Julia Gillard: humble in victory, gracious in defeat.
In between: on a tumultuous rollercoaster ride of victories, failures and missed opportunities. Victim, combatant, working class hero, indominable spirit. Her work ethic was one of many strengths, leadership her weakness. For all her talents as a superb negotiator and hands-on administrator she lacked the all important innate leadership qualities every prime minister must have to enjoy the confidence of the people.
She was the first female prime minister of Australia - a blokey country by our own admission. Hence the inevitability of sexism raising its ugly head. But it would be a mistake to think gender discrimination was the cause of her demise. Certainly it was an unwelcome consequence that morphed into a spiteful campaign that gained strength with each error of judgement. In particular the overpaid thugs known as shock jocks did their best to denigrate her integrity while subliminally reinforcing the perception that a woman isn't suited to leadership. But it must be remembered that when she became Prime Minister the good will for Gillard was real and across the board, men and women, as indicated by all the polls. The sexism grew and was often all too real and viceral, but sometimes too it was exaggerated for the sake of political expediency and by some overzealous feminist commentators. By and large it came from a vocal minority. In her own words:
I've been a little bit bemused by those colleagues in the newspapers who have admitted that I have suffered more pressure as a result of my gender than other prime ministers in the past but then concluded that it had zero effect on my political position or the political position of the Labor Party. It doesn't explain everything, it doesn't explain nothing, it explains some things. And it is for the nation to think in a sophisticated way about those shades of grey.
What I am absolutely confident of is it will be easier for the next woman and the woman after that and the woman after that. And I'm proud of that.
She had to battle a hostile Thatcherite commentariat at News Ltd, not forgetting a ferocious competitor in Opposition Leader Tony Abbott who used every divisive tactic he could devise to destabilise her leadership. These and other hurdles were placed in her way, but what ultimately cost Julia Gillard the leadership was not sexism or media bias (although they contributed) but her lack of political acumen - big picture political savy. A leader must know what to say, how to say it and when. A leader must be able to instinctively connect with the core values and expectations of the people and be a reassurance for both.
With an immature nation like Australia, baby steps are often needed - people want a leader who feels like one of them. Alas, difference is too often a cause for suspicion among the masses. She was less than successful on the leadership front for a number of reasons. One of those was the pitiful advice she received from John McTiernan, her Communications Director. McTiernan was a British import from Tony Blair's old advisory team who was meant to bolster the ALP with expertise in the selling of a politician. It was a no-brainer from the start - how anyone from Labor's media management team could think that someone from another country could possibly have a sound intuitive understanding of how Australians think is a mystery of Lochness monster proportions. His poor advice to Gillard on numerous occasions is testimony to that. There were other problems: her speeches were often monotonous, repetitive and poorly written by her speech writer, and the problem was compounded by an overly enunciated and wooden delivery.
Secondly, Gillard herself had a tendency to jump from one "good" idea to another too often in a frantic attempt to close the credibility gap caused by her toppling of a first term prime minister in Kevin Rudd. Behind the scenes she was crucial to the passage through both houses of parliament of an amazing 532 pieces of legislation during her tenure - that in a hung parliament - but publicly her misfires got all the news and they were not infrequent. This gave the impression that she was making policy on the run. Perceptions are not everything in politics but they can make or break a politician given the circumstances. The perception grew that she was gimmicky. An injustice for sure but that's politics. Her past association with the union movement and the so called faceless men of caucus also gave the impression she was merely a factional leader.
When news broke that Ms Gillard had been ousted as Prime Minister by Kevin Rudd there seemed to be something of a hollow feeling around the nation. I doubt anyone celebrated except for the numbers men. Some felt sorrow, others reflected. She was a true warrior for progressive politics and a tireless fighter for all the right programs for this country, but in the end she failed to sell herself and the government's policies to the public. As Graham Richardson put it when on Q & A, she was a good deputy who failed to step up. That, it would seem is the bottom line.
Nevertheless her legacy is assured. And she is likely to be the most discussed prime minister in the history of Australian politics since Gough Whitlam. Now there's an irony - Whitlam was a great leader but a disorganised administrator, Gillard was the reverse. They both lasted three years as Prime Minister and they both changed the nation forever. She was an extraordinary ordinary woman with unique qualities and ordinary interests - a knitter with the eyes of a lioness. Bravo, Julia Gillard, bravo.