Wondering what word I should use in the title to best capture my opinion of our first female prime minister, now sadly at the end of her period in federal politics, I have chosen ‘fine’. Of high quality, clear, pure, refined, delicate, subtle, exquisitely fashioned, elevated, capable of delicate perception or discrimination, excellent, of striking merit, good, dignified, are among the many synonyms of ‘fine’. Each on its own portrays how admirers of Julia Gillard see her.
There are other superlatives that apply to this extraordinary woman: courageous, resilient, persistent, tough, a fighter, focused, intelligent and hard working, an accomplished negotiator, a high achiever, one who gets things done. But there are other softer terms: gracious, dignified, poised, good-humoured, friendly, easy-going, relaxed, composed, fond of children, the aged, and the disabled. Another apt adjective is articulate.
How can I justify these laudable descriptors?
Let’s start with the last – ‘articulate’.
There are some who would dispute this, claiming that she could not get her message across, was unable to ‘cut through’, could not convey ‘what she stood for’, her ‘narrative’. This has always been a mystery to me.
How many times did she say that she stands for fairness and opportunity for all, opportunity for all to have a great education, a good job, a rewarding occupation built on a sound education? How many times did she say that she wanted a fairer workplace? How often did she talk about the need for pay equity, paid parental leave and better superannuation?
How many times did she speak about a National School Curriculum, the MySchool website, NAPLAN, and the Gonski reforms for fairer school funding?
How many times did she say she wanted a strong economy to support jobs and growth? Did you hear her say that she wanted to share the profits of mining across the community? How many times did she say that she wanted super fast broadband by way of the NBN to make Australia internationally competitive? How often did she emphasize the need to lift productivity? How often did she say that she wanted to improve road, rail and ports infrastructure? How many times did she say that she wanted an ETS to limit global warming? How often did she urge the development of alternative energy sources?
How many times did she say she wanted a solution for the Murray-Darling water system? How often did she say that she wanted a regional solution to the asylum-seeker problem?
How many times did she say she wanted a better health care system, one that catered for the increasing number of aged, mentally impaired, and the disabled? How many times did you hear her advocate an NDIS? Did you hear her talking about the dangers of alcopops and the need for plain packing on cigarettes?
Did you hear her advocating a Royal Commission into institutional child abuse?
You all heard her say these things over and again.
Where was the Canberra Press Gallery? Asleep, focussed on the trivial, blind to the central issues. Or were journalists simply so spellbound with groupthink that they ‘heard’ only what they wanted to hear, heard only what confirmed them and their editors in their collective view that she had no narrative, and stood for nothing. There were just a few who were not infected with the same groupthink, but the majority drowned their voices out. Sheer ineptitude or malevolent intent are the only plausible explanations for the Fourth Estate’s incompetence.
To me Julia Gillard was articulate; I heard clearly what she said, I understood what she stood for, and I was satisfied and pleased.
Was she able to achieve everything embodied in her narrative? No, there is still unfinished business, but she did achieve an enormous amount in just three years.
Her Government was the highest performing government in Australian political history with around six hundred pieces of legislation passed, many of them visionary reforms.
This is not the place for an exhaustive list, but here’s a glimpse of her achievements and that of her government:
Removal of WorkChoices, and legislating the Fair Work Act, PPL, and better superannuation and child care.
Pay equity for lower paid workers, mostly women.
Placing a price on carbon pollution, leading to an ETS in two years.
Implementing renewable energy initiatives to contribute to carbon reduction targets.
Introducing a minerals resource rent tax to share mining super profits across the community.
Sustaining a growing economy, the best in the developed world, during the most severe financial crisis for over seventy years, and the creation of a million jobs.
Adjusting pensions, carbon compensation, tax cuts and the school kids bonus.
Instituting infrastructure development: NBN, ports, roads, rail.
Introducing a package of health reforms: in hospitals, community health, aged, mental and cancer care, plain packaging of cigarettes, and healthcare administration.
Completing the first Murray-Darling water plan in a century.
Development of the ‘Australia in the Asian Century' White Paper.
Enhancement of relationships with the US, China and Indonesia.
Bringing about ground-breaking school education reforms culminating in the Gonski reforms for fairer school funding, and increased university places.
The introduction of the National Disability Insurance Scheme (DisabilityCare Australia), a crowning achievement.
She has set in place monumental reforms to vital parts of our national edifice, the likes of which we have never seen before. She has bequeathed these to our nation. This will be her legacy, a mantle she can wear with pride.
All of these accomplishments have taken place in a minority parliament where every move had to be negotiated with several parties, where many were fiercely resisted by the Coalition and in several instances by the Greens, where negotiating skills were paramount, and where obstruction and delaying tactics were daily barriers to progress. Julia Gillard achieved all this because of her persistence, her toughness, her patience, her courage and her determination to get done those pivotal reforms and this essential legislation, all focussed on making Australia an even more prosperous nation, one that was “stronger, smarter and fairer” to use her own words.
It is not just what she achieved that is so praiseworthy, it is the circumstances in which she did so, the environment she had to endure.
Has there ever been a prime minister who has had to cope, day after day, with the toxic, poisonous environment that enveloped her? There is no need to elaborate at length. You know it all.
Day after day the Opposition Leader and his Coalition colleagues heaped upon her personal abuse, contempt, vitriol, and nastiness. She was attacked with demeaning words that revealed disdain, disrespect and derision, often with sexist innuendo, until one day she could take no more. The feisty Julia burst out and flayed Tony Abbott with that memorable rebuttal; one captured on YouTube to the delight of two million viewers and women the world over.
Unremittingly, she was debased in the media, by the vile Pickering, the contemptible shock jocks Alan Jones and Ray Hadley, and in her last interview, the despicable Howard Sattler. The mainstream media put out material every day that condemned her actions, ridiculed her ideas, criticized her every move, and found fault with her demeanour, her voice, her dress and her body shape, but seldom ever gave her any credit. The malicious Andrew Bolt and Piers Akerman led the charge. The Murdoch media, joined latterly by Fairfax media, and sadly by elements of the ABC, clearly wanted her out of office and Tony Abbott’s Coalition in. Almost every news item portrayed that, sometimes subtly, but often stridently. The Press Gallery condemned what they characterized as her inability to get her message out, even her good messages, while steadfastly refusing to give them any oxygen.
Then there was the persistent sabotage of some in her own party from the moment she took office. Kevin Rudd and his supporters ran a relentless campaign of erosion of her authority, engaged the media disgracefully to pursue their agenda, and used poor polling to push its case for a change of leader. It is possible for strong people to endure for a long while despite life’s ‘slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’, but internal hatred and disloyalty eventually takes its corrosive toll, as it did on 26 June when her colleagues, some of them previously loyal compatriots, turned on her and ousted her.
To me this was an unforgivable act of infamy and treachery that will forever stain the history of Labor.
The Victorian Women's Trust agrees. Last Friday, it placed full-page advertisements in four Australian newspapers praising Julia Gillard's achievements and condemning both Labor and the Liberal parties for their actions over the past three years; Kevin Rudd for orchestrating a treacherous ‘seek-and-destroy’ mission against Julia Gillard, and Tony Abbott for his opportunistic appeals to people's prejudices.
Should you need more evidence about the poisonous environment in which PM Gillard had to work, do read The Stalking of Julia Gillard: How the media and Team Rudd contrived to bring down the Prime Minister by Kerry-Anne Walsh (Allen & Unwin, 2013), a lucid account of all the forces pitted against her.
That Julia Gillard survived for three long years in the face of this tripartite hostility: from the Opposition, the Fourth Estate and her own colleagues, signals her strength of character, her resilience and her toughness. The way she departed showed for all to see, her poise, her grace and her gentleness.
There are many other attributes of Julia Gillard that I could explore, but I will end with her delightful personality. It would not have been surprising if she had become ‘bitter and twisted’ in the face of all the personal abuse and denigration that was heaped upon her every working day. But she retained her equanimity. Will we ever forget that marathon press conference where the Press Gallery finally exhausted itself asking her question after question about her days at Slater and Gordon twenty years ago until they had no more? Despite her despair of the Canberra Press Gallery, evidenced by her admonition: “Don’t write crap; it can’t be that hard”, she patiently took every question and ended smiling at them, as she had begun.
It was when she interacted with children, the disabled, the aged, and indigenous folk that gave us the most penetrating look into her soul, her inner being.
She was always smiling, often laughing with her infectious chuckle, always ready to embrace those around her, always concerned about the welfare of others, exhibited by her concern for the safety of Tony Abbott at the time of the Canberra restaurant ‘siege’ by aboriginal activists on Australia Day.
Despite all the visceral nastiness, the sexist taunts, the media vitriol, the Abbott attack dog snarling at her day after day, the disingenuousness and condemnation coming at her from every direction, the treachery in her own ranks, the ugly images painted by the cartoonists and the vile words of the shock jocks, she was able to smile, able to bounce back showing no desire for retribution, finally able to relinquish the most important political position in the nation with dignity, poise, and composure, and then sit on the back bench with a wistful smile on her face and with tears in her eyes as Rob Oakeshott told her in his valedictory speech that he had tweeted her on the night she was replaced: ‘Your father would have been proud of you’.
And so are we.
Thank you Julia.
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