It has, by any measure, been an extraordinary week in Australian politics. We have seen an old Prime Minister restored to his position – to his supporters, the ‘king across the waters’ was returned. We have seen one of the most unjustly reviled politicians removed, swiftly, violently and finally. We have seen an outpouring of grief, of respect, of major hypocrisy, especially by the Australian press, many of whom worked tirelessly to promote hate and mistrust.
There are of course, at least a dozen post-mortems as to why Ms Gillard was unsuccessful as PM.. Of course, she had a fairly remarkable record of achievement. No major legislation introduced by her government was rejected. In a minority government, this is an achievement indeed. She was aided by some luck. At any time, she was one heart attack or car crash from a crucial bye-election. She was able to introduce reforms to education and the national disability insurance scheme. She prevailed over an economy which is, we are continually reminded, the envy of the world.
So, what happened? Why was Mr Rudd able to win, fairly convincingly, a ballot of people, who only six months ago, called him all manner of names and cast the most severe aspersions on his character? Ms Gillard herself ultimately did not win the acceptance of the Australian people. The manner of her assumption of the role was not appreciated. Her enemies painted her as ruthless, as amoral, as a megalomaniac. Her tough public demeanor did not do much to dispel this image.
Her sex was continually abused. Radical enemies questioned just how qualified she was to make decisions affecting families, as she has not had children. She was a bitch, a witch, a harpy. Her partner,Tim Mathieson, must be gay. She had a big bottom, skinny legs and, horror of horrors, red hair. Cases she had worked on as a lawyer were exhumed and questions of her integrity were brought in. A few months back, sick of the innuendo, the smears, the continual questioning, she made one of the great speeches given in the Australian house of representatives. This speech drew some of the most stupid commentary ever written in Australia, but was rightly lauded overseas. Nonetheless, she remained widely disliked in Australia.
I suggest that she made one fundamental error. Not removing Mr Rudd. That was an error of the factions who demanded it. Not bringing in a carbon price, though it could have been better handled. Not calling a leadership spill in March. Even the PR faux pas (posing with knitting needles) weren’t enough, I think, to bring her down. Look at Bob Hawke, or John Howard. Both men had their share of mistakes. In fact, even that she was a woman wasn’t the major factor. As she said, her being a woman didn’t explain everything, but nor did it explain nothing.
Where I humbly suggest she went wrong is in what she listened to. She seemed to engage the loudest noises: the right-wing press, the vacuous factions who owed her, and who she owed. As anyone who has been in leadership positions can tell you, there is no shortage of people who will tell you what they think. The loudest and most persistent are often though the minority. Underneath this noise, there’s further data. When the two are the same, you’re fine. But they rarely are. A good leader listens. Not to the noise. But to the gaps. For that is where the truth lies.