Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Take Your Best Shot: The Prime Ministership of Julia Gillard, by Jacqueline Kent

In this report card on the Gillard government, biographer Jacqueline Kent finds an impressive list of achievements, with a smattering of poor judgements. Gillard’s major failings were ones of bad communication, allowing a skilful opposition leader to create populist slogans that stuck and ultimately destroyed.

Julia Gillard’s biographer Jacqueline Kent has put together this short book as part of the Penguin Specials series. Take Your Best Shot, the line Gillard used when addressing her colleagues for the leadership ballot that would ultimately see her replaced by Kevin Rudd, looks at the performance of the Gillard government. Kent uses her skills as a biographer to take a balanced look at the failures and successes of Gillard as prime minister.

A key feature of the book is an interview Kent did with Gillard in May of 2013, some six weeks before she was deposed. There had been earlier interviews done for the writing of Kent’s biography The Making of Julia Gillard, and she notes how much warmer and chattier Gillard was for this last interview, ironically when she was under siege from within her party and without. The book is generously peppered with quotes from this interview which gives Gillard an extra dimension as a person. It also sheds more light on the circumstances of her prime ministership in its last days.

Jacqueline Kent gives a pretty balanced report card on the Gillard government’s achievements and failures. This is a non-partisan account that has none of the ideological baggage and rancour that simmers under so many similar writings on politics. In essence Kent sees Gillard as an efficient administrator who failed – or didn’t even really try – to sell her good record in government to the public. The typical view of the Gillard government was that it was shambolic and ineffective. Yet Gillard was a superb negotiator and managed to get a lot through parliament. The Labor minority government under Gillard passed some 600 pieces of legislation.

What Gillard failed to do, however, was effectively communicate the achievements of her government. She maintained (and this comes out a lot in the May 2013 interview material) that her record in government could speak for itself, making it not really necessary to argue her case in the media. Tony Abbott, by contrast, was a skilful media operator who coined slogans that worked and sunk into the public’s consciousness.

Gillard’s poor or non-existent media strategy was a self-inflicted wound. The other main factor that caused her prime ministership so much grief was her predecessor, Kevin Rudd. Like just about every book you read with Rudd in it, he comes across as a terrible character.

Take Your Best Shot paints a fairly convincing portrait of the Gillard government’s successes and failures. Gillard was a good administrator and a nimble negotiator. She got a lot of bills through a very difficult parliament. However, she was naïve in thinking that her record of achievement would triumph over media representations. In the end an overheated media won, a fire that both Tony Abbott and Kevin Rudd were very good at stoking. 

Take Your Best Shot: The Prime Ministership of Julia Gillard: Penguin Specials
, by Jacqueline Kent. Published by Penguin. ISBN: 9780143570561  RRP: $9.99