Monday, July 5, 2010

From 10-pound Pom to PM By Mahir Ali

At about 7pm last Wednesday, Australia’s national broadcaster, the ABC, broke the news that moves were afoot in the ruling Labor Party to replace its leader, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.

At a brief press conference a couple of hours later, a characteristically stony-faced Rudd announced that his deputy, Julia Gillard, had sought a leadership ballot.

Approximately 12 hours later, Australia had its first female prime minister. At a second press conference on Thursday morning, Rudd, surrounded by his family, broke down as he recounted his achievements; it was the first time he had displayed any emotion in public. His political fate no doubt invited a degree of compassion, but wallowing in self-pity is rarely the ideal means of attracting sympathy.

After he led Labor to an electoral landslide in November 2007, Rudd was for a while the most popular prime minister Australia has had. His ceremonious apology to the so-called stolen generations of Aborigines — victims of the abominably racist policy of wresting children from their parents with the intention of breeding their Aboriginality out of them — went down well pretty much across the political spectrum, even though the commendable gesture was not supplemented by a serious effort to redress the blight that afflicts Aborigines today.

Rudd’s predecessor, John Howard, had explicitly refused to issue such an apology, partly out of the fear that it could lead to compensation claims. He had also refused to sign the Kyoto Protocol. Rudd signed it forthwith, and declared climate change to be “the greatest moral ... challenge of our times”. His response to this challenge was an emissions trading scheme (ETS) that would, at best, have marginally reduced Australia’s carbon emissions in the medium term.

The scheme was supported by opposition leader Malcolm Turnbull — a stance that contributed to his dethronement by the conservative Liberals. He was replaced by Tony Abbott, a polarising figure whose ideological predilections perturbed even Howard at times. At any rate, Rudd’s ETS floundered in the Senate, the upper house of parliament where Labor does not have a majority. The prime minister appalled a wide cross-section of the electorate when he simply abandoned the policy for the time being, in the wake of last year’s Copenhagen fiasco.

The ETS had been framed with little or no consultation within Labor ranks. The same goes for the resource super-profits tax on mining companies, proposed earlier this year. It also took the resources firms by surprise, and they launched a counterattack that included the bizarre sight of billionaire mine owners protesting alongside mine workers at the projected loss of jobs the new tax would allegedly entail. A large number of economists believe that the proposed measure is a perfectly sensible impost. However, the manner in which the case for it was articulated broadly failed to convince the public.

Rudd also earned a degree of opprobrium for a ‘tough on asylum-seekers’ stance that appeared to echo his predecessor’s appalling attitude. As a result of all this, compounded by Rudd’s tendency to spout jargon and speak in clichés, the electorate started drifting away from Labor, mainly towards the Australian Greens but also marginally towards the Liberals. Opinion polls suggested the ruling party’s primary vote had dwindled to 35 per cent. It would probably still have just about made it across the line, but internal Labor Party polling apparently indicated that for most voters Rudd was the main problem.

Australia has not had a one-term government since the early 20th century, but the notion that history might be on the verge of repeating itself prompted power-brokers within the heavily factionalised Labor Party to seek a change of leadership. Julia Gillard was the obvious choice, not just on account of being Rudd’s deputy, but because her competence in the several crucial portfolios she has handled since 2007 — notably education and industrial relations — is barely disputed and, furthermore, in her public appearances she gives the impression of being not just intelligent and supremely confident, but also warm and witty.

The world’s first Welsh-born prime minister since Lloyd George immigrated to Australia with her resolutely working-class parents in 1966, the move to warmer climes prompted primarily by her sickliness as a toddler. They were among the immigrants derided as ‘10-pound Poms’, benefiting from a scheme whereby Australia — at that point still determined to stay white — offered potential immigrants from Britain £10 and free passage by ship.

The young Julia excelled at school and university and made her first successful foray into left-wing politics in her student days. She did extremely well as a lawyer, too, but opted for a political career and finally found her way into federal parliament 12 years ago. Since then she has more or less overcome the derision that her broad accent, her voice or her hairstyle sporadically attracts, nor has she permitted politically adversaries to make too much of her decision — evidently reached while she was in her teens — to remain childless and unmarried.

Gillard has sensibly sought to underplay her status as the first female prime minister in a country that was among the first, nearly a century ago, to give women the right to vote. It may not be exactly a Barack Obama moment, but her elevation to the helm is nonetheless a significant milestone in Australian history. The time will inevitably come when, in such circumstances, gender ceases to hold any significance. But it’s not here yet, and Gillard’s potential as a role model ought not to be underrated.

Although she has been seen for some years as the woman most likely to crash through this particular glass ceiling, Gillard as deputy was unceasingly loyal to Rudd and regularly brushed away speculation of a leadership challenge. Her patience ran out when Rudd petulantly questioned her allegiance.

The extent to which Gillard improves Labor’s chances in the next election, due within months, remains to be seen. In the age of the focus-group-tested sound bite, when political adversaries contending for power seek to differentiate themselves through advertising agency-assisted branding rather than distinct policies, it’s difficult not be cynical about western democracy. Yet it’s also hard to disagree with Moira Gillard, Julia’s mum, when, from her retirement village in Adelaide, she expresses the hope that her daughter will be Australia’s best prime minister, but cautiously adds the rider: “So long as she doesn’t turn into Maggie Thatcher.”

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