Australia's new Prime Minister strikes a blow for women - and Wales



When Julia Gillard's family emigrated to Australia from South Wales in 1966, little did they dream that their daughter would make history as the country's first female prime minister.

Yesterday, after her predecessor, Kevin Rudd, was unceremoniously dumped by his own party, Ms Gillard was sworn in – appropriately enough by the nation's first female Governor-General, Quentin Bryce. She later presided over her first parliamentary Question Time as Prime Minister, with Mr Rudd looking on forlornly from the backbenches.

Political commentators, meanwhile, were pinching themselves. Only months ago, Labor was riding high in the polls and Mr Rudd – elected in 2007, in a victory that ended the 11-year reign of John Howard – was Australia's most popular leader for three decades.

However, his government's ratings slumped after a series of blunders and policy backflips, and amid growing discontent about his aloof, authoritarian style. Party powerbrokers decided Labor was in danger of losing an election due later this year. Initially reluctant, Ms Gillard, 48, was persuaded to challenge Mr Rudd, who stepped aside, having lost the support of key unions and most of his colleagues.

Ms Gillard, who had been his deputy and a member of his inner circle, promised to call an election "within months". She also signalled a new approach on the two major issues that felled Mr Rudd: his shelving of a carbon trading scheme, and his protracted battle with the powerful mining industry over plans to introduce a new tax on "super profits".

It's an uphill battle, but she is unlikely to shirk the challenge. A former university activist and industrial lawyer, she had to fight long and hard to be a Labor candidate. She has endured insults from her political opponents, who have called her a union stooge and a communist. One conservative backbencher, Bill Heffernan, even accused her of being "deliberately barren".

Her childless, unmarried status (she has a long-term partner) has attracted much comment, along with her hairstyle, her fashion sense and her lack of interest in cooking. Forthright, personable and formidably bright, she is considered Labor's star performer. She has spent the last two and a half years in charge of the crucial areas of education, employment and industrial relations.

Born in Barry, Ms Gillard was four when her family emigrated to Australia under the "Ten Pound Pom" assisted passage scheme. They settled in Adelaide, where she attended school and then university, gaining a law degree – but only after interrupting her studies to be president of the Australian Union of Students. After qualifying, she joined a leading law firm, Slater & Gordon and became the firm's youngest partner at 29. She entered parliament in 1998, after three unsuccessful attempts. After being the opposition's spokeswoman on immigration and health, she was elected deputy leader in 2006.

Generally unflappable, Ms Gillard has a fiery nature to match her red hair, according to her mother, Moira, who told a recent documentary: "Julia is very easy-going, but when something does upset her, just look out. She gets into a temper, just like a sleeping volcano." In 2006 Ms Gillard was ejected from parliament for calling the then health minister, Tony Abbott, a "snivelling grub". Mr Abbot was elected opposition leader last December. Recent polls put his conservative Liberal-National Party Coalition slightly ahead of Labor.

Hailed as a Labor hero in 2007 for ousting Mr Howard, Mr Rudd, 53, now has the dubious distinction of being Australia's shortest-serving prime minister since 1972. Not given to displays of emotion, he was tearful yesterday as he told a press conference: "I have given it my absolute best; I have given it my all."

Voters were horrified when he postponed a carbon trading scheme in April, having once called climate change "the greatest moral and economic challenge of our age". The government had also become embroiled in a damaging battle with mining companies over a plan to impose a new tax on their "super profits". One of Ms Gillard's first acts was to offer an olive branch to the industry, pledging more consultation.

A tearful Kevin Rudd announces his departure yesterday flanked by his wife Therese and son Marcus  

The speed and brutality with which Mr Rudd was overthrown shocked even seasoned observers. Under his tenure, Australia had weathered the global turmoil better than any other developed country. Mr Rudd had also apologised to the Aboriginal "Stolen Generations", and signed the Kyoto Protocol.

On becoming Deputy Prime Minister, Ms Gillard remarked: "If anybody had suggested to my parents when we migrated to this country that something like this was possible, they would have taken their temperature and said they needed to go to bed." Yesterday Moira and John Gillard watched proudly as their daughter was sworn into the highest office in the land.

Rudd cries off – but he's not the first

As a member of the Labor party, and thus susceptible to right-wing accusations of softness, Kevin Rudd may have spent his whole career being careful not to cry in public. Yesterday, as that career came to an end, the floodgates opened. As he enumerated his government's achievements in office, he wept.

Rudd is far from the first politician to find his own downfall tragic, but at least, with his time in high office over, he can be cleared of tactical tearfulness. The same can't be said for Bob Hawke who cried like a baby, right, when interviewed about his infidelity in 1989. "I'm only human," the former Australian PM wailed, in a paean to his "incredible" wife. He stayed in office, and later remarried, which might suggest that those were crocodile tears.

Still, calculated or not, the exposure of something resembling the qualities of an actual human being can often count in a politician's favour. The former Home Secretary Jacqui Smith rarely seemed so sympathetic as when she fought back the tears after losing her seat; Hillary Clinton, likewise, won many friends when she choked up in the race for the US presidency.

"You know, I have so many opportunities from this country, I just don't want to see us fall backwards," she said, when asked by an admiring audience member how she coped with the pressures of the road. Many of her campaign team feared that any display that could be stereotyped as weak femininity would count against her; instead, she won a fillip in the polls, persuading at least a few voters that she wasn't the ruthless political robot that so many had assumed.

Our own least-loved political figure of recent years, Gordon Brown, could hardly be called calculating for seeming to tear up at the mention of the death of his son in an interview – even if the interrogator was Piers Morgan. But not all displays of emotion will win you friends. When Margaret Thatcher dabbed her eyes leaving Downing Street, few who had criticised her ruthless administration were moved. And that may be a reminder of a near-universal truth about our leaders: when it's someone else losing their job, most of them are resolutely stony-faced.

Archie Bland

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Executive - OTE £25,000

£13000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Would you like to be part of a ...

Recruitment Genius: 1st Line Technical Support Engineer

£19000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT and Telecoms company ar...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Manager - Visitor Fundraising

£23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Visitor Fundraising Team is responsi...

Recruitment Genius: Developer

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Day In a Page

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future