Leadership Change In Australia: New leader has labor roots, pragmatic streak

By Neil Sands
The Wall Street Journal
June 25, 2010
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CANBERRA — Julia Gillard entered Australian federal politics in 1998 railing against big business and opportunism, but has since displayed a pragmatic streak that her Labor Party supporters hope will help correct the mistakes that led to the downfall of her predecessor.

Ms. Gillard, 48 years old, has always stood out in the male-dominated world of national politics and was tipped as a future leader years before she ousted Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in an uncontested party ballot Thursday morning. A key ally in Mr. Rudd’s landslide win over John Howard’s conservative government in 2007, she takes the helm with Labor trailing in opinion polls and smarting from a voter backlash on a number of issues, most prominently a new “super profits” tax that has enraged the mining industry.

Where Mr. Rudd was seen as unable to delegate, a shortcoming that eventually cost him the support of Labor’s factional chiefs, Ms. Gillard is viewed as a consensus politician. Among her first acts as prime minister was to extend an olive branch to the mining industry, canceling government advertisements supporting the new levy and saying she wanted to negotiate.

Victoria Premier John Brumby, who once employed Ms. Gillard as his chief of staff, told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. that he also expected her to revive an emissions-trading proposal that was shelved by Mr. Rudd earlier this year to the dismay of the Labor faithful.

Ms. Gillard’s position in Labor’s left faction means she may also come under pressure to loosen policies on such social issues as asylum seekers, gay-marriage legislation and Aboriginal welfare restrictions in the Northern Territory. But the conservatives who delivered her victory are likely to stymie any change deemed too unpopular.

Born in Wales — her father was a psychiatric nurse — Ms. Gillard came to Australia as a four-year-old and grew up in Adelaide, the capital of South Australia. She moved to Melbourne in her 20s and joined a law firm where she represented employees in workplace disputes.

She forged close links with the labor movement and with the union-aligned Labor Party, working with Mr. Brumby, among others, before being elected to Parliament in 1998 to represent gritty Lalor in Melbourne’s western suburbs.

Analysts were divided on how these experiences may translate. RBC Capital Markets economist Su-Lin Ong said Ms. Gillard’s union roots make her a backer of government intervention and spending.

But Australian Council of Trade Unions Secretary Jeff Lawrence said the new prime minister is nobody’s puppet. “I don’t think Julia Gillard is controlled by anyone,” he said. “I’ve known her a long time, and she’s a very independent, forceful person. She will set the agenda for the government and the country.”

In opposition, Ms. Gillard took the portfolio of workplace relations, where she tangled with the current opposition leader, Tony Abbott, over industrial overhauls. Her party’s opposition to those changes helped propel Labor to victory in 2007. Polls showed many voters preferred her as prime minister to Mr. Rudd.

After the election, she became deputy prime minister and was part of the Rudd inner circle that pushed through massive government stimulus spending, which has been credited with helping Australia escape the worst of the global financial crisis. Stimulus spending in her portfolio of education has been criticized for being wasteful and poorly targeted, representing the major hiccup in her ministerial career.

All the while, Ms. Gillard has faced scrutiny in Canberra because of her status as an unmarried, childless woman — with one conservative political opponent accusing her of being “deliberately barren” and not understanding families.

University of Melbourne politics lecturer Lauren Rosewarne said this would only intensify with her election to the leadership. “Stay tuned,” she said, “for the inevitable — and archaic — media obsession with discussing the PM’s hairstyle, unweddedness and hairdresser boyfriend!”