Glimpse of 'real Julia' is too late

TOO LATE: Prime Minister Julia Gillard speaks during her final Question Time in the House of Representatives.
TOO LATE: Prime Minister Julia Gillard speaks during her final Question Time in the House of Representatives. AAP

IN A cruel twist of fate Julia Gillard was toppled from the top office almost three years to the day that she had swung the gong for Kevin Rudd. He is probably allowing himself a little smile as he hangs up his grey suits in her walk-in closet at The Lodge while she leaves Canberra as one of Australia's most unpopular prime ministers.

One would imagine that Ms Gillard may actually allow herself a quiet sigh of relief, for the past three years have offered up a tumultuous mix of emotions, sadly for her more bad than good. That she managed to last this long is testimony to her ability to nurture strong alliances and a simple dogged refusal to not go until pushed.

Well, that push turned into an almighty shove on Wednesday night as the Labor Party, in desperate need of a life raft as the election approaches, sacrificed her as collateral damage. The reasons for her fall are many, and tinged perhaps by which side of the political fence you choose, but the prevailing feeling is that despite the good work she managed with education and disability reforms, Julia Gillard was never really forgiven for the way in which she assumed office in the first place.

"One of the major problems for Julia Gillard was although people did forget to some extent how she became prime minister, they didn't forget enough," said Dr Paul Williams, an expert in Australian politics and a lecturer at Griffith University.

"The Machiavellian means she used to get the top job was viewed by the public as undemocratic, especially in Queensland where Labor supporters seriously reconsidered their positions. People didn't understand how changes like that could come about overnight. It was not explained to them and, remember, most of them had for voted for Kevin Rudd and it was as if their endorsement of a leader had been betrayed.

"Gillard's throwaway line that 'a good government had lost its way' simply didn't wash with the voters and that decision followed her all the way."

Despite the hard times, as she called them, Gillard soldiered on, managing somehow to keep a minority government in check, passing significant legislation through both houses with efficiency and a unique style that often had even her detractors marvelling.

Securing the votes of the Greens after a hung parliament in 2010, and then keeping them onside, called for excellent negotiation skills and she also had to deal with the fallout from the scandals surrounding Craig Thomson and Peter Slipper.

"There is no doubt that as a leader Gillard had to face incredibly difficult circumstances," Dr Williams said. "Many thought that her minority government wouldn't last a year, yet she managed to balance what was an easily fractious situation and that takes skill. She held that government together despite all the pressure and the criticism and managed to get some very important pieces of legislation passed."

Perhaps Gillard's biggest achievements, the ones she will be appreciated for when time has had an opportunity to cushion the disillusionment, are the National Disability Insurance Scheme and the Gonski education reforms.

The former prime minister was visibly emotional when she introduced the bill to fund the NDIS and is right to be proud of a scheme that finally takes into account the overall lifetime needs of a disabled person and is not just a paltry stop-gap measure. Her foresight has changed the lives of hundreds of thousands of people around the country who will now have better access to early intervention, better care and better choices.

It was under Gillard's urging, too, that the government instructed David Gonski to run the ruler over our education system - the most thorough investigation in four decades - and she was quick to ensure the recommendations made by the subsequent report were acted upon. Her offer to partner the states and territories in a funding package worth $16.2 billion has had a few hiccups and could well be scuppered by the Opposition but as she said in her farewell address she was proud the first steps had been taken.

"Julia has always been passionate about education and was actually quite a good Minister for Education under Rudd," Dr Williams said. "She came from a very humble background and believed in the power of education to change lives. She worked hard to drive the Gonski reforms and will see that and the NDIS as something to hang her hat on. She will be happy to have delivered on what are seen as traditional Labor reforms."

But even as Gillard returns to her electorate to take stock and reflect on a life outside politics, it will be her failures which will resonate most loudly in her wake.

The introduction of the carbon tax, seen as the breaking of an election promise, and her determination to push it through, despite the concern and displeasure of the general public, saw her popularity take a nose dive, and no amount of reassurance that it would not impact adversely on the family budget could get her back in their good graces.

A tax of another kind, this time of the mining industry, merely served to increase the depth of the hole she was digging for herself. It enraged the mining companies but revenues were glaringly lower than expected. Suddenly the income source which the Gillard government was relying on to pull the budget into deficit was gone, thrown out with same bath water that Julia had just stepped into.

Then there was the government's seeming lack of any concrete action on the thousands of asylum-seekers who were risking their lives to get to Australia by boat. The government floundered between the nonsensical Malaysia Solution and regional processing centres in Nauru and Manus Island which drew criticism from refugee advocates and ordinary people with a conscience.

It will be difficult to forget her support of Thomson and Slipper, her reluctance to give the NBN the finance it needed, the campaign against the 457 visas, her inept handing of the media policy reforms, her disregard for big business and her misguided insistence that the government would deliver a surplus.

And, of course, there was the whole gender wars issue. Her furious tirade against sexism and misogyny in Parliament last October came from the heart and made a worldwide sensation.

After losing the prime ministership she said: "The reaction to being the first female prime minister does not explain everything about my prime ministership, nor does it explain nothing about my prime ministership."

There is no doubt Gillard has paved an easier path for the next female prime minister but she and her government were also seen as being guilty of playing the gender card in manufactured circumstances, the latest of which was her "men in blue ties" speech. The problem was that every minute Gillard spent engaged in the misogyny narrative was a minute less she spent on securing support for her government's policies.

Probably one of Gillard's greatest failings was an inability to show the Australian people the real woman behind the mask. By all accounts, in private she is a warm, affable, humorous and amazingly kind person with a fierce sense of loyalty, and incredible grace and compassion. It was a side to her we too rarely got to see.

"Gillard probably showed us more of her real self during her speech on Wednesday night than she did during her entire term," Dr Williams said.

"It is often the case that when a leader is making an exit their mask drops; they don't really care what people think anymore and you see more of the real person. During that speech she was relaxed and open. Sure, she was angry but she spoke quickly and firmly and off the cuff and not in her usual stilted manner.

"Usually her tone and delivery is slow and considered and she gives the impression that she is lecturing you but on Wednesday she was natural and warm and gave an insight into the real person."

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