Punch & Judy

In this extract from Mungo MacCallum’s new book, the author reviews the political ‘biff’ that was Election 2010.

THURSDAY 24 June 2010 was a red-letter day for Australia, and we’re not just talking about hair. Indeed, Julia Eileen Gillard may not even be the country’s first ranga prime minister; since all the old ones appear only in black and white, we can’t tell. But she is certainly our first female: well into the twenty-first century, Australia finally caught up with more advanced nations such as Turkey, Israel, the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Pakistan and installed a woman as its head of government.

Note the word ‘installed’: Gillard was not popularly elected but had greatness thrust upon her by party bosses who saw their government in danger of going down the gurgler. This was in the great Australian tradition that saw Carmen Lawrence burned in Western Australia and Joan Kirner sacrificed in Victoria; and it confirms the pattern that countries whose culture is basically misogynist are more likely to put what they see as the weaker sex into a leadership role than those where equality is more usually the norm. There have been exceptions, of course, but Australia is not one of them. So from the start, history suggested that Gillard was more likely to join the list of heroic failures – even political martyrs – than become the desired saviour. She would be in good company: the Amazon queen Hippolyta, the Pharaoh Hatshepsut, Boadicea and Joan of Arc come to mind.

But Gillard had other things in mind. In her own assessment, and in that of her supporters, she was born to be prime minister; she had no interest in assuming the role of a gallant loser. She claimed to take as her political model Bob Hawke, who won four elections – a Labor record. But she must also have considered the example of his replacement, Paul Keating. Like Keating, Gillard had been given the job by a party that feared defeat under its previous leadership. Keating had not been expected to win the election that followed; the idea was that he would minimise the loss and save enough furniture in 1993 to set Labor up for next time. But he went on to win the unwinnable election and earn himself a place in Labor’s pantheon.

On the surface Gillard’s task appeared easier. The polls still favoured the government, and the election was approaching fast; Gillard could expect at least a brief honeymoon with the voters and should be able to sail home before it ended. And more importantly the Opposition, after two leadership changes, remained pretty shambolic; its current leader, Tony Abbott, appeared far less popular or electable than had John Hewson seventeen years earlier. Gillard also felt that she was ready for the job: she had been an effective and loyal deputy for nearly three years, acting in the top job for 185 days on twenty-seven separate occasions, and she was determined not to get caught like Keating, whose chance came too late for his real ambition, or worse still like Peter Costello, whose chance never came at all. She had lived through the highs and lows of the Kevin Rudd rollercoaster and believed she knew where he went wrong. And she had plenty of people to warn her if she began making the same mistakes.

After all, over that rough political ride she had been the woman closest to Rudd – except, of course, for Thérèse Rein the wife and Abby the dog. But it’s fair to say that six months earlier, none of them suspected the fate that awaited them on the feast of the nativity of John the Baptist. Indeed, at the start of 2010, things must have looked altogether bright for the extended Rudd family as they shuffled comfortably between the Lodge in Canberra and Kirribilli House in Sydney, making the most of the Indian summer. At least, we hope they made the most of it. The winter would prove pretty bleak.

This is an extract from Punch & Judy: The Double Disillusion Election of 2010, by Mungo MacCallum, published by Black Inc. RRP $22.95. www.blackincbooks.com

Available in Maleny at Rosetta Books Ph: 5435 2134