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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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The Australian

Gillard’s grasp on the political domain

The Making Of Julia Gillard By Jacqueline Kent Viking, 320pp, $32.95

TRADITIONALLY, political biographies come at the end of a career, although there are always exceptions. Two biographies of then opposition leader Kevin Rudd appeared in the months before the 2007 election, as Australians rushed to find out about the man who might be PM. And now we have the first of two biographies of Julia Gillard – the other, by journalist Christine Wallace is due next year – a mid-career politician, whose greatest triumphs (and defeats) are likely yet to come.

On the first page of The Making of Julia Gillard, Jacqueline Kent justifies her choice of subject, arguing that in a country where distrust of politicians is almost an article of faith, Gillard is a political celebrity. She is also Deputy Prime Minister, Minister for Education, Employment and Workplace Relations and Social Inclusion and an impressive parliamentary and media performer.

The bare-bones version of Gillard’s life and career has been told and retold, but Kent fleshes it out with insights from former university and work mates, political colleagues and opponents. It’s an overwhelmingly positive portrait, with the occasional criticism or nasty remark from a political foe outweighed by numerous quotes from admirers and allies.

Kent starts at the very beginning with the Gillard family’s migration from Wales to Adelaide when Gillard was four years old. Young Julia was clever and hard-working but not especially ambitious. After finishing school, she considered teaching but was persuaded by a family friend to study law.

At the University of Adelaide she joined the Labor Club, became involved in student politics and in 1982 moved to Melbourne to take up the role of education vice-president of the Australian Union of Students. It was in the AUS that Gillard learned, in the words of her friend and former colleague Josh Bornstein, to “keep going, keep going, keep going, while people are throwing things at each other”.

That skill was developed further when she joined law firm Slater & Gordon. Gillard excelled in industrial relations law, and after three years, became the first woman to be offered a salaried partnership by the firm.

Throughout, Gillard remained active in the ALP, and in 1992, she went for preselection in the safe Labor seat of Melbourne. She knew it was a long shot but felt that “if I didn’t put my hand up it would have been seen that I wasn’t interested in a political career”. She lost to Lindsay Tanner who, along with Kim Carr, remained a political thorn in her side for many years. Tanner, apparently, considered Gillard “a conservative and a careerist who could not be trusted”. When she ran for preselection in the seat of Lalor in 1998, he was determined to block her advance by all means possible.

Gillard won preselection and then the election, and today, Tanne

r and Carr are her colleagues in cabinet. Kent says Gillard learned in her law days that bearing grudges was destructive. Her philosophy is: “Shit happens, and go home and have a cry or a glass of red wine or kick the cat or whatever.”

This attitude is an obvious asset in the faction-riven, bitter grudge-holding ALP. Much of Gillard’s success is due to her ability to navigate the factions without becoming part of one. Although she began her career on the Left, many of her closest allies, such as Simon Crean, John Brumby (for whom she worked as chief of staff when he was Victorian opposition leader) and Mark Latham (to whom she remained loyal longer than was politically wise), have been from the Right.

Kent quotes a former law colleague of Gillard’s saying that “she could get across a highly complex area of law and turn it into a simple concept. It’s a rare

skill to translate the intricacies of corporation law to someone with a primary school education.”

One could say the same about Kent’s ability to translate the intricacies of ALP factions to readers who might agree with Kent that sometimes politics, especially on the Labor side, can seem too complicated for its own good. She gives clear summaries of the histories casino of health, education, industrial relations and immigration policy, but never lets the main story, Gillard’s rise, get bogged down in descriptions of ALP policy or machinations.

This is not, then, a book for hardcore political junkies, nor is it for those wanting an insight into Gillard’s personal life or private thoughts. Kent’s Gillard is an inspirational figure, not just for girls and women wanting to enter politics but for those from working-class and immigrant backgrounds. Her story as told by Kent is one of determination, self-belief, resilience and hard work. In this sense, The Making of Julia Gillard sits comfortably alongside Kent’s biographies of pianist Hephzibah Menuhin and book editor Beatrice Davis, both women who lived unconventional but professionally remarkable lives.

It’s an accessible and enjoyable read, but a slightly unsatisfying one. In the end, I didn’t feel I knew Gillard; I knew a lot about her life. This was, perhaps, to be expected. Kent says that in interviews “Gillard gives little away. Under that engaging manner is a reserved person, a woman who is very self-protected.”

Fair enough, too: Gillard’s professional history is on the public record and she has no obligation to reveal more about her private self.

Besides, despite her brushing the question aside – “Anyone who thinks that my being PM is inevitable knows nothing whatever about politics” – there’s a good chance that Gillard will be our next prime minister and it’s only prudent that she remain on guard. Maybe once she has stepped away from public life she’ll be more forthcoming.

Emily Maguire is the author of Princesses & Pornstars: Sex, Power, Identity. Her latest novel, Smoke in the Room, is out now.

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