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'Don't write crap': the Gillard government and historical revisionism

By Alexander Morgan - posted Monday, 22 September 2014

'History will be kinder to Julia Gillard'. This was the general consensus amongst many political observers when the Gillard prime ministership finally came to an end in June 2013. A year later and the first books on the Gillard Government are starting to emerge with credible books written by journalists Paul Kelly and Troy Bramston and books by senior government ministers, Wayne Swan and Greg Combet. Gillard's own account of her time in office will also be released later this month. But will these histories, along with future academic texts, be kinder to Gillard than the Australian population was during her three years and three days in power? This is debatable. If history is to avoid re-writing the past then it must acknowledge the significant flaws in Gillard's prime ministership that were just as equal to her many achievements in office.

Julia Gillard's prime ministership was one with many shades of grey, with some fantastic successes and some tremendous fails. It began with a late night leadership coup and ended bitterly three years later on the floor of the Labor Party’s caucus room. Newspoll records her as the second most unpopular leader in the last thirty years behind Paul Keating, who let's face it, never tried very hard to win the hearts of the Australian public. In addition, Gillard was the first prime minister since Billy McMahon to never win a majority in the House of Representatives in her own right. McMahon himself has often been regarded as one of the worst prime ministers in Australian political history. At least when McMahon went to the polls in 1972 his party only fell short of re-election by five seats. Gillard, on the other hand, was never even given the chance to go to the polls in 2013 due to the fear of an electoral wipe-out in comparison to that suffered at state level by Anna Bligh in Queensland and Kristina Keneally in New South Wales.

So what will historians celebrate about the Gillard Government? Well there is the fact that she was the first female prime minister of Australia. That is certainly something to be proud of. Her now famous ‘misogynist’ speech will forever be a part of Australia’s 21st century political history as one of the most powerful displays of feminism and rhetorical domination of a prime minister over a leader of the opposition since Paul Keating mockingly told John Hewson, “I want to do you slowly”. But having said that, there is also the fact that she was and will be forever marred by the way she rose to office, not too dissimilar from the same illegitimacy that Malcolm Fraser suffered from following the Dismissal. By knifing a popularly elected prime minister, failing to win a majority in the House of Representatives and then getting knifed by her own party due to the fear of electoral obliteration, it is almost fair to say that she surpasses Fraser in the prime ministerial-illegitimacy debate.


Whilst Gillard legislated an historic amount of legislation under the most difficult of circumstances her legacy is now under threat by the Abbott Government who has begun repealing the laws that she initiated. Her proudest achievement, putting a fixed price on carbon, has now been dismantled by the Abbott Government and abandoned as a policy by the ALP. In time it may come to be known as ahead of its time, but historians must not forget its context; it broke a very specific election promise and bitterly divided a nation whilst eroding Gillard's own personal credibility and most likely costing her the leadership of the ALP. “There will be no carbon tax under the government I lead” will be written on Gillard’s political tombstone and across every book that discusses the Australian climate change debate. There can be no underestimation of the negative effects that the carbon tax legislation had on the Gillard Government and the public that once supported her. One final thing to note about Gillard's carbon tax is that it came on the back of her and Treasurer, Wayne Swan, succeeding in urging Kevin Rudd to drop his own emissions trading scheme with which the electorate convincingly approved of at the 2007 election.

One of Gillard's other achievements, the paid parental leave scheme, is also under threat by the new Abbott Government. If Abbott has his way, his PPLS, will far surpass the generosity of the scheme offered by Gillard. indeed by comparison, Gillard's eighteen week and minimum wage scheme will seem quite minimalistic against Abbott's ambitious proposals. Although for now, Abbott's PPLS seems unlikely to get the full support of the Coalition party room let alone the hostile Senate. Again, like carbon tax, this was something that Gillard allegedly opposed as deputy prime minister in the Rudd Government.

Gillard will always have the NDIS and Gonski reforms to hold her record in office up but it will be a considerable challenge to give equal weighting to these successes as opposed to her failings. Historians however, will be attracted to her many socially progressive reforms such as the large pension increases (and perhaps rightly so). Unfortunately for Gillard, for the most part these were also bipartisan reforms that will be administered mostly by Abbott and the Coalition. This is the same story with one of the Gillard Government’s best foreign policy achievements: securing Australia a seat on the United Nations Security Council seat. This was largely a Rudd and Carr achievement who travelled around the globe to secure and lobby for the votes of some of the world’s smallest countries. But with the recent Ukrainian and ISIS conflicts it has been Julie Bishop who has reaped most of the benefits of the Security Council seat. Gillard won't even get to host the Brisbane G20 meeting that she helped secure.

Outside of her policy successes and failures there were many political mistakes and misfortunes. One was communication. From her very first press conference as Labor leader Gillard showed that she could not explain why she came to the job other than that "a good government had lost its way". Even in February 2012, when she told the country how dysfunctional the Rudd government was, she still succumbed to two more challenges by the chaotic ex PM. Then there was Labor party reform. Gillard failed to implement much needed anti union reforms which are still plaguing the party, and if anything moved the ALP back closer to the declining union movement. The rest of the ALP reforms were pioneered by the resurrected Kevin Rudd. Finally there was her bizarre support for Craig Thompson until at one random point where he "crossed a line" and had to go sit on the cross benches whilst still supporting the government. And let’s not even mention the Peter Slipper fiasco...

In her three years and three days in office Gillard presided over, to name a few, a failed mining tax, some dodgy media reforms, three record budget deficits, she supported the soon to be jailed Craig Thompson and the infamous Peter Slipper, and implemented a deeply unpopular carbon tax. In addition, she legislated Australia’s first national paid parental leave scheme, a national broadband network and a national disability insurance scheme. Ultimately however, Gillard was rolled by the Labor caucus to avoid the embarrassment of the worst electoral defeat since Malcolm Fraser trounced Gough Whitlam in 1975. This article is not arguing Gillard did not have her achievements, she certainly did. But for every achievement she achieved, there was a negative to overshadow it and historians need to remember this. In Triumph and Demise, Paul Kelly provides the perfect summary of Gillard Government to conclude this article:

She complained about Rudd's dysfunctional government but the truth is that Gillard had her own governing crisis as prime minister. Labor's tragedy is that both Rudd and Gillard failed to govern effectively.


If one thing is for sure, history will not forget Gillard but it must avoid rewriting her polarising prime ministership. History vindicated Whitlam and only time will tell whether it does the same for Gillard. 

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About the Author

Alexander Morgan is a politics graduate from the University of New South Wales.

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