Why Julia Gillard will win the history wars

September 19, 2013

Paul Sheehan

Sydney Morning Herald columnist


Julia Gillard.

Former prime minister: Julia Gillard. Photo: Nic Walker & Louie Douvis

Exactly one year ago, on September 19, 2012, the Prime Minister was white with grief when she addressed the Parliament. She was surrounded by silence.

She spoke of her father, who had died 10 days earlier, and of the pain of attending two military funerals. Then the Leader of the Opposition rose to speak. ”On behalf of the Coalition, I welcome the Prime Minister back after her bereavement leave. This is a tragic time for her, and we all feel for her at this very difficult and sad time. I also acknowledge the sad duty that the Prime Minister and I have been engaged in over the last few days attending military funerals … I again acknowledge John Gillard, who has done his country proud in producing such a daughter.”

One year later, despite their radically differing fortunes, Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott remain linked. Both are seeking higher ground. Both have made history and now have an eye on history. Gillard remains in competition with her blood rival Kevin Rudd as to who will be judged the better prime minister, and who made the better exit.

It is not even close. Rudd won a famous victory in 2007, ending 11 years in the wilderness for Labor, and Gillard lost that majority entirely in 2010, but the dysfunction of Rudd’s leadership will define him. Several books have provided hair-raising detail about why his colleagues got rid of him. There will be more revelations. It will not be pretty. Nor is Rudd’s policy legacy clear. Most was froth. His two principled stands on big issues, global warming and asylum seekers, ended with backflips and debacles. His apology for the forced removals of Aboriginal children did not see words translate into improvements.


Gillard, in contrast, kept a minority government in office for a full term, a Herculean task. She implemented major spending reforms in disability care and education. When she stepped aside she maintained a dignified silence, and wished both Abbott and Rudd well in their campaigns. Rudd, in contrast, delivered a long burst of triumphalism in his concession speech on election night, even as Labor received a smashing rejection from the electorate. The contrast between Gillard’s eloquent silence and Rudd’s bombast was extreme.

Although both were brought down by an internal coup, I suspect my own reaction to the two would be typical: if I saw Julia Gillard approaching my table I would be happy to pour an extra glass of wine and look forward to some banter; if I saw Rudd approaching I would want to make a run for the exit.

Gillard is the more sympathetic figure. She is already rising above her dreadful polling numbers and the certainty that she would have led Labor to a crushing defeat.

But I think we should be spared the beatification of St Julia. She is not a martyr. She was not a victim. Yes, she was grossly assaulted and insulted by the idiot fringe of politics, but the debasing antics of the rabid fringes do not define the political discourse.

What defines the discourse are the actions of the prime minister and the actions of the government. They have the power. They have the responsibility. They set the tone. Under Gillard, as a matter of policy, the government decided to make Abbott the issue, to attack him personally, to embrace the politics of the personal. The campaign was led and orchestrated by Gillard and her ministers Anthony Albanese and Wayne Swan. Members of the Gillard government delivered hundreds of attacks on Abbott, with the prime minister often goading him as ”gutless”.

When her standing sank and her government was in real trouble, and several cynical deals were unravelling, the first woman prime minister played the gender card. She threw mud and called it misogyny. For her passion and her eloquence on that day she has been roundly praised but it was a desperate act and it helped create an astounding gender gap. Labor’s primary vote among men shrank to 24 per cent at the lowest point. Labor also fell behind the Coalition with women voters.

Gillard caught flak and she gave flak. She was assailed by vile trolls on the internet and by feral demonstrators, a story told in exhaustive detail, but her party also deployed trolls, a story largely ignored.

At the end, there was no gender solidarity from her colleagues. As a stream of men departed the ministry in protest after she was sacked, not one woman in the ministry stepped aside in gender solidarity. Two of them put their hands up for promotion and were promoted. Penny Wong became leader of the Senate.

To portray Gillard as a victim or a martyr is to patronise her. She was and is better than that. I expect she will thrive in her political afterlife and hope she does.

Twitter: @Paul_Sheehan_

The Sydney Morning Herald

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