Julia Gillard: Sadly, this lady was for turning

As with Mrs Thatcher, she had become an electoral liability to her party

Julia Gillard, Australia’s first woman prime minister was “rolled” (in the Australian vernacular) by her party’s politicians for the same reason that Mrs Thatcher was removed from the Tory leadership – she had become an electoral liability. To such an extent that the Labor (sic) Party’s very survival at the September elections was at stake. The moronic, sexist attacks Gillard has suffered – and suffered nobly – were not the cause of her demise, and her feisty response to them probably delayed her collapse in the polls. But that collapse came, and MPs voted for Rudd in an effort to save their seats.

Gillard’s unpopularity was fanned by a fractious party, with lingering bitterness (especially from Rudd) about the way he had been ousted. She had effectively tied the 2010 election and governed by compromise with an unstable coalition, reneging on promises and policies in order to stay in government and backing down on a mining tax that would have helped the poor. Sadly, this lady was for turning. The Murdoch papers (70 per cent of the Australian press) rubbished her U-turns, and much more influentially than the country’s misogynistic shock-jocks.

Still, she goes down with some credits – the best disability-care case legislation in the advanced world, a responsible carbon-pricing scheme, a far-sighted plan for state schooling and a far-reaching Royal Commission on child sex abuse. Her real problem was that, other than when rebutting sexist jibes, she could not communicate effectively. She took unhelpful advice from imported Blairites, and resorted to inappropriate stunts – knitting was the last straw.

The Labor cabinet’s disarray parallels that of the Australian cricket team. Two of its best ministers, Peter Garrett (once lead singer of Midnight Oil) and Greg Combet (a powerful trade-unionist), have refused to serve under Rudd. But he will recover seats in his home state of Queensland and will more vigorously take the fight to Tony Abbott, the leader of the Liberal (in fact, neo-conservative) opposition. He has personality problems with party grandees, but these will be papered over as they try for a semblance of unity at the election. 

That comes in three months, which may be too soon. But Rudd remains popular: he can speak Mandarin to the Chinese (Australia’s biggest customers) and is admired for the handsomeness of his historic apology to Aboriginal Australians. He can play statesman, and is an intelligent liberal. When the WikiLeaks revelations began, Prime Minister Gillard panicked and wanted to put Julian Assange in jail: Rudd as foreign minister calmly pointed out that two and a half million Americans had access to the cables, and made light of what they had revealed about his meetings with Hillary Clinton. He will be an independent and astute occupant of Australia’s seat on the Security Council – if only for the next few months.

Geoffrey Robertson QC has advised Australian governments