Monday, 13 April 2015

Three Years and Three Days

Julia Gillard made history in 2010 by becoming the first female Prime Minister of Australia. For the next three years and three days she served this country, held together a hung Parliament and managed to deliver an extraordinary amount of legislation designed to bring about positive change in education, workplace relations and other areas desperately needing reform. She records her time in office in My Story (2014).

For those three years and three days Gillard also endured a war on multiple fronts: attacked by the Opposition (lead by current Prime Minister Tony Abbott) with its sexist overtones and outright misogyny; attacked by the media who critiqued her wardrobe rather than her policy; and attacked from within her own party by former PM Kevin Rudd, determined to undermine the government with leaks, self-promotion and the continual threat of a leadership spill.

That Gillard succeeded is a remarkable achievement. During her years in office I often wondered at her strength. She put up with relentless abuse from all sides but remained stoic and driven, or at least putting on a brave face. She is a woman of passions and throughout My Story she keeps coming back to her core beliefs as her reason for getting on with the job.

Starting at the point where she took office, Gillard explained why she felt it necessary to remove Kevin Rudd. She explains how dysfunctional his office had become and the work she was doing behind the scenes to keep the government moving. Rudd comes off as an egomaniacal bully, abusing his staff, keeping secrets, and failing to make decisions.

She doesn't hold back when talking about Rudd. For example, in Chapter 3 - A Campaign Sabotaged, she talks about Rudd's 'dominant emotion was a need for revenge' (p 37) and how he leaked information from a meeting in which Rudd, Gillard and John Faulkner were the only attendees. She writes - 'Feeding this material to a journalist constituted a significant and malicious act. It was not only a deliberate tactic to seek to overshadow my speech on the eve of an election campaign, it was designed to raise doubts about my character, precisely when most Australians were making up their minds about me.' (p 39)

Gillard has high praise for many of her colleagues - Craig Emerson, Stephen Conroy, Jenny Macklin, Wayne Swan, Greg Combet, Penny Wong - and gives credit where credit is due. She speaks clearly about the factions within the Labor party and how divisive they were/are, and where the lines were drawn in the leadership contests.

The book gives intriguing insight into the behind the scenes machinations in the corridors of power. She doesn't hold back, but at the same time she doesn't back-stab. She is a fierce Labor advocate and wants the party to regain its former glory, knowing that this can only come with root and branch reform.

Julia Gillard and Governor General Quentin Bryce at
Gillard's swearing in as Prime Minister in 2010
I had mixed feelings about the Gillard government, largely because the whole Rudd-Gillard-Rudd period seemed more about the party and less about good government. There were so many things achieved during her leadership, but often overshadowed by the nonsense of leaks and scandals.  I wanted more from her and hoped that she would bring about reforms (like marriage equality) that were long overdue.

In reading My Story I was reminded of the government's achievements and, in learning about the internal treachery and prolonged negotiations, I came away feeling intense admiration for Gillard and her leadership.  Her passion for education as the key to a successful life is one that I share. Two speeches she delivered stand out for me: the misogyny speech and her final concession speech. Both delivered with a courage and passion that demonstrate the strength of her character.

I think about Julia Gillard often these days and imagine her clapping her hands with glee over her nemesis Tony Abbott's failings in government. He too is suffering from leadership speculation and internal rumblings, and the vicious words he spewed at Gillard now come back to bite him.

I enjoyed reading My Story and I look forward to seeing what Gillard gets up to next. Gillard will be speaking as part of the Sydney Writers Festival on 1 May 2015, which I will cover in this blog.