Julia Gillard: From ‘Ten Pound Pom’ to Australia’s first woman PM

Article by Talek Harris /
AFP /
September 08, 2010 /
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Julia Gillard, a “Ten Pound Pom” who rose from humble roots to become Australia’s first woman Prime Minister, took power in a sudden party revolt but flirted with electoral disaster just weeks later.

The Welsh-born red-head, whose parents emigrated in the 1960s, stunned voters when she replaced elected Prime Minister Kevin Rudd on June 24, and called polls to seek a popular mandate just three weeks later. But August 21 elections returned the first hung parliament in 70 years, leaving her Labour party relying on the support of a Greens MP and independents to form a fragile coalition government with just a one-seat majority.

“I know that if we fail in this solemn responsibility, we will be judged harshly when we next face the Australian people at the next election,” she said.

Ms Gillard was a firm favourite with voters as deputy to Mr Rudd, as the feared debater tore apart opponents in parliament and cannily skirted controversy. But on June 24, Ms Gillard told a bewildered public she had relieved Mr Rudd of his duties in an unopposed party vote, calmly explaining that a “good government was losing its way”.

Suddenly Australia had a female, atheist, unmarried, childless – and unelected – Prime Minister. Media had a field day, with one columnist noting her famous auburn hair was dyed a “murderous shade of claret” for the occasion.

“I think people were very interested in the concept of the first female prime minister and that bitchy, potentially backstabbing, act,” said Melbourne University’s Lauren Rosewarne.

The honeymoon period lasted less than a fortnight, when Ms Gillard suggested housing asylum-seekers in East Timor without asking the country’s formal permission and then backed away from the proposal.

An even less impressive climate policy and a flat election campaign plagued by leaks failed to inspire the electorate and ended in a hung parliament, the only time a government had failed to win a second term outright since World War II.

Key events leading to the new government

• December 1, 2009: One-time trainee priest Tony Abbott rolls left-leaning Malcolm Turnbull to become leader of Australia’s conservative Liberal/National opposition by one vote, amid turbulent debate over climate change.

• December 2: Parliament rejects for a second time the government’s emissions trading scheme de­signed to combat climate change, opening the way for a snap poll but Labour Prime Minister Kevin Rudd refuses to call an early election. Global climate talks at Copenhagen fail later the same month, and Rudd’s popularity begins to slide in opinion polls.

• February 26, 2010: Mr Rudd forced to demote Environment Minister Peter Garrett after the government’s botched home insulation scheme is linked to the deaths of four workers. Mr Rudd admits his government has made mistakes.

• March 16: Mr Rudd’s popularity dips below 50 per cent for the first time since his landslide November 2007 election win, while his dissatisfaction rating with voters hits an all-time high.

• April 27: Mr Rudd, who previously had described climate change as “the great moral challenge of our generation” shelves plans to introduce an ETS until at least 2013. One week later, Mr Abbott’s coalition takes the lead in the polls for the first time as angry voters turn against Labour.

• May 2: The government announces plans for a 40 percent tax on mining profits, which is strongly attacked by the industry and fails to garner popular support. Three days later Mr Rudd’s popularity hits a record low in the polls.

• June 23: Mr Rudd admits he has lost the support of factional leaders and announces a leadership ballot, after weeks of speculation that his deputy, Julia Gillard, was preparing to mount a challenge.

• June 24: Ms Gillard stands unopposed to become national Labour Party leader and the country’s first female prime minister, prompting an immediate bounce in the polls giving Labour a 10-point lead over Abbott.

• July 2: Ms Gillard announces a breakthrough truce with the mining industry, watering down Rudd’s tax proposal to end the damaging two-month row.

• July 17: Hoping to capitalise on her honeymoon in the polls Ms Gillard calls national elections for August 21, kicking off a five-week campaign for office.

• July 28: Labour’s campaign is rocked by damaging high-level leaks that Ms Gillard had opposed popular welfare increases to the old-age pensions and paid parental leave, alienating a significant section of the electorate.

• August 21: Both Ms Gillard and Mr Abbott fail to secure enough seats to take office after voters deliver Australia’s first hung parliament in 70 years, leaving the question of who will govern with minority lawmakers.

• September 7: Rural independent Bob Katter announces he would support an Abbott government but his two fellow independents Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott back Ms Gillard, giving her the 76 seats needed to form government.