Sunday, September 28, 2014

My Story, by Julia Gillard

Staff Review by Chris Saliba

In Julia Gillard’s long anticipated memoir, My Story, the former Labor prime minister explains how she survived the turbulent politics of the 43rd Parliament.

Julia Gillard opens her memoir with a frequently asked question. When out in public and meeting people, she was often asked, “How do you do it?” Interested questioners would then  search her face for clues, “wanting to know why I wasn’t at home, hiding, sobbing, screaming”. The first part of My Story tries to answer that question and is titled “How I did it”. Those wanting to get under Gillard’s skin and walk in her shoes will get the full treatment. It’s a 130 page roller coaster ride. She doesn’t hold back and is refreshingly candid. None of the “good government that was losing its way” explanations are used here. What went wrong is fully explained.

The problem, for the most part, was Kevin Rudd. Early on, Gillard had known about his personal flaws. She knew of his explosive temper, having been on the receiving end of it . Her dilemma was: how to ensure Labor beat the Howard Government at the 2007 election. Eleven years in opposition had made the party hungry for victory. She felt Kim Beazley wasn’t up to the task and decided to back Rudd. Gillard reasoned that once Rudd was PM, he would settle down. Gillard, to her credit, is up front in accepting responsibility for installing Rudd as leader.  It was her support that made it possible. “I bear the responsibility for creating his leadership,” she writes. If there’s one serious fault that can be laid at her feet, it’s this misreading of Rudd’s character. In hindsight, the decision to install Rudd appears to have been a desperate one, the triumph of blind hope over experience.  

When Rudd’s government became mired in inertia and chaos, Gillard decided to challenge. What’s interesting is Gillard’s view that Rudd would be happy once he got over losing the prime ministership. She claims he was deeply unhappy as PM. She reasoned he’d simply see it all as a blessing in disguise. Another extraordinary misreading of a man she’d worked so closely with for years.

How did Gillard do it? Her shorthand answer is resilience and purpose. Gillard kept an inner  sense of herself and her character, not one seen through the prism of the media.

“From watching the experiences of other women, and from politics in general, I also realised the folly of feeling good about yourself on a day of good headlines and badly on a day of shocking ones. On both days, you would be the same person. You needed a sense of self that was not reliant on media positioning."


“Everyone likes to be liked. I am no different. But I have always had an inner reserve, a sense of purpose that drove me on when I did not feel liked. During my prime ministership this grew stronger. It had to.”

Gillard in this first part also provides a fascinating chapter on “the curious question of gender” and what it was like being the first female prime minister. She describes it as a bit of a lonely business, being the only woman in the room. There’s more than a few examples of egregious treatment by business leaders, journalists and fellow politicians that will raise the hackles of many readers. It’s shocking to revisit those times and read what was written and said about Gillard - there seemed to be no rules and no limit to what could be said.

Part two of My Story is titled “Why I did it”. For the most part, these 330 pages discuss the achievements of the Gillard government. Like all politicians writing their memoirs, Gillard wants to chisel out her legacy. The detailed discussions of policy achievements (and policy struggles, it should be added) are interspersed with interesting insights, observations and portraits of many key players. Gillard has a shrewd eye and is a keen observer.

Many will eagerly read the chapter on carbon pricing. Gillard writes that in the lead up to the 2010 election, all of her statements and policy documents had referred to her determination to put a price on carbon. Her error, she maintains, when she said there would be no carbon tax, was not follow it with the qualification that she did nonetheless intend to price carbon. This wording had been in her public statements during the 2010 campaign. A price on carbon had been a bi-partisan policy since the Howard government had commissioned the Shergold report, in 2007. Whether it was a tax, a price, an impost, trading permits or whatever - it was always going to cost money. Gillard was tripped up by the mother of all scare campaigns over the one word - tax.

What surprises most in My Story is how uncontroversial a politician Julia Gillard was, how traditionally conservative a character she is, if her memoir is anything to go by. Her modus operandi was always to negotiate, build partnerships, compromise if necessary, to achieve outcomes. She was never out on the political fringes, but firmly in the mainstream. She made many unhappy in the labor left with her approach to asylum seeker policy. She disgruntled the Australian Education Union over her My School website, which ranked schools according to their performance. Economically, she follows orthodox, free-market thinking, believing in globalisation and embracing Asia as a part of Australia’s future.

“In our modern globalised world, no government can wholly shape the future. But we can bend change, shape it so it serves our purposes and what happens reflects our values, our embrace of fairness.”

Gillard’s prime ministership was painted as one of the most turbulent and dysfunctional in Australian history. Yet the Gillard Government passed 566 pieces of legislation. She was a businesslike prime minister, one who struck deals and believed in the art of the possible. She got things done in tough circumstance, didn’t complain and kept her self-respect and dignity.

Gillard’s values seem traditional, perhaps old fashioned in this day and age of instant gratification. She maintains her strong sense of purpose is what has kept her going. It seems believable, as all other incentives seem not worth the trouble when contrasted against the incredibly tough environment she worked in.

My Story makes for fascinating reading. It’s a remarkable insider’s story, the type of which only comes along very rarely. Whether you like Gillard or not, it gives a very intimate portrait of a prime minister’s life and how government works.

My Story, by Julia Gillard. Published by Knopf. ISBN: 9780857983909  RRP: $49.99

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