Julia Gillard has written not one but two books, bound together in a single volume. The first half is a compelling and gossipy account of seizing the prime ministership from a dysfunctional incumbent and holding it against the odds; the second half entirely optional for the reader uninterested in the technical details of mainly unadventurous policy, no matter how Gillard likes to frame it.
A leader who endured so much treachery and abuse is entitled to make her case for history. She asks us to judge her three years and three days as Australia’s first woman prime minister. One cannot but admire her “resilience” – a word she uses often in praise of herself – in the face of an opposition leader with the Murdoch media and the mining industry at his back, all of whom were determined to violate the conventions of civilised dissent.
Her chapter titled “The Curious Question of Gender” argues persuasively that a male prime minister would never have to deal so publicly with his marital status or twentysomething sex life, or with persistent observations about his home decor, dress sense and even his arse. There are reminders of the misogyny of radio host Alan Jones – “shove her ... in a chaff bag and take her ... out to sea”, “the old man recently died ... of shame” – of Tony Abbott posing beside placards reading “Ditch the witch”, and of the Liberal Party fundraising menu referring to Gillard’s “small breasts, huge thighs and a big red box”.
But there are more insidious incidents involving people who should know better. Agribusiness leader David Farley referred to Gillard as an “unproductive old cow”. The ABC produced At Home With Julia, featuring Gillard and partner Tim Mathieson copulating under an Australian flag quilt. The show reeked of private-school snobbery and would have never been made about John and Janette Howard.
Other parts of Gillard’s book, however, read like a straightforward “get square”, in the best Labor Party tradition. Bob Carr becomes a lazy foreign minister, an observation she would have been unlikely to make had he not called on her to resign in mid-2013. Simon Crean, her long-time backer, is suddenly a wrecker because the Labor loyalist in him believed Gillard would lead the party to oblivion and he decided to act openly to trigger a leadership spill rather than simply snipe. The independent Queensland MP Bob Katter, who didn’t sign up as a coalition partner with Gillard’s minority government but didn’t destabilise it either, is patronised because he dares to doubt the conventional wisdom of the “suave, professional head of Treasury, Ken Henry”, on open-slather policies of free trade.
Perhaps most nastily, she traduces the Tasmanian independent Andrew Wilkie for insisting her government honour its pledge to restrict poker machines, one of the most insidious methods of transferring wealth from the poor to the rich that one could ever conceive.
Then there is the ultimate object of Gillard’s revenge – Kevin Rudd. Her portrait of him is brutal, as it must be.
Rudd had one good campaign in him, in 2007, against a discredited government pursuing an industrial relations and free-market “brutopia”, as he termed it in 2006. His popularity in the electorate was in inverse proportion to that in the party. He was barely tolerated by colleagues. But he gave Labor a narrative it had not had in two decades: cautious support for a rules-based market economy; restoring protections for workers; addressing climate change; demanding that rent-seeking corporations, such as mining companies, pay more tax.
The dream foundered in government when, as Gillard tells it, Rudd took himself and the cabinet to the brink of breakdown. Hardened Rudd staffers were “weeping uncontrollably in my office, so psychologically taxing was the atmosphere”. When Rudd went abroad, ministers besieged her office to get projects approved in his absence. “Kevin’s demeanour was now unremittingly one of paralysis and misery. He appeared to hate every minute of his day and to be frustrated by every person and every event.”
These are harsh judgements but, since the 2013 election, more people have testified to the accuracy of Gillard’s account than against it.
But the latter part of Gillard’s book suggests she could have done with more of Rudd’s big-picture thinking. Her legacy rests on a handful of debatable policies, especially around work and education.
Gillard may not apply the Baptist influence of her youth – no bad thing, if taken in context – to what she terms our “personal choices”, but she is eager to impose its puritan work ethic. Her preachiness about “setting the clock early” and the virtues of “hard work” grates when you consider that, for most of her working life, she has been her own boss. If she put in 14 hours a day, it was for her own benefit. But for workers whose tasks are process-oriented drudgery – in call centres, the hospitality industry, nursing homes – clock-watching and a culture of taking the pay cheque with little emotional investment is understandable. To their ears, Gillard is saying we live to work, and this is the stuff of Tories, and Victorian-era Tories at that.
Nor can Labor truly celebrate her education initiatives. In her last budget, she ripped $2.3 billion out of universities to fund an ideology based on the failed principles of an American lawyer. Joel Klein imposed on New York standardised testing, school closures and taxpayer funding of privately run academies. The New York Times later revealed his policies had failed, as test scores plummeted. Klein went to work for Murdoch.
Gillard was not a great Labor leader. She was an intelligent, overachieving student but someone who ultimately took a technocratic and transactional approach to power. She will content herself with being the first female prime minister, a considerable achievement but arguably not enough. PT
Knopf, 512pp, $49.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 11, 2014 as "Julia Gillard, My Story". Subscribe here.