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Jacqueline Kent is… a writer of non-fiction and biography, fiction, general articles and literary journalism. Her working background includes radio interviewing, print journalism, radio and TV scriptwriting, editing books, ghostwriting, teaching editing and creative writing, and arts administration.
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Hobart Mercury

Hobart Mercury, 3 October 2009

Red Julia takes job seriously but not herself

For all Julia Gillard’s talents and ambition, it is her sense of humour and of the ridiculous that will see here through, writes WAYNE CRAWFORD

JULIA Gillard pleaded with Mark Latham not to proceed with the contentious policy on Tasmanian forestry that is widely thought to have tipped the balance, and helped cost Labor the 2004 election.

Ms Gillard – then a close ally of Mr Latham, for whom she had helped muster the support he needed to snatch the leadership from Kim Beazley – greeted Mr Latham’s pro-green forestry policy “with a sense of foreboding,” writes her biographer Jacqueline Kent.

“My political instincts were saying to me that this was going to be a fiasco. This would cost us seats in Tasmania, and it might cost us seats in the mainland, it’s bad policy, stupid policy,” Ms Gillard recalled in conversations with Ms Kent.

“I was saying to Mark, `Please don’t do this, just please, pull out now’. And he was convinced that it was the right thing to do and was committed to making the announcement the next day, and it was clear to me that there was nothing at that stage that I could do to change his mind.

“It was like watching a child tottering towards a fire. A sense of being completely immobilised, nothing I could do,” she recalls of the policy that created a huge union backlash against Mr Latham and Labor. The ALP went from being tipped as a likely winner to one of its worst election routings.

Mr Latham’s policy was to end logging in most of Tasmania’s old-growth forests and spend $800 million on a job-saving package for timber workers, who were supposed to find jobs in plantation logging and the craft industry.

The loggers were unimpressed. Timber workers declared Mr Latham unfit to lead the country, accused him of throwing workers on the scrapheap – and at a rally in Launceston famously cheered then prime minister John Howard when he proposed an alternative policy that promised to lock up 170,000ha of Tasmanian forests (mainly areas that were inaccessible or not needed for the forestry industry anyway) without costing any jobs.

Even Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) left-wing union boss Michael O’Connor – Ms Gillard’s close friend and confidant since the heady days of university student union politics, with whom she had shared a flat and been in a relationship – joined the Howard cheer squad. It is testimony to Ms Gillard’s loyalty that she accepted the behaviour of her old friend as being part of his job, representing the interests of his union members.

She has also remained loyal to Mr Latham, refusing to join her colleagues indulging in personal criticism of the former leader – something that has attracted criticism from those within the party who look back on the Latham experience as a bad mistake and a low point for Labor.

Jacqueline Kent’s The Making of Julia Gillard (Penguin Viking, $32.95) is the first complete biography of Australia’s most powerful woman, the first woman to rise to the position of Deputy Prime Minister (and acting Prime Minister during Kevin Rudd’s frequent overseas trips).

It outlines her transition from the university student activist with youthful radical tendencies – conservative commentators still like to characterise her as “Re

d Julia” not just because of the colour of her hair – to Labor’s centre, which is the position Ms Kent says she now occupies. Certainly her policy positions on industrial relations could hardly now be claimed to be radical — demonstrated by the fact that they attract as much criticism from the unions as from employers.

Now, she draws as much comment for her changing hairstyles (her partner Tim Mathieson sells hair products) and her broad Australian accent ( a “broad, grating voice” according to one conservative commentator; a “scary robot voice” in the words of another) as for her policies. But that is only to be

expected in the male-dominated world of politics in which she has also been criticised (by a female columnist) for being “single and childless” and (by the tactless Liberal Senator Bill Heffernan) as “deliberately barren”. It would be unthinkable for such remarks to be made of a male politician.

Ms Gillard received widespread support and defence against Senator Heffernan, who later was made by John Howard to apologise. On the public reaction at the time, she recalls walking in her home suburb of Altona in Melbourne one day when a woman, passing in a car with a back seat full of kids, wound the window down and called out: “If you want any kids, love, you can have mine.”

Thankfully, Ms Gillard doesn’t take herself so seriously as to give much thought to the slings and arrows of the bigots. Indeed her sense of humour can surface at the most unlikely times and in the most unexpected circumstances.

There’s the classic story of her reaction on learning about Kevin Rudd’s infamous 2003 visit to Scores strip club in New York. She recalls in the book: “Kevin said: `There’s something we have to deal with in tomorrow’s newspapers – it’s a big problem for us’. He sounded really grim. I thought it was some amazing catastrophe. Then when he said `I was drunk in a bar in New York and it was a strip club’, it was so exactly not what I thought he was going to say, that I just burst out laughing. The whole thing was so absurd. Of all things and of all people.”

As it turned out, she was right not to take it too seriously. The incident did no damage to Mr Rudd’s popularity – indeed, if anything it made him seem less nerdy and more human.

Then there was a time she was campaigning at a suburban shopping centre, handing out brochures while standing next to a board with a big picture of herself. Ms Gillard: “This old guy comes out of the supermarket, looks at me, looks at the photo, looks at me, looks at the photo, then turns back to me and says, `Taken on a good day, wasn’t it, love?’ “I said, `And you’d be bloody Robert Redford, would you, mate’?”

The man saw the joke and said he’d vote for her.

Julia Gillard has many qualities that make it inevitable she is considered a likely future prime minister – passion, pragmatism, ambition, intelligence, loyalty, political nous, capacity for analytical thinking and hard work. But clearly she also has that quality without which the relentless political grind can chew up and spit out even the keenest and most able aspirants – innate humour and a sense of the ridiculous.

The Making of Julia Gillard

(Penguin, $32.95)

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