It didn’t take long. Julia Gillard has hardly warmed the seat in the Prime Minister’s Office before some breathless commentators are setting her up as an Australian equivalent to former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
This has been greeted by derision among her opponents for whom Thatcher has been transformed into an icon of fundamental conservative values, a symbol of a golden age of prosperity and wellbeing when the dark forces of socialism were sent packing, British pride was restored and capitalism reigned.
Typical of the attacks was a column by that old warrior of the right, John Stone, in the Australian edition of The Spectator. To be fair Stone, in his usual diatribe against anything that might be remotely regarded as (small “l”) liberal, made only a fleeting (and of course disparaging) reference to her as “Australia’s Margaret Thatcher”, but the magazine’s editors gleefully jumped on the line.
The front page featured a cartoon of Gillard peeping from inside the over-sized blue dress, pearls and handbag that were Thatcher’s trademarks, with the headline “You’re No Iron Lady, Ms Gillard”.
To which Ms Gillard, now in the throes of the 2010 election campaign, might quite rightly answer “thank God for that”.
Thatcher was a less than average Prime Minister who got very lucky, but who had enough political cunning to ride that luck in order to remain in office for far longer than her abilities deserved.
By April 1982 the Conservative Government she led had been in office for almost three years. Thatcher’s dogged attachment to monetarism and free market economics had reduced inflation but plunged the country into full-scale recession; unemployment had reached three million, criticism was mounting from within her own ranks and commentators were predicting that even a Labour Party led by the left wing Michael Foot would defeat her at the next election.
Then on April 2, Argentina invaded the British colony of the Falkland Islands. Thatcher had received the stroke of luck which would keep her in Downing Street for the next eight years.
The Falklands War was something that Thatcher understood - in her mind good versus evil, flag-waving jingoism with British forces sailing off to preserve the honour of the nation and deliver its subjects from tyranny.
Her speeches at the time were full of righteous indignation, designed to call the nation to the flag. The Argentines were “robbers who could not be allowed to get away with their swag”.
In an address to Conservative women at the height of the war she justified her stand: “When territory which has been British for almost 150 years is seized and occupied; when not only British land but British citizens are in the power of an aggressor - then we have to restore our rights and the rights of the Falkland Islanders.”
The 10-minute standing ovation she received at the conclusion summed up the mood of the nation. Her approval ratings had more than doubled to an unprecedented 80 per cent.
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About the Author
Graham Cooke has been a journalist for more than four decades, having lived in England, Northern Ireland, New Zealand and Australia, for a lengthy period covering the diplomatic round for The Canberra Times.
He has travelled to and reported on events in more than 20 countries, including an extended stay in the Middle East. Based in Canberra, where he obtains casual employment as a speech writer in the Australian Public Service, he continues to find occasional assignments overseas, supporting the coverage of international news organisations.