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The political tragedy of Julia Gillard

While she may look elsewhere, ultimately Julia Gillard has no-one to blame for her political demise but herself. AAP/Lukas Coch

In the middle of the 2012 winter, an influential supporter of Julia Gillard laid out for me the intricacies of the Labor caucus’ power structures, the labour movement’s web of personal antagonisms and the federal government’s dire predicament. At the end of his treatise, with a wide-eyed look of resignation and a despairing tone, he summed up:

The whole show is f—ed and no-one can work out how to unf— it.

A few weeks later, a highly experienced Labor figure with deep knowledge of public attitudes to the Gillard government and how to harness voter support shared his assessment. He’d concluded that Labor was headed for defeat and had lost the capacity to independently influence the 2013 election outcome because the bulk of voters had lost any desire to listen to the government.

An avowed agnostic on the Kevin Rudd-Julia Gillard question, he averred that the only way Labor could re-enter serious consideration would be if the Liberal-National Coalition made a series of major public blunders.

Both encounters came after the introduction of the carbon tax, which Gillard had consistently told her MPs would be the moment when the dark electoral clouds would part for the government, and only a few months after Gillard had thrashed Rudd in a caucus ballot and declared that the leadership question had been settled for all time.

And yet, Gillard managed to hang on as Labor leader for almost another year, right up until Wednesday of this week. With Gillard having surrendered the leadership to Rudd in decisive but not overwhelming fashion, it seems that 26 Labor MPs who in February last year backed Gillard found, to borrow the aforementioned Gillard supporter’s eloquent term, a way to “unf—” the government. They did so by switching back to the man Gillard thought she’d vanquished.

In doing so, they have at least created the possibility that the ALP can moderate, or perhaps even avoid, the electoral nightmare that was likely to consume the nation’s oldest political party. Or maybe not. Rudd’s return affords an opportunity for Labor, but that is all.

The caucus’ decision also implies, heavily and unavoidably, that it made a mistake by elevating Gillard to the leadership on June 24, 2010.

The truth is that the Australian Labor Party nationally has in the past three years experienced its most rancorous divisions since the split of the 1950s. Unlike the period of the split, which occurred in opposition and guaranteed many more years of it, the party has endured these divisions while holding office, and the enmities have, for the most part, grown from ego rather than ideology.

If the events of the past few days are to have any meaning, they need to be seen in the context of what has happened to the Government since early 2010. First things first: Julia Gillard’s downfall as prime minister is one of the greatest personal tragedies in Australian politics.

It is a tragedy because Gillard’s ambition ultimately exceeded her political talent, and to the very end she would not see it. Her speech delivered after her caucus defeat on Wednesday night attributed her removal as leader to only two causes: a loss of fortitude among past supporters who buckled under external pressure and sexism directed at her as the nation’s first female prime minister.

There was no acknowledgement that she had lost the confidence of most of her colleagues because of her own performance.

The pattern of failing to fully own her errors was set early during the 2010 election campaign when she said that she would no longer conform to her handlers’ directives and from that point voters would see “the real Julia”. Notably, it was the advisers who had made the big mistakes. Her mistake had been to follow their advice.

Gillard had been a brilliant deputy to Rudd, an earthy foil to his high-flown nerdishness. But as leader, she rarely looked comfortable and did not seem at ease with the natural authority that comes with the nation’s highest political office.

Nor did she have the benefit of a deputy who could perform as well as she had. Indeed, in Wayne Swan she had one of the least effective communicators modern politics has seen. It has become a mantra for Labor and its supporters to bemoan the fact it does not get the credit it deserves for its handling of the economy.

The media gets the blame which, to a degree, it should. But Swan was charged with selling Labor’s economic policy from December 2004 until last Wednesday. Should he not shoulder most of the responsibility?

Gillard’s defenders in the party room and in the electorate produce a list of reasons for her removal: Rudd’s refusal to accept his loss of the leadership and leaks aimed at harming her; sexism; a ferocious, sometimes unhinged approach from some people in the opposition; harsh treatment by the media.

There is something to all of them. She definitely was the target of vicious, sexist attacks. The media was quick to turn on her and some elements were relentless in their dismissive attitude. The opposition treated her time as prime minister as one unbroken crisis.

And Rudd did undermine Gillard. The leaks against her during her first weeks as leader either came from Rudd or people sympathetic to him and they hurt her. One revealed that she had opposed a rise in welfare payments chiefly on the basis of Labor’s political interests.

Another far more damaging leak, put directly to Gillard during an appearance at the National Press Club, suggested that during a long meeting with Rudd on June 23, 2010, she had undertaken to give him several months to repair his faltering leadership. During a break in the meeting, she was told by her supporters that she already had the caucus numbers stitched up, whereupon she returned to Rudd and withdrew her undertaking: she was challenging him.

To this day, this leak is regarded by many on the Labor side as appalling treachery, which it was. But one thing needs to be said: it has not been challenged successfully on the grounds of veracity. The real damage was not in the act of leaking but in its substance, which presented Gillard as someone who would put her ambition ahead of her word.

From that moment, her troubles never left her. Her trustworthiness was in question but voters were still willing to give her the benefit of the doubt – until she committed after the 2010 election to a carbon tax.

Gillard favoured an emissions trading scheme until early 2010, when in the face of an onslaught by Tony Abbott and some bad polls she urged Rudd very strongly to put the policy on ice until there was a cross-party consensus. Rudd, revealing his own severe propensity for misjudgement, accepted that advice. Then Gillard replaced him as leader and once again favoured an ETS.

During the 2010 election campaign, Gillard promised to refer the issue to a hazily-designed “people’s assembly” and vowed there would be no carbon tax. After the election, under pressure from the Greens, she dropped the idea of the assembly and adopted a temporary carbon tax as Labor policy. But, incredibly, rather than emphasising its temporary nature and perhaps calling it a levy, which has a different meaning for many voters, she declared that she was happy to call it a tax.

That sealed the trustworthiness question and it’s why there was no recovery in Labor’s polling numbers after July 1 last year. Too many voters resented the way she had pursued the policy much more than the policy itself.

The argument in defence of Julia Gillard is that her government managed to get hundreds of pieces of legislation through a parliament in which Labor did not have majorities in its right in either house. This included the signature reforms of new education funding arrangements and the National Disability Insurance Scheme. Again, the argument has merit.

But the story must also include the failed idea of a processing centre in East Timor, the enlisting of Peter Slipper as Speaker of the House, the crazy idea of setting a September election date in January and the departure of two Cabinet members two days after the announcement, the costly architecture of the minerals resource rent tax, and the threat in late 2011 to force a parliamentary vote on the Malaysia solution as a wedge tactic against the Coalition which was withdrawn when she realised she would lose.

Worst of all, it must also include the oft-repeated pledge by Gillard and Swan to return the budget to surplus this year. The signs were there in mid-2012 they could not deliver but they kept promising it until the end of the year. Incredible.

Neither Rudd nor the media nor pollsters nor the nation’s sexists forced these errors. They were entirely the work of a politician who, like all leaders, was fuelled by immense personal ambition but who could not learn from her mistakes. Sadly, the journey Gillard took to the summit deprived her of some of the skills and the sense of legitimacy she needed to fully inhabit the role she had sought so desperately.

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