Julia Gillard

In one of the wildest 72 hours in backroom politics in Australia’s history (which is saying something), Kevin Rudd has been deposed as leader of the Labour Party, and Julia Gillard has taken the helm as the nation’s first female Prime Minister.

The news has shocked the nation and many political insiders as well. While it was no secret Rudd’s popularity had been falling drastically in the polls, no one officially predicted such a leadership spill, and certainly not so suddenly or so decisively.

Only a year ago, Rudd’s approval ratings seemed rock solid and many pundits described him as unbeatable. Of course, twelve months is a very long time in politics. Still, his ousting is historic in itself, as a stellar example of a falling star.

His response to the World Economic Crisis was seen as satisfactory. His experience in foreign affairs and fluency in Mandarin pleased many who hoped to see Australia have a stronger international presence, and definitely more prestige and influence in the larger Asian region. What brought him undone?

His greatest faux pas has been a perceived abandonment of the hard line and forward thinking climate change legislation that he rode to electoral victory on. The public doesn’t like broken promises, especially when they are big broken promises.

His most recent millstone was a proposed tax on the boom profits of the mining industry. It got the rich mining companies upset and the public confused when the numbers didn’t seem to add up.

Naturally, he faced other hiccups along the way. But few leaders have ever been seen as such a liability, so relatively quickly, without having a major catastrophe or personal morality incident.

The Opposition Party he has faced off against has been inept at best, and virtually in constant disarray themselves since the election, with turnovers in their leadership that screamed disunity and confusion to the public. It can hardly be said that they played any role of consequence in getting him knocked off.

Nor can it be said, despite the history making aspect of the country’s first female leader, that the startling developments have anything to do with gender. A much repeated stand-up comedy line goes, “I didn’t know Julia Gillard was a woman.”

In my view, Gillard was Deputy and the Labour Party wanted Rudd out. Period. More about her in a minute.

It seems to me that no one failing or political decision brought Rudd down. Even the disappointment and anger over the climate change flip-flop can’t account for his tumble in the ratings. This was a seasoned politician who experts predicted would be in power for years to come. Now the wires are running hot with speculation and analysis of just what broke down. I don’t think the answer is going to be easy to find. In some crucial sense, it’s no more mysterious than the public losing interest in him. The luster wore off. While he wasn’t blamed for the financial turmoil of the last year, he hasn’t been seen to have the solutions either. Almost every major category of consumer purchases has seen heavy price hikes. People are doing it harder these days, and they need someone to be held accountable. In the words of President Obama regarding the BP debacle, they want an “ass to kick.”

But of course the voters weren’t the ones to kick Mr. Rudd out. It was his own party, behind a closed door. One of the little niceties allowed in the Westminster System. It may be that his career is over because he simply didn’t do enough politicking with his own team mates. So, out came the knives.

To be sure, Labour will now call for an election just as soon as they are allowed under law to do so. They can’t let a Prime Minister who has taken power within the party stand in office very long without the public approval of an electoral victory. Especially not the first female PM in history. They will also want to move fast while the Liberal Party is still in a volatile, rumpled state itself.

The result will be a bitter policy-free campaign that offers two choices in leadership personalities, despite the fact that the nation has just witnessed how fragile the personal aspect can be!

I wish I could express some enthusiasm for Julia Gillard as the country’s new head. But I can’t.

She was born in Wales and came to Australia as a child. Her background is as a trade unionist lawyer. She cut her teeth in that field working for a tough industrial law firm called Slater & Gordon (known colloquially as Slug ’em & Grab ’em).

Her mindset is very much back in the 1960s when there was a sharp divide between workers and big business management. Today, Australia, like many other Western countries is a totally different place. 75% of all Australians are employed by small business-and 75% of all new small businesses fail within the first three years.

As in America, where there is government assistance for (and collusion with) those enterprises “too big to fail” and failing spectacularly, no political party in Australia has offered any real vision or tangible support for small business. I think it can be reasonably argued that in no technologized country on the planet, is it more difficult to launch a small business than in Australia.

Julia Gillard is one committed to making things more difficult still. She will further retard initiative at the smaller levels and undermine business and economic confidence at large. She also brings no foreign affairs experience to her new job, and indeed seems to have a very strange perspective of Australia in the world.

I’m all in favor of women taking leadership roles. Particularly capable ones. There’s no question that Gillard is a capable politician. She pulled off a backroom decapitation. It remains to be seen if she is any real kind of leader, and what policies I’ve seen her champion so far in her career suggest a desire to turn back the clock, not to move forward with vision and innovation.

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KRIS SAKNUSSEMM is a writer, painter and musical producer. He is the author of the international cult novels Zanesville and Private Midnight. Random House is bringing out his third novel in the USA in March 2011, and a new book called Reverend America has just been completed and is already being sold in Europe. A Fellow at the MacDowell Colony, he has won First Prize in the Boston Review and River Styx Short Fiction Contests, and received the Fiction Collective 2 Award for Innovative Writing, in addition to publishing in a wide range of places such as Playboy, Nerve.com, Opium Magazine, The Missouri Review, The Hudson Review, The Antioch Review, New Letters, Prairie Schooner and ZYZZYVA, amongst many others. You can find more about him on his Facebook Page.

28 responses to “Unprecedented News from Australia”

  1. Phil Abrams says:

    No sex scandal for Rudd? That’s how we do it here in the States!

  2. Saskia Boyd says:

    No Phil! In Australia we like our politicians served cold.
    Rudd forgot that consultation is always vital. He just started thinking and acting as though he was a President.
    Gillard is talented, astute and measured in both thought and action. She will serve this country well.

  3. kris saknussemm says:

    I rather suspect she won’t be so conciliatory once sworn in.

  4. Matt says:

    I’ll be keeping a hawk’s eye on this as it develops.

    Thanks for reporting from the front lines, Kris.

  5. Nigella8 says:

    Hey Kris, you know why it is called the “Lucky Country”? Because the harder we work the luckier we get; and Julia Gillard is, if nothing else, a very hard worker. Marvellous result for the daughters of this nation. Their horizons have been extended. Great to hear a child say, “Hey Mum, there’s a woman in charge!” Glad you are sharing this with the world.

    • kris saknussemm says:

      It may be inspirational for younger women–it may not be. I don’t think we look back at Maggie Thatcher and think inspiration. Consider the genuine fear that Sarah Palin’s brush with national leadership caused in Ameria (and that threat may not be over yet).

      Beyond the gender issue is the question of how directly orchestral Gillard was in the sabotage of her boss–which speaks to character and loyalty issues. Or, how manipulated she was by the Caucus, which raises the question of just how independent minded she is. Whichever the scenario (and I don’t think we will ever know), this isn’t the way we would have chosen to see the country’s first female become PM.

      I think we all look forward to the day when gender is not the concern–but that policies that address the whole of a nation’s needs are. There were many women in America (and actually on both sides of politics there) who felt Palin set BACK women’s advancement quite considerably.

      I think Gillard has work to do to behind the scenes just to make sure the same knives that reached out for Rudd don’t claim her too. Only a resounding electoral victory will bring any security that way, and as Rudd’s case proves, even that is no guarantee for long. It’s a hard road for her, and for the nation as a consequence. In the end, inspiration is as inspiration does.

      • Jude says:

        Of course, us Kiwis being a little more advanced than our Aussie cuzzies (and more humble!), had a woman Prime Minister 13 years ago. Just saying…

  6. Jude says:

    Oh, make that the FIRST woman Prime Minister – we of course, went on to vote another woman in, who lasted 9 years before finally incurring the country’s wrath…

  7. kris saknussemm says:

    @ Jude…I found it amazing during the last US election, where so much was made of the gender issue, that almost nothing was said about the NZ experience. I certainly think NZ has on many fronts shown more enlightened attitudes than the Aussies. This is another important one. Nine years has to be counted a great endurance success in the rough and tumble of politics.

    • Jude says:

      Unfortunately (or fortunately, however you see it…) we are only a little speck in the bigger scheme of things and a lot of NZ’s achievements are often overlooked.

      I agree with you regarding Helen Clark’s marathon run of 9 years – love her or loathe her, she certainly made her mark, in particular in the Arts and Culture field. Since then, she’s gone onto become the head of the United Nations Development Programme.

    • Jacqui says:

      I am not sure about enlightened in NZ politics. Jenny Shipley rolled Jim Bolger in the late 90’s very similar to the Rudd/Gillard situation. She was trumpeted as NZ’s first woman prime minister. At the next election, when Helen Clark led the Labour Party to victory, she and her supporters said she was the first ‘elected’ woman prime minister – which was apparently more prestigious. Politicians – meh!

      Political catfights aside, there does seem to be less angst in NZ about woman in leadership positions – and I think that stems from women being able to vote in elections in NZ since 1893. Its how it should be.

    • Matt says:

      I’d just chalk that one up to good ol’ American arrogance and/or ignorance, not to mention the U.S. stubborn and stupid response to NZ becoming a nuclear-free zone. We seem to be culturally loathe to admit another country beat us to an achievement, or to pay attention to the politics of any country that doesn’t either pose some sort of threat or upon which our economic stability depends. Which personally pisses me off, as I’ve gotten addicted to Buzz Bars, Chocolate Fish, and Pineapple Lumps, and they’re nigh impossible to find here.

      Even though Lord of the Rings helped raise New Zealand’s profile in the U.S., I’d wager a decent amount a fair chunk of my countrymen couldn’t find it on a map.

  8. kris saknussemm says:

    One thing about Clark, and I think this speaks highly of both her and of the NZ citizenry, even those who opposed her, whether on particular issues or more generally–there never seemed to be any question of lack of respect. When I was over last, a few months ago, the feeling about her legacy seemed almost uniformly positive on the whole.

  9. kris saknussemm says:

    Jacqui, yes perhaps “enlightened” and “politics” is a bit of stretch in any sentence, anywhere! It’s a tough racket. But it’s interesting that there are some significant cultural differences across the Tasman. I think the physical sizes of the two nations has a big impact on that. But I can’t think of any country in the world that has more elected officials per capita than Australia, and with that comes the inherent embedded corruption of the backroom machines. Power brokers the public never sees and scarcely knows even by name.

    • Jacqui says:

      Kris, I am not sure the differences can be attributed to physical size – its an attitude thing stemming from the age of the country. Australia is a teenager – brash, optimistic, bullet proof, cocky – its says “I can do anything”. New Zealand is in primary school – still finding its way, hopeful, wants to be fair and be liked – it says “You like me? Really? Wow!”. (In a similar way, the US is the dad, paternalistic – it says “I know best”)

      Look at the two national anthems – NZ – God Defend New Zealand. Australia – Advance Australia Fair.

      I am not close enough to what is going on to have a view on inherent embedded corruption, but I think that any corruption is probably closely aligned to the inherent embedded DNA of Australian citizens and the reasons their ancestors settled/were sent there. He He.

  10. Chris Kennett says:

    Very nice summation, Kris. I hope you won’t mind if I, as another Aussie, also write something on the subject?

  11. kris saknussemm says:

    Thanks Chris. I look forward to your views. There are so many aspects to this development. Rudd’s fall from grace, the way the transition was managed, the gender factor in the replacement, Gillard’s politics…I think the more unofficial discussion the better. I’ve been disappointed by most of the professional commentary, who are chasing the story now because they were so caught by surprise. I should mention that I’m actually American, although I’ve lived in Australia since 1985. But I don’t feel in any way that I understand the real workings of the parties here even now. I welcome any perspective you might have on this. It’s unquestionably historic. I guess the question is, what does it really mean?

    • Chris Kennett says:

      The professional commentary has been disturbingly myopic. There seems to be one ‘official’ story about the reasons for Rudd’s downfall – and it doesn’t entirely ring true for me. Few are appreciating the unprecedented nature of what has happened in Australian politics this week. For me, it’s second only to the Dismissal in its significance.

  12. kris saknussemm says:

    Jacqui, you may be right about the maturity of nations aspect, rather than geographic size (although I think it is a factor) influencing the difference. But I reckon you’re definitely right about the convict past influencing the law enforcement, business and political cultures of Australia! Haha. It’s absolutely true, although it can only be talked about in joking terms. Shush.

    Another factor, which often goes overlooked is the Gold Rush and the immense flood of people from all over the world. Most ended up departing, but I always wonder about the talk today of “multiculturalism” when in 1857, where I had my little farm, the graveyard was filled with folks from fifteen countries–not to mention all those who didn’t get a marked grave. I think that influence has been hard to track and process within the sense of national psyche. But it’s there. I think it forced upon Australia an anxiety about national identity that remains active to this day.

  13. kris saknussemm says:

    @Chris. I think it’s very disturbing about the professional myopia. I absolutely agree that this event is on a part with the Dismissal–certainly from the workings of government point of view. Given that we know now that there were many factors involved in the Dismissal–including machinations by the CIA regarding Whitlam’s resistance to Pine Gap, it raises still more questions about what we don’t know about what’s happened now. Who’s agenda was this really? Wouldn’t there be a lot more scrutiny of that if not for the smokescreen issue of the gender of the new leader? I think this sends a very strange message to the world about the “stability” of Australia. To me it seems deeply undemocratic, even though I know it’s perfectly legal and just part of the system. It still doesn’t feel right, and one would think every political journalist in the country would be trying to bring perspective. I think the truth is they are as surprised as the public and have been caught out on the biggest story in a generation.

  14. Chris Kennett says:

    Spot on, Kris. I’ll try to capture a little of that in my post tomorrow.

  15. kris saknussemm says:

    I look forward to it, Chris. It seems the playing field has been leveled b/w the professional journos and the unofficial commentators, because the Canberra insiders got blindsided. I’ve read at least ten major articles and not one made any reference to the Dismissal. I’ll be interested in your take on it.

  16. Saskia Boyd says:

    How could Politics be considered dirty when so many of it’s key players end up as feather dusters?

    Enjoying your continued debate and insights Kris.

  17. Kris Saknussemm says:

    Saskia, feather dusters is right! Thanks for reading.

  18. Chris Kennett says:

    Hey, just thought I’d let you know my piece on the subject is finally up. Just scratching the surface – might follow up later.

  19. Simon Smithson says:

    This is going to be fascinating stuff to watch unfold… especially the recent mis-step of the Timor Solution…

  20. Kris Saknussemm says:

    Indeed.

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