There's no doubt that Julia Gillard was singled out by the media and undermined within her own party. But to cast her as an unwavering progressive Prime Minister is a case of willful political amnesia, writes Simon Copland.
Credit where credit is due. That is all people are asking for. That Julia Gillard be given the credit she deserves for her achievements as Prime Minister.
Many progressives and feminists are scrambling to write the history of Julia Gillard’s years in office. Gillard has done a ‘speaking tour’ talking up her accomplishments. A new book by Kerry Anne Walsh, The Stalking of Julia Gillard, has told the story of how “a powerful media pack, a vicious commentariat and some of those within her own party contrived to bring down Australia's first woman prime minister.” And now the book is going to be turned into a telemovie staring Rachel Griffiths.
The history being written is simple; Julia Gillard was a progressive Prime Minister who achieved a significant amount in tough circumstances. And she was unfairly torn down by forces externally and within her own party.
It is a strange re-telling of history.
Let’s break down the story into different parts. First, was Gillard a great progressive reformer as many people would like to say? Well, yes, she did achieve a lot of things in her short time as Prime Minister. Over 500 pieces of legislation in her term - a pretty impressive achievement I guess. But passing legislation doesn’t make you a good Prime Minister. You have to pass good legislation, and from a progressive perspective Gillard’s record is weak. It is a record filled with locking up innocent asylum seekers, watering down the mining tax, approving coal mines, cutting payments to single parents (policy passed on the same day as the misogyny speech!), extending the Northern Territory intervention, cutting aid funding, cutting higher education funding etc etc. The list goes on and on. In policy area after policy area Julia Gillard actively took Australia further to the right.
But, we are told - you are ignoring all the positive things she did as well! As Karen Pickering argues:
“This was the view of some progressives who can never see any of Gillard's achievements – the carbon tax, NDIS, paid parental leave, Gonski reforms, and the Royal Commission into child abuse among others – as legitimate when she failed so comprehensively to address the issues that mattered to them most.”
A very weird re-writing of history indeed. Firstly, paid parental leave was actually passed in the Rudd years - not a Gillard achievement. On the carbon tax, the story forgets that Gillard was the main driver behind dumping the original CPRS and then tried to pass off a ‘citizens assembly’ as her new policy. She was dragged kicking and screaming to implement the policy we have now. And Gonski and the NDIS were actually far more right wing than many in the left have ever been able to admit - policies that boost private schools and shift a key social service into a market system.
So no, Gillard was not some progressive hero. She in fact, in large, took Australia further to the right - something we definitely shouldn’t be celebrating.
So what, you say. She was still torn down unfairly by her detractors - a ‘stalking’ that has given us Tony Abbott. This story has always intrigued me. Obviously Gillard was the recipient of awful sexist attacks and we certainly targeted from within the party. But to blame her downfall solely on these elements takes away a whole lot of her agency around her own demise.
It’s always fascinated me when people complain about the undermining of Gillard’s leadership, when it was Gillard who cut off the head of a popular first-term Prime Minister with basically no notice within the party or to the public. Talk about undermining someone’s leadership!
Take Rudd, and even the media, out of the agenda though, and Gillard was still doing plenty to bring herself down. I mean, have we all forgotten the ridiculous policies such as the East Timor Solution and the Citizens Assembly, or ‘Real Julia’? Was it Rudd that forced her to recruit Peter Slipper, dump the deal with Andrew Wilkie, talk about ‘blue ties’ or pursue a strategy to implement a budget surplus with no real actual policy value to it? All of these things were things that Gillard did - decisions based on political calculations that rightfully backfired - decisions that rightfully hurt her Prime Ministership.
Did Gillard achieve things as Prime Minister? Yes, undoubtedly. Was she undermined within her party, and attacked unfairly by the media? Yes, undoubtedly. But that does make her either a good progressive Prime Minister, nor a Prime Minister who didn’t deserve to fall when she did? No, certainly not.
We’re in the middle of a weird re-writing of the history of Julia Gillard - a re-writing that any real left-wing person should resist as much as possible. Gillard was not some flawless progressive Prime Minister. She was just as politically ruthless, opportunistic, and right wing as the swathe of Labor leaders before and after her. She was in fact, in many ways, far more ruthless, opportunistic and right wing than Kevin Rudd - the man so many like to place her up against. We cannot and should not re-write that history.