Julia Gillard’s Prime Ministership will be the topic of analysis and discussion for years to come, and it’s likely that her, and our, perspective on it will change with time and distance from the events. But the Anne Summers interviews captured a more immediate reaction that is interesting, not just for what it says about Gillard herself, but what it reveals about Australian politics more generally.
There were no particularly difficult questions or surprises in the interviews; it was not intended to be an adversarial affair. Summers described it as “a public space to be provided for people to come together to farewell Gillard”.
Perhaps it was this expectation that enabled Gillard to relax and display the warmth of response and expression that was often lacking in other interviews.
One thing that was immediately noticeable as soon as she started speaking was that her voice was fuller and more rounded than it ever sounded on even the most relaxed TV or radio interviews. Maybe there is something in broadcast technology that flattens out the timbre of her voice; maybe it was simply nerves tightening her throat slightly, but it might explain why so many people who have heard her speak in person report a different perception than those of us who’ve only heard her speak through the media.
The choice of Summers as the host for her first post-election interviews was interesting. Summers has made a considerable contribution to feminist thought in Australia and is an experienced and talented writer, but she is not, and has never claimed to be, an objective political journalist. She is a feminist and a campaigner, and in choosing her as the interview host, Gillard was choosing a theme for the interviews - choose your specialist, choose your disease.
It was odd because, while Gillard has become a lightning rod for many feminists in Australia, she rarely speaks from a solely feminist point of view. Indeed where Summers attributes misogyny as the cause of Gillard’s downfall, Gillard herself spoke of many other contributing factors. It was noticeable in most of the questions Summers asked, which had a feminist basis, Gillard answered in a broader perspective.
So why did she choose Summers? A cynic might suggest that Summers’ mantra of misogyny would easily play into hagiography and a soft interview, but while this may have played a small part in the choice, some of Gillard’s answers at the Melbourne event indicated a more complex rationale.
One of the most interesting questions from the audience was about Gillard’s relationship with the Canberra Press Gallery, not so much asking about what she thought of the (sometimes) “crap” that they wrote, but what her personal relationships with them were like and what she thought about the way they do their job. The answer was far more interesting in what she inadvertently revealed than what she actually said. She made a pointed dig about the fact that she had never courted any of the press gallery as others in her party had done, and that some of the most senior gallery members, who have built long careers on leaks and breaking news, were deeply resentful that they didn’t have the inside story on the Rudd spill and were forced to join the unwashed masses waiting for news as events unfolded on the night. She claimed she was always too busy with the business of politics to “waste time” courting the press.
She also said that one of the reasons she accepted the invitation from Anne Summers was because she “wanted to promote new media” as an alternative to the mainstream media. Again, an odd choice, Summers is many wonderful things, but “new media”? Hardly. An alternative form of political analysis? No.
This is typical of the combination of sharp political astuteness and naivety to the point of stupidity that characterised most of Gillard’s political career.
The relationship between press gallery journalists and individual politicians is fraught and complex, but the media’s position as the conduit of information between Canberra and the voters gives it enormous power – as Gillard discovered to her cost.
While we might wish that the gallery was a shining light of the fourth estate, providing full and unbiased analysis and reporting of political events, we know the truth, in most cases, to be far different.
Gillard herself said that one of her biggest mistakes was to allow the then Opposition (in collusion with the media) to rename the stepped implementation of an emissions trading system as a Carbon Tax. It became the basis of their claim that she was an untrustworthy liar and gave them the opportunity to use the “no carbon tax under a government I lead” soundbite as a constant reinforcement of this idea. Again, she claimed that she didn’t pay much attention to it until it was too late, because she was concentrating on the policy rather than the politics.
Her oft-cited talent in negotiating and bringing disparate parties to a compromise position was essential in her government’s ability to pass the Clean Energy Act through a complicated parliament. Her inability to understand or get in front of the politics of the legislation is equally essential in the new government’s determination to repeal it. She allowed them to turn it into the focal point of their campaign against her and, in doing so, ensured that they must carry through their stated intention to “axe the tax”.
Much of this looks like lack of experience rather than lack of ability.
Gillard had been a Member of Parliament for twelve years when she became Prime Minister, enough time, one would expect, to learn the realities of politics and media relations. But she was on the opposition benches for the first nine of those twelve years and was then carried in, almost unnoticed, as Deputy PM on the back of Kevin Rudd’s sweeping win in 2007. Two and a half years later she led the spill that put her in the Prime Minister’s seat.
John Howard, by comparison, was in parliament for 22 years before becoming Prime Minister. During that time he had two stints as Opposition Leader and six years as Federal Treasurer; all those years dealing with internal party machinations and media shenanigans thickened his hide and honed his political skill.
It is perhaps, a reflection of modern politics that the relatively inexperienced Gillard was fast-tracked into the Prime Ministership by internal ALP factional rivalries rather than the weight of experience and proven abilities to manage all the requirements of such a senior position.
The forces aligned against her, from both sides of politics and the majority of the media, were overwhelming and it’s unlikely that anyone in her position would have been able to defeat them, but perhaps more time on the political treadmill might have helped her predict the gathering storms and avoid them, rather than have to try to battle her way through them.
Julia Gillard, as our first female Prime Minister, will always have significance to Australian women, but in choosing to focus on that significance so soon after her downfall she, and we, are losing sight of some of the other lessons from her tenure that could prove more valuable than how the fact that she has an arse and earlobes was used so iniquitously against her.