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Witness to decline and fall of Julia Gillard

19 July 2014 No Comment

Review of ‘Gravity: Inside the PM’s Office During Her Last Year and Final Days’
By Mary Delahunty
Hardie Grant, 242pp, $29.95

ON the night of June 24, 2010, Labor’s then deputy prime minister, the popular and respected Julia Gillard, was catapulted into office to become Australia’s first female PM.

The next morning, Gillard emerged to a stunned nation, as award-winning journalist Mary Delahunty aptly puts it, “like a butterfly from its chrysalis.

It is intriguing to remember that at the time Gillard didn’t fully explain why she was there, saying only that “a good government had lost its way. Gillard soon called an election. From that point, according to Delahunty and most other analysts, she never recovered politically.

‘Gravity’ — the title derives from Gillard’s ­remark that “We defied political gravity for a very long time — is a fascinating and in many ways unusual book.

Delahunty is fully aware from her own experience — as a former Victorian Labor government minister and as a person who has experienced much grief — that to understand the place where the public meets the private in a politician, especially one as elevated as a prime minister, requires rare access, often at the most painful of moments.

She rightly expresses her gratitude to ­Gillard for the repeated opportunities given her “to observe closely and to ask bluntly. This privileged contact forms the heart of this revealing book, which closely examines Gillard’s last year as PM and in particular her final ­frantic weeks and days in office.

In many ways similar to her previous book, ‘Public Life, Private Grief’, Delahunty writes movingly about the tensions between Gillard’s intimate personal life and the face (or faces) that Australia’s 27th PM presented to the Labor caucus, to the federal parliament and, via an increasingly fractious Fourth Estate, to the nation.

Hence early on in the book, Delahunty reveals how, when Gillard was in Vladivostok in Russia’s far east, leading Australia’s delegation to the Asian-Pacific Economic Forum, she ­received news on September 8, 2012, that her beloved Welsh father John had died aged 83.

To make this highly emotional period even worse, this was at a time that, in federal parliament and beyond, Gillard was increasingly weakened by concerted attacks from within the ALP and without. Even the hard nosed Russian president, Vladimir Putin, was publicly moved by Gillard’s vulnerability, and her ­terrible burden of grief and deep sorrow so far away from home.

Reading Delahunty’s ­detailed and emotionally powerful analysis of Gillard and her fall from power, I was ­increasingly reminded of that masterful work by another insightful political insider, ­’Recollections of a Bleeding Heart’, written by Paul Keating’s highly talented speech writer Don Watson.

Even though Delahunty is far less critical of Gillard than Watson was of Keating, her finely honed exegesis and analysis is written with great passion and is often filled with rage.

The one sustained weakness in ‘Gravity’ is that Delahunty cannot countenance any ­serious allegations about Gillard.

In particular this includes the oft-repeated claim that, as a young lawyer with Slater & Gordon, Gillard set up an AWU slush fund that directly or indirectly benefited her then ­boyfriend Bruce Wilson, who supposedly gave her money to fund her house renovations. About these matters, time may, or may not, tell.

Be this as it may, in this book Delahunty stunningly exposes in all its sordid detail how ex-PM Kevin Rudd’s unrelenting quest for ­revenge increasingly poisoned Gillard from within the ranks of the Labor Party and with the Australian public at large.

It is now crystal clear that, after having been deposed by Gillard, Rudd obsessionally and unrelentingly engaged in a vehement, vicious and ultimately successful destabilisation ­campaign to undermine Gillard and to once again take over as PM himself.

Having completed reading this finely written and often highly satisfying book, I was left with a number of competing images of Julia Gillard the person and the politician.

First, that of a peppermint-tea drinking, flaming redhead with alabaster skin who was often early for appointments, whose signature reforms and commitments were in the fields of schooling and of education and who, against considerable internal opposition, established the ongoing Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

Second, that of a doomed PM dealing with the inexorable pressures of a 24/7 media cycle and in particular fighting against her utterly unrelenting, sworn political enemies, Rudd and Tony Abbott — the first reduced to virtual ­oblivion, the second now Prime Minister with challenges of his own.

For the record, page 156 of ‘Gravity’ quotes in detail a column of mine from ‘The Weekend Australian’ of April 27, 2013, in which I was highly critical of Gillard’s performance as prime minister. Nonetheless, Delahunty refers to me as one of “the more moderate voices in the rabid News Ltd press!

Ross Fitzgerald is emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University.

‘The Weekend Australian’, July 19-20, 2014, Review, Books, p 20.

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