Julia Gillard: Right Woman, Wrong Job


If only she’d worked on her image more. Pic by Ashley Holmes

It is sad that Australia’s first woman Prime Minister has failed. There are many reasons: that she never managed to unify her party against Kevin Rudd is only one of them. Another: she never convinced the bulk of the electorate that she had a right to the job.

It began badly. I recall the euphoria of the time. At last the country had a woman, from the left, a feminist, an atheist, unmarried, at the head of the government. No more toadying to evangelical Queensland cavemen and pompous entitled Roman prelates. Hope burgeoned for a rational approach to issues like discrimination, sex education, marriage equality . . . .

It was soon dashed. Beholden to a coven of self-righteous right wing dinosaurs, in flat contradiction of her own history and present situation, she led from the right, not the left. Labor is not a progressive party, she said, it’s a union party. Read your bibles, she said, there’s some lovely stories in there. Man woman marriage tradition preserve blah blah blah……

If she had been able to say these things with any conviction, she might have got away with it. The trouble was, she was either unwilling, or unable, to fake it. As a result, the glaring inauthenticity was enough to give you migraine every time that robotic voice issued from behind her gritted teeth.

That was her first failure, and it stemmed from the same cause as her main mistake: a failure to trust the Australian people, to be upfront about the compromises she had to make to take government:

‘Look, I know I said “no carbon tax”’ she might have said, ‘but that’s the price for Green support, and without Green support you’d have Workchoices and that medieval Vatican stooge in the Lodge. I judge my way is better. Sorry if you don’t like it, but you can fix that up at the next election if you want.’

She failed to unapologetically own the fact that hers was a coalition government, not a Labor government. Yes, Labor led, yes they were the largest party, but this could never be a Labor government while dependent on the support of others.

There is no argument that she was a great number two – terrific organiser, negotiator, headkicker. But being number one requires an additional set of skills that she just didn’t have.

She seemed to have no idea how she appeared to the electorate and no interest, it seems, in finding out and nuancing her appearance and presentation in order to sell her case better. Something that Margaret Thatcher excelled at.

She could have followed the Magatollah’s lead, and taken advice about her clothes, her hair, her voice, but disdaining superficialities, she refused to be styled. As a result, when she did glam up for a women’s magazine photoshoot, once again she appeared inauthentic.

The infamous Knittergate shoot, artfully staged, made up, frocked up, looked completely out of character. Imagine if, instead, they had run ‘candid’ photos, captured by Tim, at the Lodge, as she sat quietly knitting, with a contemplative look . . . . an intimate look at the PM at home. Wow! Terrific!

She has no flair as a public speaker, and came across poorly on radio and television. Did she refuse intensive media training?

She either failed or refused to understand that as leader, she had to be a saleswoman, and as a woman, she had little choice but to either conform to audience expectations, or craft a strong personal image that transcended such considerations. As it is, she appears to have put feminist principles – basically, don’t maximise your feminine assets – ahead of the political necessity to sell, sell, sell.

It is the greatest of ironies that, by refusing to be styled for public consumption, by insisting on being true to herself, Julia Gillard ended up appearing false.

As a result we now have a Prime Minister with better presentation but less substance, a hollow man, a marketing artifact. Like Bill Clinton, a great campaigner who doesn’t know how to use power when he gets it. Because he doesn’t seem to know what he wants it for – he just wants it.

What he needs a good strong, well-organised number two to keep him in line, do the gruntwork, take the crap, stick it out through thick and thin, while he’s out on the balcony waving. He needs a Julia Gillard.

About the author

Veteran gay writer and speaker, Doug was one of the founders of the UKs pioneering GLBTI newspaper Gay News (1972) , and of the second, Gay Week, and is a former Features Editor of Him International. He presented news and current affairs on JOY 94.9 FM Melbourne for more than ten years. "Doug is revered, feared and reviled in equal quantities, at times dividing people with his journalistic wrath. Yet there is no doubt this grandpa-esque bear keeps everyone abreast of anything and everything LGBT across the globe." (Daniel Witthaus, "Beyond Priscilla", Clouds of Magellan, Melbourne, 2014)