Politician profiling Australia
Former prime minister Julia Gillard (Image: AAP)

As far as eras of Australian policy go, we’ve done a lot worse that Rudd-Gillard-Rudd. The period from 2007-13 could not be truthfully described as visionary, but we can probably go with “not that shit”. Both leaders made moves to mildly defy the financialisaton that had begun to conspicuously wreck the world the very same year that Rudd took office. Both worked with a treasurer who moved throughout the GFC beyond the ALP’s established neoliberalism and listened to some people who had read some books. They were crap on asylum, but they were good on infrastructure. They were useless hypocrites on the NT Intervention and support to single parents, but they did seem to give half a toss about climate change. It was nice that Kevin spoke basic Mandarin. It was nice that Julia spoke like my Aunty Joan. In sum: we’ve lived through shoddier times.

The pair is now at great risk of ruining their reputation for slight good in office, however. Of course, this has been true of Kevin Rudd for a while, possibly since his successful leadership challenge in 2013 and definitely since he started ardently believing that he could fit into the superhero strides of the UN secretary-general. But now, Gillard seems to be in a similar danger for similar reasons. Kevin’s ambition to join zombie liberal institutions seems disproportionate to his charm and has been harmful to his legacy. Julia, although certainly more charming, may not be far behind.

[Even Keating now admits that neoliberalism should be dragged out the back and shot]

Gillard, a more naturally modest person than Rudd (then again, who isn’t?) didn’t aim straight away for an office at United Nations Plaza. She wrote an inoffensive memoir, committed herself to the Clinton cause, apparently for reasons of defying Islamic State solely through the power of sisterhood, and gained a post at centrist DC think-tank, the Brookings Institution. Oh, and she joined that local stigma-lifting gym for the exercise of former politicians, Beyondblue. This one-time member of the Labor Left could only be cast as more of a bourgeois moderate in a late David Williamson play.

And today, here she is embracing the term that has served for some decades to artfully conceal neoliberal ideology: global. I hadn’t noticed in 2014 that Gillard became board chair for the Global Partnership for Education until yesterday, with this global piece bearing her global byline in the very global Guardian.

As the former casualty of misleading Guardian headlines, I can’t scorn Gillard herself for explaining “why world leaders should listen to Rihanna”. And, no. The answer is not that Umbrella is one of the better pop songs of the 2000s. (It is.) It is because the young singer, whom Julia met in Malawi where together they taught underprivileged students that “3-0=0”, is committed to education for all of the world’s children.

That is nice. Just like it’s nice that Leonardo DiCaprio supports the Paris Climate Agreement, and that identical twin singers The Veronicas are big fans of Steve Irwin’s Wildlife Warriors.

I’m not seeking fun to make fun of Rihanna, here, who boasts both the best hair and arse in contemporary music. It may be possible that Rihanna is unusually bright. It is certainly likely that she, a Barbadian, is more aware than most advocates for global education of the urgent need for non-Western pedagogy in non-Western nations.

But this is not something that Gillard appears to be cognisant of in her Guardian piece, where she implores private and state donors to fund education in the Global South in order to ensure economic growth.

There are a few problems here with Gillard’s new global glow, not least among them that she appears to have faith that the G20 summit will ever deliver on its promise to lift the slaves of globalisation out of poverty. But let’s set my rabid internationalism aside and look at the problems Gillard’s short published promise on education for those in immiserated nations might conceal.

First, as non-Western scholars who have both studied and actively worked in the field of non-Western pedagogy have found, you can’t just teach kids in the poor bits of Africa and Asia the same curriculum taught to our issue in the West. This duplication has the effect of cultural erasure, something with which you may not have a moral problem but something that can certainly provoke local resentment over time and create divisions within the family institution.

[The surprisingly quick death of neoliberalism in Australia is underway]

As lovely as is Rihanna, there’s another young and popular woman with whom Gillard might care to partner for her own better education on education. Perhaps she’s heard of Malala Yousafzai, a young woman who consistently repeats that she will not be a tool of Western hegemony, in education practices or elsewhere. In 2013, Malala sent her message to the 32nd congress of Pakistani Marxists. After thanking them for her instruction in socialism — Malala has never thought there was any other way to grant the girls and boys of the world a good education — she noted, “We cannot wait around for anyone else to come and do it. Why are we waiting for someone else to come and fix things? Why aren’t we doing it ourselves?”

In her short piece, Gillard appears to want to come along and fix things. What she wants to create are new nations full of people able to work. Even setting aside the entire cultural erasure problem, this is a pretty shaky claim. Gillard says that nations and people that are more educated always recover better from economic distress. Which might have once been true. But is no longer true in the US where many graduates, even post-graduates, find themselves underemployed. And is no longer true in the lives of Australian people I meet. Education as a fast route to good employment, for either nations or people, has become a false promise. Ask my Uber driver last week, an Australian-born Master of Accountancy, or the lovely lady who made me 60 bucks worth of poo-emoji shaped cupcakes, a former corporate JD.

This is not, even for a nanosecond, to suggest that education is not entirely marvellous. State education worked beautifully for Gillard, and it turned out OK for me, too. We must never underestimate the natural and productive urge people of many ages have to learn new things, and learn more deeply about things, like their own culture, with which they are already familiar. But we can no longer overestimate education as a factor in economic growth.

Yes, as Gillard says, the robots are coming for our jobs. But these jobs include those in knowledge work; a sector, in any case, that the West will continue to dominate for as long as it is profitable.

Frankly, I liked her old stuff better than her new stuff. This new Global Gillard is joining the Rudd Zombie and hitching her star to an ideological wagon whose wheels have come off. If she wants legacy-preserving career advice from me — which I am positive she does not — it’d be to take a Corbynista turn. That’s what the kids are into, perhaps even more than Rihanna.

Gillard may feel in her close partnerships with liberal institutions she is ensuring her place in the future. For mine, she looks to be part of a decaying Western past.