Could it be that there is less to Julia Gillard than meets the eye? Peter Mares reviews a new biography of the Deputy Prime Minister.
She is a woman of fierce intelligence, Australia’s best parliamentary performer and one of the sharpest wits in Canberra. I met Gillard a couple of times early in her political career, when she was shadow minister for immigration, and engaged her in a lengthy discussion about refugee policy. This was not long after the Tampa affair, when Labor was searching for a way back from the wilderness of electoral defeat and the party was bleeding internally from wounds caused by rank-and-file anger at its response to John Howard’s handling of the asylum seekers issue. I found Gillard to be charming, engaging and funny. She was well briefed, open to argument and ideas, but questioning and critical. I had the sense even then that her feet were firmly grounded in the reality of electoral politics: that no policy proposal would pass muster if it might constitute a serious obstacle on the path back to power in Canberra.
Like many Australians, I have followed Gillard’s rise through Labor’s ranks keenly since then, if only because she has added colour and vibrancy to federal politics (I’m not talking about her hair). So I was eager to read Jacqueline Kent’s biography. Sadly, having done so, I find the deputy prime minister rather less interesting than I did before I started.
This is partly the fault of the author. Jacqueline Kent is capable of excellent biographical writing: she has twice won the Nita B. Kibble literary prize for the best Australian ‘life writing’ by a female author – for A Certain Style: Beatrice Davis, A Literary Life (2002) and for An Exacting Heart: The Story of Hephzibah Menuhin (2008). Yet The Making of Julia Gillard fails to engage. The prose is at best workmanlike, and there is little sense of narrative as the book travels chronologically through Gillard’s life. The moments when the book comes alive are generally when Gillard herself is speaking. Take this example, which demonstrates Gillard’s Hawke-esque ability to engage with that fabled electoral species, the ordinary Australian:
Julia Gillard tells this story:
‘At a shopping centre in Hoppers Crossing I’m handing out stuff. I am standing next to a board with my photograph on it. This old guy comes out of the supermarket, looks at me, looks at the photo, looks at me, then turns back to me and says “Taken on a good day, wasn’t it, love?” I said, “And you’d be bloody Robert Redford, would you mate?’”
Gillard’s sense of humour and her ability to laugh at herself are among her most attractive qualities. Unfortunately, we don’t see much of either in this book. What we get is the guarded Gillard, a politician who generally remains safely ‘on message’, and who is not about to reveal the details of her inner life.
Kent nevertheless gives us some interesting material, particularly in relation to the machinations of the Labor Party, documenting the various ways in which, despite her obvious talents, Gillard’s rise was repeatedly thwarted by ‘comrades’ in the left of the Victorian ALP such as Lindsay Tanner and Kim Carr. The fact that Gillard now sits around the Cabinet table with these former foes (and outranks them in the Rudd government), and that Carr eventually threw his factional weight behind her bid to become deputy leader, reveals another of Gillard’s political strengths: she is not a hater. Unlike some other famous Labor politicians, Gillard does not nurse grudges. Kent reveals her considerable ability to pave a smooth road over the potholes of past conflict and to drive forward alliances that cross factional and ideological lines.
Gillard, from the Victorian left of the ALP, gained crucial political experience in her role as chief of staff to John Brumby when he was state opposition leader during the Kennett years. Though Brumby comes from the right of the party, the pair worked well together and by all accounts remain on good terms. Gillard was also a leading supporter of Mark Latham, another Labor right-winger, during his crash and burn period as federal Opposition leader. She has been one of the few Labor MPs not to openly condemn Latham since the publication of his eviscerating personal diaries.
When Gillard emerged as an Opposition politician to be taken seriously, the Coalition began digging dirt on her and tried to portray her as a dangerous radical. The evidence it produced for this characterisation was Gillard’s past as an organiser with the ‘far left’ Socialist Forum in Melbourne. Gillard played down her history with the Forum, suggesting that she had been little more than its glorified typist. As Kent shows, her role was far more substantial, but the Socialist Forum was hardly a nest of hot-headed revolutionaries. It was formed in an attempt to forge a broader consensus amongst the fractured left of Victorian politics – and (shock, horror) some ex-communists were involved – but Gillard was seen as a moderate or even conservative figure within these circles. Even in her youth, as an organiser with the Australian Union of Students, she was no firebrand. My memory of student politics at Adelaide University (which I attended soon after Gillard’s election as AUS vice-president) was that the Labor Club was considered by many student activists to be ‘right-wing’.
In this sense, Gillard’s membership of the left faction within the Victorian ALP is more organisational than ideological. If anything, she emerges from Kent’s book as a Blairite Third-Wayer, influenced by Latham’s idea of a ‘ladder of opportunity’. Keen to promote social inclusion, but wary of how deadening the hand of government welfare can be in implementing social policy, Gillard supports approaches that combine state and non-state actors in service delivery, encourage competition and individual initiative, yet maintain a safety net for those who fall.
It is too early to judge Gillard’s achievements in office, but so far the results are mixed. She appears to have forged a workable compromise in industrial relations; neither business nor unions are completely happy, but she has eliminated the harsher aspects of WorkChoices while preserving strict legal boundaries to constrain industrial action. The education revolution, on the other hand, appears to have been hijacked by stimulus spending. We are getting a lot of new buildings, but there is limited evidence of serious thinking about what needs to change in Australia’s state school system.
Kent’s chronology of Gillard’s life helps to explain her political success: her lack of bitterness and personal enmity, her intelligence, her charm, her energy, her ability to turn division and disagreement into a workable compromise, her political agility, common touch and well-tuned antenna. Yet this book also raises questions about Gillard. Does she have the depth of ideas to drive policy forward in innovative and constructive ways, or does she just pull together a grab bag of policy initiatives to suit the political moment? Is Gillard motivated by a set of core principles and beliefs, or is she a careerist, looking for the main chance? Any successful political career will combine conviction and ambition: while Kent is a sympathetic biographer who strives to emphasise the former, her narrative of Gillard’s life reveals more evidence of the latter.
The reader is left wondering: who is Julia Gillard and what makes her tick? We are told that she is driven by the injustice of her father’s early life in Wales, when he was forced to abandon school and go to work. We learn that she grew up in a Labor-voting family in the reformist Don Dunstan era in South Australia, and that her first political memory was the sacking of Gough Whitlam. But many Australians have similar experiences and do not embark on a career in politics. Kent gives us a wealth of detail, but the substance of Gillard is still lacking.
The Making of Julia Gillard is published by Viking, PB, $32.95
Peter Mares presents the weekly public policy discussion program The National Interest on ABC Radio National.
This review first appeared in December issue of Australian Book Review