She was formidable, flawless … and highly electable. Julia Gillard’s speech in Melbourne last night showed us a glimpse of the prime minister she could have been. So what happened?
“Nothing in her political life / became her like the leaving it” — adapted from Macbeth for Julia Gillard
Now that Julia Gillard is no longer prime minister, she seems intent on demonstrating why she should have been an excellent one.
Gillard gave a flawless performance at a question-and-answer spectacle in Melbourne last night. She came across as intelligent, likeable and genuine. She was formidable, she was highly electable. So why didn’t we see this when she was PM?
Some in the room were surprised at her performance, and puzzled over why it seemed stronger than when she was leader. Did Gillard make a fatal political miscalculation in thinking she had to strip the personality out of the PM — that she would do better as a machine, dancing to the tune of focus groups? Or was she a victim of a political system that only allows robotic spin-merchants to reign? If it’s the former, it’s a problem for Gillard. If it’s the latter it’s a problem for everyone.
This week Gillard has spoken publicly for the first time since she lost the leadership to Kevin Rudd in June. She got a heroine’s welcome at an Oprah-style celebration in Sydney on Monday, but the speech in Melbourne on Tuesday night was different. The 2000 tickets to the conversation with author Anne Summers sold out within four hours. It was a partisan and sympathetic audience, largely female. Gillard got a standing ovation before she had said a word, as she emerged to Katy Perry’s Roar. This was always going to be the easiest of audiences for her.
But don’t underestimate those attending, or what Gillard did. She did more than perform well in front of a home crowd.
Gillard was asked about tough subjects — carbon pricing, asylum seekers, gay marriage, cutting single parent allowances. The audience listened intently. For most of the 90-minute session there was a charged silence as 2000 people sat forward in their chairs.
She blended inspiring messages with a deft defence of her more controversial policies. She stood her ground, and appeared quite genuine. “I can’t lay out the answers in front of you,” she said to a questioner seeking a more compassionate asylum-seeker policy. “I feel like I got on the tram at a different stop,” she responded when asked why she opposed gay marriage.
Gillard tells funny stories — who knew? When asked why she didn’t seem bitter about her political fate (yes, the questions were sympathetically framed), she recalled working as a junior lawyer interviewing people who thought they had been wronged at work. As she listened to tirades and looked at endless lever-arch folders, she would think: “You can have a crap rest of your life … or you can go home and burn the folders.”
When talking about the toughness of political life, she recalled Paul Keating telling her “love, we all get taken out in a box”. It was “very very Paul”, she added.
As one savvy political observer said after the event: “The person we saw on the stage tonight was probably Australia’s best prime minister ever. Pity we never saw it when she was prime minister.”
Gillard is fighting for her political legacy by constructing a version of events which paints her as a success. That appeared to be her goal last night and she did a good job of it. She may have struggled as prime minister, but will she win this battle in the long-term?