Mungo MacCallum

In her Comment piece in the August edition of the Monthly Julia Baird correctly identifies Julia Gillard’s strengths: she is, first and foremost, a politician who understands the political process, and particularly the peculiar rules and culture of the Labor Party. She used them successfully to rise to the top of the greasy totem pole, and in doing so avoided most of the traps and pitfalls that have defeated female contenders in the past. But this does not mean that she has, in some way, beaten the system: even in her moment of triumph she was still very much a part of it, and bound by it. And this is the weakness that Baird tends to ignore.

Senator Mark Arbib, the right-wing NSW powerbroker who had much to do with the destruction of Kevin Rudd and his replacement with Gillard, was disarmingly frank about his motivation. While Gillard was pleading that the government had lost its way and that many of her colleagues were lamenting that the public appeared to have stopped listening to Rudd, Arbib said simply: “He has stopped listening to me.” In other words, the party leader was no longer paying proper respect to the party’s tribal warlords, and for that he had to go.

The implication, of course, was that the new leader – Gillard – would not make the same mistake: she would listen. And as she assumed her new role, all the indications were that she was not only listening, but obeying. Arbib’s concerns, which revolved around the disaffection of voters in the marginal seats of western Sydney – his most important fiefdom – were addressed promptly, if not always successfully. Gillard effectively surrendered on Rudd’s mining tax and proposed a sort of solution to the problem of asylum seekers, and she worked out a form of words to justify continued procrastination on climate change.

In doing so she managed to avoid the appearance of being a puppet of the forces that had installed her, but she also surrendered any claim to authority. Halfway through the election campaign she tried to regain it by announcing that she would throw away the rule book and the voters would see “the real Julia”. But even this looked more like political contrivance than liberation. Certainly the difference was undetectable to the voters.

Baird says that Gillard’s standout quality is that she is honest and genuine: “She projects a sincerity and authenticity that people warm to.” But after an initial flush of enthusiasm, the voters ceased warming to her: her actions branded her as just another politician, just as poll driven and spin dependent as her predecessor – indeed, perhaps even more so; for well over three years Kevin Rudd, whatever his obfuscations, had been regarded as honest and trustworthy. Gillard’s honeymoon lasted about a week and a half.

She is, as Baird points out, a politician. Labor was looking for a messiah.

Mungo MacCallum

Ocean Shores, NSW