Ghost of Gillard haunts Australian politics
To those outside Australia, that nation’s first female prime minister is an iconic figure. To Australians, she seemed cold, shrill and a bit dour
It is the last week of the federal election campaign in Australia, not that you’d ever know it. The lamp posts are free of posters; there are no canvassers knocking on doors asking for our number one; we’ve had just a single leaflet through the letterbox (thank you, Greens.)
Even in the leafy electoral area of Warringah, currently home to me and former amateur boxer, one-time Catholic priest and leader of the Liberals Tony Abbott, there is little obvious excitement that it might be about to produce the next leader of Australia.
Last Sunday, Father’s Day here, we were having brunch outside a cafe in the winter sunshine when two figures appeared, dressed from head to foot in blue and wearing Abbott placards. As they tried to hand out leaflets, they were met with embarrassed shrugs and polite declines, until they gave up and shuffled off.
But they probably didn’t mind: Australia might not be going to the polls until Saturday, but at least as far as the bookies who began paying out on an Abbott win last week are concerned, the outcome has already been decided. A dull campaign may be exactly what Australia needs right now, after years of Labor infighting – but it is hard to escape the sense that something is missing.
The Gillard factor
Mostly, I suspect, that something is Julia Gillard. There has always been a dissonance in how Gillard is viewed in Australia and how she is seen by the rest of the world.
To those outside Australia, she is an iconic, if flawed, figure; an intriguing mix of toughness and passion; courage and vulnerability. Hers is a compelling story: the Welsh-born immigrant who became the first female prime minister of Australia, refused to lie down when she found herself on the receiving end of some astonishingly ugly misogyny, and was finally rewarded by being chewed up and spat out by her own party.
To many Australians, she is a conundrum, but one that frustrates more than it intrigues. As a leader, she tried to project an image of confidence and assurance, but was seen as guilty of policy backflips and hypocrisy. Her allies describe her as fun and warm, but in public she seemed cold, shrill and a bit dour.
And to sections of the largely Rupert Murdoch-controlled media, she was – and remains – a harpy to be mocked for having no husband (only a less-than-satisfactory boyfriend, hairdresser Tim Mathieson); no children; and no god (she is an atheist).
That dissonance in perceptions of her was most in evidence in the aftermath of the now-famous, blistering tirade she delivered against misogyny in parliament last October.
It made headlines worldwide and was viewed more than 2.5 million times on YouTube, but was greeted mostly with an embarrassed silence by the media in her own country. One Sydney Morning Herald columnist noted that “all she achieved was a serious loss of credibility”.
‘Some decided she was a fraud’
“Gillard was never able to persuade enough Australians that she knew what she was doing,” says politics professor Judith Brett in the Melbourne-based the Monthly, which ran the only substantial interview with Gillard since she was ousted from the top job by Kevin Rudd in June. “Some decided she was a fraud, others turned off, and a minority gave her the benefit of the doubt.”
Following the final ousting by Rudd in June after their years of internecine, ping-pong rivalry, Gillard agreed, in a Shakespearean-style pact, to leave politics for good after the election. Since then, aside from a two-line statement explaining why she wouldn’t be at the Labour campaign launch, and a bland, politics-free speech at a Mormon church last weekend, she has not uttered a word in public .
And yet, her shadow still looms large over the campaign. Abbott has taken to bringing what the media dub his “secret weapons” – his articulate and photogenic teenage daughters – on selected outings with him, as though to prove to the world he couldn’t possibly be the dinosaur Gillard railed against.
But it is Rudd who is suffering most acutely from the Gillard effect. Commentators persist in defining him in opposition to her, noting his disastrous people skills, wondering where the ideas are that he hasn’t swiped from Gillard.
Some this week even resurrected the term “Seinfeld election”, which was bandied about in 2010 to describe an election that was perceived as being about nothing very much.
It is a neat aphorism, even if it isn’t strictly true. This election isn’t about nothing. It is about banishing the ghost of Julia Gillard – and whatever happens on Saturday, the success of that outcome is still very much to play for.