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Julia's Legacy

Now that the colour of Parliament floor closely resembles that of our former PM’s hair, I think it’s prudent to take a step back from the entire situation. Kevin Rudd will be our Prime Minister until September, when he will hand that honour over to Tony Abbott in what now feels like a formality. This is devastating in itself, and I make no apologies for the fact that I am and always have been a big fan of Labor and of Gillard, and that choosing between Abbott and Rudd feels to me like deciding which leg I will voluntarily cut off. 

Let’s focus on Julia Gillard. I tweeted recently that whilst Rudd and Abbott will be consigned to the footnotes of Australian history, Gillard will live on, a defining moment in our life as a country. In 20, 50, 100 years time children will be sitting in their classrooms pretending to listen to their teacher blather on about our first female Prime Minister. Those that are listening will carry this knowledge for the rest of their lives, just as our generation remembers the mystery of Harold Holt, the huge life-span of Sir Robert Menzies’ reign and the unsavoury business of Gough Whitlam and Malcolm Fraser’s epic joust at the helm. Yes, Julia will live on. Love her or hate her, this is not the last you will hear. In fact, she will never fully leave the public consciousness. 

Is this fitting or fair though? Does the fact that she is a woman have anything to do with her Prime-ministership? Was it her defining characteristic, her gender? Or will she be remembered as well for her work with the National Broadband Network, National Disability Insurance Scheme, her thoughts on gay marriage that finally gave hope to same sex couples, and her denial of a carbon tax and subsequent back flip that caused uproar in many corners? Not to mention her lack of decisive action on asylum seekers. 

The difficulty of passing legislation with a minority Government cannot be overstated, especially legislation that was not always popular. In fact, the difficulty of taking on Tony Abbott in order to win the allegiances of those independent MPs she desperately needed cannot either. It took someone of courage and conviction, and someone who had a strong, and sound, vision for the country. Gillard displayed these traits, and was duly rewarded. It is sometimes forgotten in the wash that, according to the constitution, Julia Gillard won the last election fair and square. She may have been deemed one of our most unpopular politicians, but opinion polls lie. Facts do not. 

During her tenure she oversaw one of the most successful and crash-resistant economies in the world. Simultaneously keeping unemployment and inflation low, growth high and interest rates incredibly reasonable, the Australian Dollar has flourished against overseas currencies. However, her failure with the Mining Tax will forever be a stain on her resume, as well as the Clean Energy Bill of 2011.  The failure of the mining tax appears to have been heaped on her plate, despite the fact that a slowing of overseas economies resulted in lower than expected revenue. The fact that she promised to keep the budget in surplus in 2013 was another strike against her and Wayne Swann, however the backlash they received shows a blatant lack of knowledge of how the economy actually works. Her overall impact on Australia’s economy? It can only be judged by the numbers. Right now, despite recent falls in the AUD, inflation is in check, economic growth falls around 3% which is very good, interest rates remain low and despite falls the AUD is strong. Hardly the work of an incompetent Government.

Julia was most certainly a love or hate personality at the helm. Her rise to power was seen as being paved with the blood of Kevin Rudd, and was always a popularity hurdle she had to overcome to be successful. Unfortunately, a number of factors conspired to make this an even more daunting task. A hung Parliament meant that to become PM, concessions had to be made to those with the power to promote. This involved the Carbon Tax, which spawned so many right wing bumper stickers that detractors temporarily forgot the colour of their cars. Once her mining tax tanked, and the Opposition successfully eroded confidence in the NBN, things were always going to spiral for Julia.

Was this her own doing? Surely she couldn’t foresee the circumstances surrounding the necessity of a Carbon Tax, and in theory and practice she handled herself very well throughout that ordeal. Sharon Grierson, a retiring labor MP, stated that when told by a colleague that it was ‘a bit of a miracle we are still here’ she replied ‘that’s a Julia Gillard miracle’. As education minister, Gillard showed strength and an abundance of enthusiasm to work hard. These were two of the pillars she attempted to build her prime-ministership with, but there are other factors required to be a good leader. Self belief can only propel you so far until you need that cutting edge, the ability to sway non-believers. 

Furthermore, she never truly regained the trust of the Australian people after the Rudd debacle. Her constant image switches were also confusing to some. Whereas someone like Tony Abbott has the bloody minded conviction to remain Tony Abbott, Gillard seemed to feel the need to switch and change faces, a clear sign that her struggles in the popularity contest were wearing her down. Adding the glasses, for example, seemed like an odd move. Becoming more emotional in Parliament, going to Afghanistan and drinking a beer, finally calling Abbott and her detractors out for the misogynistic vitriol she had endured for the length of her reign. 

Did Gillard fail due to her own inadequacies, or were the cards always stacked against her? It’s a little from column A and a little from Column B. As PM she made as many mistakes as all who had gone before her. Unlike those before her, however, she had to contend with a ruthless opposition who’s hatred for her seemed unbounded, as well as a section of her public that were still unable to fathom that a female could be Prime Minister of our country. These people seemed to feel a need to attack her constantly, to de-stabilise her in any way possible. Dealing with this as well as trying to successfully run a country without a majority Government.. Not easy. 

So, what of her legacy? There are two answers here. Firstly, what her legacy should be, and secondly what it will most likely be. If we are to be 100% fair to Julia and the work she did for our country, her legacy should only include her gender in relation to the trail-blazing nature of her journey, although this is unlikely. She should be remembered as an incredibly hard working resilient character, who always put the party ideals first and managed to push through her fair share of important legislation despite suffering from a minority Government. An astute operator, but one who lacked the leadership skills necessary to survive, skills that Kevin Rudd clearly has in spades.

So how will she really be remembered? As the first female Prime Minister. No more, no less. It will be an inescapable consequence of her astounding rise to power. Kids will surely be taught the full Gillard story, but in 50 years it’ll be as dull as learning about the GST and Work Choices. She’ll forever be the red-headed woman, and whilst it is liberating and exciting we have had our first female Prime Minister, her mistreatment in Parliament and in the media should live on, as well as her strong will. She has blazed a trail for all women in politics, and made the job of our next female PM easier by taking every branch that was in her way on the chin and refusing to take a backward step.

I miss her already, and I respect and admire her as a politician and a person. Goodbye Julia, we just weren’t ready.  

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