Julia Gillard may be the most insubstantial leader of a major Australian political party since Andrew Peacock. She is a person created by circumstances. She incarnates the accommodation of Australian social democracy with the contemporary social movements of globalised capitalism, feminism, secularism and multiculturalism. Julia Gillard is a female professional politician; irreligious and representative of an electorate where one in five speak a language other than English at home. This is the face of the new Australia.
Modern Labor combines these allegiances with a residual but surprisingly persistent connection to a much weakened trade union movement. Modern Labor MPs are middle-class professionals, of whom many are female, and who have pursued their profession since their late teens, in this they are largely representative of the upper rungs of the contemporary Australian workforce.
Labor MPs are more representative of their electorate than ever before. Gillard began her political career in the old patriarchal Labor party and her original outsider status has led many well to her left, from questioning ex-Communists in the 1980s to soft Green voters today, to see her as the repository of their hopes. Thirty years ago Don Aitkin predicted that the entry of women to paid employment would underpin Labor’s electoral revival and his prediction has been realised. Gillard symbolises this transformation.
Kevin Rudd oscillated between philosopher-king and clumsy pragmatist, he may have been as intellectually able as Bob Carr but unlike Carr he was never given the chance to refocus his government after an electoral setback. Gillard has none of Rudd’s intellectual pretensions, Thomas Freidman is her favourite author and her few exercises in political philosophy are banal. However, we do not elect politicians as philosophers; we expect them to express their ideology in their record of political leadership.
Contemporary Labor has championed the cause of nation building. As Education Minister Gillard championed an agenda to increase higher education participation by working-class students but as Prime Minister her first major initiative was to scrap the Resource Super Profits Tax and undercut the revenue base necessary to achieve Labor’s social goals. The most remarkable achievement of Julia Gillard may have been to become Prime Minister in the first place.
The crucible of the modern Labor party has been Queensland and Victoria. In these states an electorally crippled Labor party was forced to restructure with spectacular political success, whereas in New South Wales, Labor coasted for too long on its past record of success.
In Victoria and Queensland Labor governments elected in the 1980s after decades of conservative rule ended their careers in disarray: but Labor clawed its way back into office in the late 1990s and secured an unprecedented political hegemony under a new generation of populist leaders: Peter Beattie and Steve Bracks. Will Julia Gillard outperform Kevin Rudd to the same extent as the populists Peter Beattie and Steve Bracks outperformed the technocratic Wayne Goss and John Cain? Kevin Rudd had seen at first hand the Goss government in Queensland fritter away a secure political position. As Prime Minister however Rudd found that his increasingly clunky and forced efforts at populism left voters cold.
Labor governments in Victoria and Queensland have exemplified ordinary populism: key unpopular policies of their conservative predecessors were dropped but the new Labor governments largely operated within the framework of lowered expectations established by the conservatives. Julia Gillard, as an advisor to the Victorian Labor opposition during the Kennett years, was present at the creation of the modern state Labor blueprint. Her own personal journey from left to right was paralleled by Theo Theophanous, author of Victorian Labor’s commitment to fiscal conservatism.
Voters approved of the new Labor formula and the weakening of traditional party allegiances enabled Labor to make deep advances into conservative heartlands. Until recently, some observers argued that Labor was now the natural party of government at the state level due to the party’s traditional status as the better provider of public services. However, the rapidly declining political standing of state Labor governments has refuted this hypothesis. Voters may have been enthused by Labor’s promises to improve public services but eventually they turned on Labor governments that failed to deliver.
Gillard’s ascension is evidence of renewed commitment by federal Labor to follow the path blazed by its state colleagues. In the short-run this will probably be successful but after only two years in government federal Labor has found itself in the same electoral position as Queensland Labor in 2009 or Victorian Labor now. The political clock runs faster at a federal level.
Julia Gillard may be a grander version of Maurice lemma and Anna Bligh: a clever politician with an interesting personal story who won an election against the odds and then presided over a spectacular political collapse.
Geoff Robinson teaches at Deakin University, Warrnambool and blogs on Australian and international politics and policy from a historical perspective at geoffrobinson.info. His book on former NSW Labor premier Jack Lang will be published later this year.