and asylum-seeker policy. Some caucus members have misgivings, but the policies are set and the political damage from the fumbles, stuff-ups and compromises along the way is a sunk cost for Labor. Gillard and her government can now turn to the future: the Gonski education reforms, the National Disability Insurance Scheme, the continuing rollout of the National Broadband Network, maintaining a strong economy and achieving a balanced budget.

It’s possible, just possible, that, despite the chaos, the viciousness and the stomach-turning dilemmas confronting Labor in power, a substantial legacy will yet be left. It is even possible that Gillard will grow sufficiently in the job to survive, and that a Tony Abbott prime ministership isn’t inevitable after all. Still, it’s one hell of a hyena pack.

Chris Wallace

Chris Wallace is a journalist and the author of Germaine Greer, Untamed Shrew and The Private Don.

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