August 20, 2010 10:26 pm

Woman in the News: Julia Gillard

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Peter Smith on Australia’s first female prime minister
Cummings illustration

The question was fired point blank and Julia Gillard, Australia’s prime minister of two months, had nowhere to hide. Would she save the centre-left Labor government by winning Saturday’s election? Or would her challenge to Kevin Rudd, the leader she helped topple, turn out to be the biggest mistake of her life?

For an instant, Ms Gillard’s mask cracked. But the tough party veteran quickly regained her composure and moved on. “This election is not about anything to do with me personally, [nor] how I’m perceived,” she explained in her distinctive nasal drawl. “It’s about the country’s future.”

She was being coy: Australia’s presidential-style election campaigns are dominated by personality. During the first week of campaigning, the size of her ear lobes was front-page news; during the third, one hack suggested to the new prime minister that Nicole Kidman should play her in a film one day.

Her elevation came through an ugly backroom coup after power-brokers reached the conclusion that the unpopular Mr Rudd would ruin their re-election prospects and livelihoods. But Ms Gillard’s two-month stint at the helm has been chaotic to the point of farce.

Her honeymoon lasted a matter of weeks. She stumbled early on the issue of seaborne asylum-seekers, a parochial Australian obsession with barely 3,000 arriving a year, and uncertainty over emission cut deadlines. Then she was blind-sided by a string of damaging leaks from within her own party that portrayed her as callous towards pensioners and young families.

Those leaks fuelled one narrative that the unmarried, childless and atheist Ms Gillard was a hard-bitten opportunist. As she faltered, the campaign of opposition leader Tony Abbott roared into life. The socially conservative Mr Abbott has avoided personal attacks on Ms Gillard but has nonetheless been at pains to stress his credentials as a family man. He is also a devout Catholic.

Two weeks ago, as she fought for oxygen, two encounters marked a return. She and Mr Rudd met for the first time since she ousted him in a strained but nevertheless public show of unity. Back from the wilderness – and gall bladder surgery – a taciturn Mr Rudd agreed to campaign in support of Ms Gillard’s election, perhaps motivated as much by his wish to become Australia’s next foreign minister as by a desire to thwart Mr Abbott.

Then she was ambushed by Mark Latham, a former Labor leader with a famously combative streak. The imposing Mr Latham, in a guest spot as a 60 Minutes television reporter, flew into Ms Gillard in the media scrum, taking the spotlight as he asked about Labor’s poor treatment of him and the allegations that Mr Rudd was behind the leaks.

The stunt was condemned and the network apologised. But it left the sense that Ms Gillard was not being given a “fair go” as she was upstaged yet again. One commentator described the incident thus: “We are seeing blokes trying to monster up a woman.”

Ms Gillard handled herself well as she gently patted Mr Latham on the chest and wished him well with his new career. “I’m made of pretty tough stuff,” she said.

The incident also helped promote another narrative, that of Ms Gillard as a matriarch administering to a wounded Labor party. “She is not an iron lady like Margaret Thatcher,” says Paul Kelly, the veteran Australian political commentator. “But she deploys feminine political skills effectively.”

It is all a long way from the Welsh port town of Barry where she was born in 1961. After she nearly died from bronchial pneumonia, the family emigrated to Australia as “Ten Pound Poms” under a government-assisted scheme. She and her parents – mother a care-worker for the elderly, father a psychiatric nurse – settled in Adelaide, the quaint regional capital known for its parks, churches and love of cricket.

Raised as a Baptist, Julia was “well behaved” at school but admits she could have worked harder. After completing her law degree in Melbourne, where she still lives, she entered student politics and rose to become president of the Australian Union of Students in 1983.

She spent eight years as an industrial lawyer “defending trade unions and working people”, in her words, before working for John Brumby, the premier of Victoria who was then the state’s opposition leader. At her third attempt, she secured a parliamentary seat in 1998. During the next nine years she was shadow minister for immigration, indigenous affairs, health and industrial relations. It was towards the end of this period that she met her long-term partner, Tim Mathieson, a former hairdresser turned property investor.

“Her big event was the deal [in 2006] with Kevin Rudd to roll [then Labor leader] Kim Beazley,” Mr Kelly said of a previous Labor coup. “She put aside her own ambitions to run as deputy with him on a joint ticket. That indicated great judgment and control of her ego.” The pair went on to win the 2007 election, ending John Howard’s 11-year reign as conservative leader. Ms Gillard took the job as deputy and was in charge of the education and employment portfolios, earning a reputation as an effective speaker on the parliament floor.

As Australia’s leader, Ms Gillard is yet to outline her vision beyond a strong commitment to education. Little has been said about Australia’s role in Afghanistan, its alliance with the US, and fast-expanding trading relationships with Asian powers led by China.

She has maintained Labor’s plan for a nationwide broadband network and struck a tentative deal with miners to levy higher taxes on resource extraction. Over the course of the campaign she has visibly grown in confidence on the economy, a strong card for Labor given its record during the financial crisis. But stumbles on her plan for a regional asylum seeker centre in East Timor and a much-criticised proposal for a “citizens assembly” on climate change led some to question whether she has a tin ear for policy.

If she wins this weekend, she will have won a mandate to run one of the developed world’s strongest economies. But with defeat a possibility, her tenure as Australia’s first female prime minister could turn out to be little more than a footnote.

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