I have read the detailed story of the alleged carryings-on when Ms Gillard worked as a partner in Slater and Gordon. It is not great reading. Her defence does not answer every allegation, but it was spirited and cool. I learned a long time ago, when I first had to come to a decision about claims from this person about that person, that one needed time to hear both sides, sometimes every side, and then time to think, before making a decision.
In this case I simply don’t know what decision to come to, but that doesn’t matter, for two reasons. First, whatever happened then has little to do with what is happening now. Second, what we have seen is simply the first round in a continuing battle; more will come out in the coming months. The whole saga may yet be an unedifying account of the underbelly of the union movement, but should this episode be an important element in the coming elections? I don’t think so.
That contest will be about the apparent competence of the Labor Government over the past five years, and the central figure will be, whether she likes it or not, the Prime Minister. There are two Julia Gillards. The first was the Deputy Prime Minister in the Rudd Government, the person who sometimes seemed to be the only competent person in the Ministry, the one who got things done when Kevin 07 was mercifully overseas, meeting other great world leaders. Her status then was very high. Then came the night of the long knives.
She became our first female PM. Like many others, I wished her well. In particular, I wanted our first woman in the top job to do it well – to show that she was every bit as good as a national leader, as the national manager of our collective business, as any man. She was going to be a role model for young Australian women. She needed to be a good one.
I would have to say that I am disappointed. The faults are by no means all hers. Being Captain of the SS Labor Government is never an easy task. Fred Daly told how he arrived in the House of Representatives in 1943 as the new MHR for Martin, sat down in his seat as a supporter of the Curtin Government and, when the man on his left congratulated him on his success in the polls, replied, ‘It’s wonderful to be sitting here gazing at the enemy over there,’ pointing at the Liberals and Country Party across the table.
‘Oh no,’ said the old stager next to him, ‘they’re the Opposition. The enemy are behind us!’
From the beginning, the ALP has been a coalition of those who greatly dislike the Liberals (whatever they are called at the time), and have a strong sense of social justice. Disliking is their strong suit, and that dislike can extend quite easily to those in their own party. Getting anywhere within the ALP means lobbying, making deals, accepting compromises and nursing debts and grievances. It is a microcosm of politics generally.
In short, being at the helm of the Labor ship is difficult at the best of times, and these are not they. It is fair to say that the ALP had not really expected to win power in 2007, had not prepared for it (as it had done between 1981 and 1983), and had been somewhat traumatised by the Rudd premiership. The ending of that period had been brutal, so that Julia Gillard had a lot of work to do to restore calm and confidence.
Her first election produced a hung parliament, an evil result for her. She decided to offer inducements to the Independents in the House and the Greens in the Senate to support her Government, and one outcome of that decision is the carbon tax, which she had said she would not introduce. In my opinion, she would have done better to have tried the minority Government route without inducements, formal ones anyway. It is unlikely that she would have been defeated on the floor of the House in favour of an Abbott government.
These strategic decisions were her own. She has not been as effective as PM as she was as Deputy PM, and some of her judgments have been erratic (as in the matter of Craig Thompson).
Having said that, I would also say that she has been subjected to a form of denigration that has no counterpart in Australian politics. Yes, Kim Beazley’s buttons were always straining against his girth, and John Howard’s efforts to look like a top athlete were risible. But no male politician that I can think of has had to put up with the sexist remarks about her figure, her face, her clothes and her domestic life that Julia Gillard has had to endure.
Those who have done this to her have shown themselves to be less than chivalrous, as unmanly – as dickheads, in short. The more they do it, the more counterproductive this sledging is. The next elections can be fought on straightforward policy terms, and I hope it is.
As an end-note, I was present at a small function at which both Julia Gillard and Katy Gallagher spoke. If I am allowed to say so, they had slim figures, were elegantly dressed, and spoke effectively and well. I thought at the time how far our society had come since my youth, when it seemed impossible that two female first ministers in Australia could be in power at the same time. As it happens, we now have three. Maybe the male supremacists will go on denying that women in high office are any good, but the rest of us will get used to it.