The seeds of Julia Gillard’s demise were sown the night she became Australia’s first female leader in June 2010. Just days after vowing not to challenge Kevin Rudd, the deputy leader ousted him in a backroom party coup.
The removal of Rudd, who swept the Labor party to a landslide win in 2007 after 11 years out of office, allowed the Liberal-National opposition to paint her as untrustworthy. When an election three months later resulted in the first hung parliament since World War II, Gillard, 51, won Greens Party support to form a minority government by breaking a pledge not to introduce a carbon tax. Support in polls never recovered.
Attacks by the Tony Abbott-led coalition helped erode the legitimacy of her office, culminating in a series of sexist and personal remarks in the weeks before her downfall, from inappropriate radio shock-jock comments to students throwing food at her. Her defeat yesterday came hours after she won parliamentary backing for education reforms, adding to legislative accomplishments including increased funding for the disabled that failed to translate into public support.
“Gillard’s time as prime minister will be remembered for progressive policy initiatives balanced with a failure to communicate her message,” said Andrew Hughes, who conducts political-marketing research at the Australian National University in Canberra. “Her days were numbered when voters, disillusioned with how she won the job and the constant questions over her trustworthiness, turned against her.”
In an April 2012 opinion poll, 44 percent of respondents said Gillard was trustworthy, down from 61 percent in a similar survey in 2010, according to Newspoll results published in The Australian newspaper. The same poll showed a smaller deterioration for Abbott, who was deemed trustworthy by 54 percent in April last year compared with 58 percent in 2010. The survey of 1,205 adults had a maximum margin of error of plus or minus three percentage points.
Rudd, 55, didn’t fade from the limelight after he was deposed. He became foreign minister before resigning the post in February 2012 to challenge Gillard, a contest he lost. In March, he declined to challenge after Gillard declared the leadership open.
In a fresh caucus ballot yesterday, Rudd was reinstalled as Labor leader, winning 57 votes to Gillard’s 45. Gillard told reporters she wouldn’t seek re-election in her seat of Lalor, ending a 15-year parliamentary career. Chris Bowen, a former assistant treasurer who supported Rudd as a replacement for Gillard in March, was named treasurer after Wayne Swan resigned from the ministry.
Speculation mounted in June that Labor lawmakers would turn to Rudd after he made campaign appearances for colleagues in competitive districts and polls showed Labor would fare better in an election with him at the helm.
“Rudd of course hasn’t helped,” said Zareh Ghazarian, a politics lecturer at Monash University in Melbourne. “He’s always in the public eye, reminding voters about how he was prime minister one day, and when they woke up the next day, Gillard was.”
Rudd’s return would lift Labor by 11 percentage points in the primary vote to 40 percent, compared with the coalition’s 42 percent, according to a Nielsen survey published in Fairfax newspapers June 17. It showed support for Labor under Gillard slid 3 points to 29 percent, versus the opposition’s 47 percent.
“The obvious advantage he has as leader when compared to Gillard is he doesn’t have Kevin Rudd constantly undermining and backstabbing him,” said David Burchell, a professor of humanities at the University of Western Sydney.
Gillard, who was born in Wales and emigrated to Australia when she was four, faced efforts to undermine her that included a focus on her unmarried status and lack of children. Abbott, 55, has appeared in magazine profiles pictured with his wife Margie and three daughters, a counter-image to Gillard.
“I have faced a minority parliament and I’ve also faced internal divisions within my political party,” Gillard told reporters after losing the ballot yesterday. “It has not been an easy environment to work in.”
For much of her term, Gillard played down suggestions of gender bias. “Australian culture is blokey in some ways, yes, but also egalitarian,” she said in a 2011 interview.
That changed last October, when she stood in parliament and labeled Abbott sexist. “The leader of the opposition says that people who hold sexist views and who are misogynists are not appropriate for high office,” she said. “I hope the leader of the opposition has got a piece of paper and he is writing out his resignation.”
All sides of politics wished Gillard well when she took office as the first female prime minister, Abbott said yesterday. “I was conscious, very conscious as the father of three daughters of just what a milestone in our national life had been achieved,” he told parliament.
The gender debate escalated in recent months with news a coalition party fundraiser included a mock menu of dishes like “Julia Gillard Kentucky Fried Quail,” with a description that included derogatory sexual comments about her body. The restaurant’s owner said the menu was an in-house joke and wasn’t circulated at the function.
Perth radio 6PR host Howard Sattler was fired on June 14 after quizzing Gillard about her partner’s sexuality because of his previous career as a hairdresser, prompting her to warn that such probing could discourage women from entering public life.
During public appearances at schools in May to promote her government’s commitment to boost education funding, Gillard was hit by sandwiches thrown by students.
Gillard sought to use the gender issue herself at a June 11 fundraiser, where she said the election would present voters with a “decision about whether, once again, we will banish women’s voices from our political life.” The opposition criticized the speech, and opinion polls that followed showed a slump in male support and limited backing among females.
Even so, Gillard made it clear in her departure speech last night that her legacy was not just about gender.
“The reaction to being the first female prime minister does not explain everything about my prime ministership,” she said. Gender “explains some things and it is for the nation to think in a sophisticated way about those shades of gray. What I know is it will be easier for the next woman, and the woman after that and the woman after that.”
Gillard was also undone by Australia’s two-speed economy, with the success of the mining industry coming at the expense of manufacturers pummeled by a strong Aussie dollar, which created pockets of Spain-like unemployment in areas that traditionally vote Labor. While that pressure has eased, with the dollar falling more than 10 percent since early April against its U.S. counterpart, it’s still about 23 percent higher than its 20-year average.
Voters also turned away from Gillard’s party over its inability to halt an influx of refugees arriving by boat, concerned they were gaining easy access to Australian welfare payments.
Hundreds of asylum seekers, often from war-torn Middle Eastern and South Asian nations, have drowned in the waters between Indonesia and Australia under her leadership. Abbott’s coalition has pledged it will “stop the boats.”
Gillard, a former union lawyer, had been betting that big-ticket legislation like the carbon and mining taxes and her education and disability programs would turn the polls in her favor. The week she presented the bill for the nation’s first levy on greenhouse-gas emissions in September 2011, she said in an interview her government was “on the right side of history.”
Voters didn’t agree. In a Newspoll published that month in the Australian, they gave her an approval rating of 23 percent, the lowest of any prime minister in 18 years. Newspoll is 50 percent owned by News Ltd. and 50 percent by Millward Brown Inc., a market-research company.
Gillard was also dogged by a decision to impose a mining tax. Shortly after becoming prime minister she negotiated a 30 percent levy on resource profits with BHP Billiton Ltd., Rio Tinto Group and Xstrata Plc. The tax will reap A$1.8 billion less in revenue for the year to June 30 than previously forecast, budget documents showed May 14.
Abbott, who vows to repeal the mining tax and carbon levy, seized on the shortfall as evidence of the government’s failed stewardship of Australia’s A$1.45 trillion economy. He was given more ammunition when the government announced in December it was unlikely to deliver on Gillard’s promised budget surplus as weaker growth and a strong local currency curbed tax receipts.
Labor’s support in areas like Western Sydney has been eroded as the region, where about 10 percent of Australians live, stagnated in the slow lane of the country’s two-speed economy.
Ultimately, Gillard was felled by the corrosive effect of trust issues that ate away at her credibility over three years in office.
“The way she got the prime ministership is not something that is celebrated in Australia,” said Monash University’s Ghazarian.