We are only seven days from her political demise, but many pundits seem to already agree that the achievements of Prime Minister Julia Gillard will seem more impressive with greater distance from the disastrous polls of almost her entire period in office. But similarly to the way she herself described the misogyny issue, her real record of achievement is neither as bad as many have claimed, nor as good as she would have you believe. Indeed there is a case to be made that the drivers of reform in Australia in the last three years have been two independent MPs who left politics on the same day as she did.
Julia Gillard noted a number of significant achievements in her farewell speech, including pricing carbon, DisabilityCare, education reforms and the Royal Commission on institutional child abuse. And there were several others she didn’t mention, like plain packaging for cigarettes and the important broad tax reforms that were introduced at the same time as the carbon tax.
There is no doubt that DisabilityCare will stand as an important and long lasting reform that has made Australia a better country. Yet there are problems with Julia Gillard claiming credit for many of the other reforms to occur during this Parliament, and even a national disability insurance scheme was pushed onto the public stage well before she became Prime Minister.
Put in its simplest terms, Prime Minister Gillard agreed to price carbon because it was the only way she could keep her job. It wasn’t just the Greens who were locked in by this reversal of her stated position from the 2010 Campaign, but more crucially Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor, who both wanted serious action on climate change. Indeed Tony Windsor singled it out as his most important achievement in his farewell speech.
It seems clear from both the infamous leaks during the 2010 Campaign about her advice to Kevin Rudd to dump the ETS and her very half-hearted “Citizen’s Assembly” idea that climate change was never a policy area over which Julia Gillard was inclined to die in a ditch.
It is perhaps the greatest irony of the last three years of Australian politics that responding to climate change has so heavily defined the fortunes of two leaders who were never deeply personally invested in the issue - Tony Abbott was never a hard core denialist like Nick Minchin and of course publicly supported Malcolm Turnbull’s position before doing his own backflip.
The other central undertaking Julia Gillard made to ensure that she remained Prime Minister was the deal on pokies reform with Andrew Wilkie. Clearly this was another area of reform that the former P.M. never held close to her heart, despite many progressive voters believing problem gambling, overwhelmingly linked to pokies, to be a major blight on Australian society.
In this case Gillard reneged on the deal as soon as she felt it safe to do so, by forcing longstanding and highly respected Speaker Harry Jenkins to resign in favour of the LNP deserter Peter Slipper – a decision that spectacularly backfired, like so many of Julia Gillard’s other political (rather than policy) decisions.
Meanwhile the education reforms are far from a done deal and the Royal Commission was primarily brought about by the actions of others in bringing the issue to a position where a national response could no longer be ignored.
Perhaps the most important reform of the Gillard government is the one that has been almost completely overlooked. Recommendations from the Henry taxation review to triple the tax free threshold and thereby stop some of the ridiculous churn of small payments into and out of the ATO were adopted, ostensibly as part of the compensation for the carbon tax. However, these were really stand-alone reforms, a critical (if incomplete) attempt to simplify our massively overcomplicated and inefficient taxation system, which saw millions of households pay small amounts of tax to the government which they subsequently got back in a vast array of transfer payments.
This particular reform probably stands as a microcosm of why Julia Gillard and Wayne Swan are both now sitting on the back bench. If it had been allowed to stand alone, and if it had been positioned as the first step in a process of reform, this was a chance to position their Government as financial reformers in the Hawke-Keating mold, constantly looking for ways to improve and streamline government.
Instead it was subsumed in the need to soften the “blow” of the carbon price, even though that blow was always going to be a tiny proportion of Tony Abbott’s frankly ridiculous claims. Wayne Swan has been fairly criticised for being a pretty awful public performer who simply can’t get his message across to the public, but in this case you almost think Gillard and Swan didn’t really understand where the real significance lay. And again it should be noted that Rob Oakeshott cited a lack of follow through on these Henry reforms as his greatest disappointment from this Parliament.
Looked at dispassionately, Julia Gillard led a good but not great Government that kept the economy on an even keel, enacted a few important reforms, squibbed on a few others and failed in a couple of policy areas, most notably asylum seekers and the mining tax.
The many, many political misjudgements all the way through from the “real Julia” to defending Craig Thomson for far too long to the “blue ties” speech do not fully explain the level of enmity voters have shown towards Julia Gillard. There are undoubtedly some deeper psychological responses to the method by which she became Prime Minister and the standards she was held to, which a male Prime Minister would not have been held, that created the situation whereby Julia Gillard became simply unelectable.
We would do well to heed her call to examine the more reptilian responses many of us had to her prime ministership, but we would also do well not to pretend that Julia Gillard was either the Great Negotiator or a once in a generation reform machine cruelled by a capricious media and a rival hell-bent on her destruction. She was a good administrator and a poor public communicator who will end up in the mid to upper middle rank of Australian PMs when the league tables are settled.