Martyrdom is part of the Australian Labor Party’s mythology. For a generation now, there’s been an understanding that genuine progressive reform is a suicide mission. Leaders who undertake it are given a few furtive years of mandate before their electoral (and personal) destruction. But they’ll reap their rewards in political heaven, and their enemies will pay tribute down the years. Just recently, even Tony Abbott praised Kevin Rudd’s “imagination” in delivering the apology to indigenous Australians.
This theme started with Gough Whitlam’s immolation and subsequent sanctification, and it carried on through the Wagnerian fall of Paul Keating. Now it finds itself expressed in the movement to rewrite the Julia Gillard years as a success. In the immediate aftermath of her wrecked prime ministership, posterity has come knocking very early.
This time the foundation is different. After the shabby and sexist treatment meted out to Gillard, many Australians had started to sympathise with her. There was an impulse to give her a hug after the excesses of talkback sadism. But any hug that goes on too long gets uncomfortable. Its motives start to seem questionable.
First, in late September, there was Gillard’s interview at the Sydney Opera House, conducted by Anne Summers, an interlocutor so sympathetic she seemed more like a therapist. The show then travelled to the Melbourne Town Hall, and the standing ovations followed. In mid November, the Victorian Women’s Trust hosted ‘Credit Where Credit Is Due’, again at the Melbourne Town Hall, where the former prime minister delivered an address in front of 2000 people. The event felt like a memorial service where the deceased drops in to deliver the eulogy.
One of the paradoxes of Julia Gillard is that only out of office does she give speeches that seem prime ministerial. Previously we saw flashes of commanding rhetoric when she was on the counterattack. Now she has suddenly become inspirational, free and human in a way that seemed impossible before. This new-found ability to articulate is being used for good. But it’s also being used to finesse her record, to better square it with the ardent wishes of her progressive fanbase.
Others have already done a thorough job of pointing out the cracks in this approach, highlighting the policy areas where the graven image of Gillard as the great left-wing hope quickly comes apart. Deterring asylum seekers, maintaining the Northern Territory intervention, pinching dollars from single parents, watering down the mining tax, opposing same-sex marriage – it’s a long list. Her supporters either ignore the transgressions or fall back on political realism. We can have ideals, they seem to be saying, but we must be pragmatic.
Gillard is an unusually pragmatic politician, even at times a cynical one. “I had to fight hard to get preselected,” she said in 2006. “I had to play a factional game to do that, I had to count numbers, I had to make deals, and I’d do all of that again tomorrow if I needed to.” Indeed, she was one of the most adept operators of Labor’s factional system at a time when it came close to destroying the party. This hardly made her responsible for the system – she was both its product and pawn and, like any person in the face of institutional dysfunction, also a bystander. She did, however, resist efforts to change it, by shelving John Faulkner, Steve Bracks and Bob Carr’s 2010 review. And the venal nature of the political period in which she thrived and withered doesn’t look so good away from the fawning light of the Opera House or the Melbourne Town Hall.
Take marriage equality. When Gillard was prime minister she opposed same-sex marriage for reasons of tradition, harking back to her own conservative Labor upbringing. But that kind of Australian Christian Lobby–approved line isn’t going to cut it in the venues she’s now playing. So it becomes this: “[At uni] we weren’t talking about gay marriage. Indeed, as women, as feminists, we were critiquing marriage.” Faced with an audience of pinkos, Gillard produces something impossibly bespoke: the world’s first socially conservative, radical-feminist critique of marriage.
Recent reporting has indicated that Gillard stuck to a retrograde position on this issue because of an oral agreement with Joe de Bruyn, the socially conservative union leader. It’s one thing to make an ugly numbers deal. After all, that’s showbiz. Pragmatism. But you can’t then pretend it’s all a Gramscian strategy designed to bring marriage down from the inside. “I feel like I got on this tram at a different spot,” she said during the Summers interview in Melbourne. “My views on this were formed at a different time.” Whether that time is the stiff 1950s or the heady 1970s doesn’t seem to matter very much.
Addressing climate change, another left-wing banner issue, produces similar elisions. “I always want our nation to be brave enough to shape the future, not to be passive and overwhelmed by it,” she told the Victorian Women’s Trust audience. “And be gutsy enough to do the hard things that are right, like pricing carbon.” Fine words, but she was calling Labor back to the barricades she had been first to desert. Not only had she urged Rudd to dump his emissions trading scheme in the face of so-so opinion polling but her preferred replacement for carbon trading had been the “citizens’ assembly”. It’s a rare campaign pledge that makes Tony Abbott’s Direct Action plan look credible.
This hypocrisy might be a mild one, even a valuable piece of hindsight, if it were in any way acknowledged. Instead, the carbon tax she was forced into is served up as part of the praise fest, and Gillard is blithely left to rue that she called it a “tax” at all. It’s telling that her chief regret seems to be a failure of spin.
But then these events are a kind of spin, too. There’s a strange absolution taking place, the grim consequences of poll-driven ALP machine politics being washed away by the ministrations of baby-boomer feminists who can’t quite believe it all went wrong. They’re not righting the record on Gillard’s legacy but laundering it.
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