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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 Drum Unleashed

A different kind of politician

The Drum Unleashed, ABC.net.au

You don’t have to research Julia Gillard’s story for very long to realise that everybody seems to have an opinion about her – whether they’re interested in politics or not. 

Views seem to be equally divided between those who like her and those who don’t. She’s been praised and criticised for her hairstyle, her clothes, even the way she speaks: some consider her the poster girl for unmarried career women without children, others think she is strident, bullying and above all unfeminine. 

A measurable group of ALP supporters are still angry about the immigration policy she crafted in Opposition after the 2001 Tampa crisis, which they say was far too close to the Howard government’s; others defend Gillard’s ‘pragmatism’.

It’s hardly surprising that people know so much about her. 

Ever since Labor won the 2007 federal election and she became deputy PM, scarcely a day seems to have gone by without a media story about her somewhere. 

She’s been in glossy women’s magazines, laughed and joked on TV and radio, been quoted in every newspaper in the country. Readers, viewers and listeners know a lot about her: her taste in clothes, how she and her partner Tim Matheson met, where they go on holidays, what movies she enjoys, what kinds of books she likes reading. 

It’s fair to say that, in a country where distrust

of politicians is almost an article of faith, Julia Gillard is the closest thing Australia has to a political celebrity.

Gillard shows how much our perception of politics and politicians has changed in Australia. It’s not just the fact that she is our first woman deputy PM, although that is sufficiently interesting. It’s also that voters now expect to be much more familiar with their elected representatives. 

Before the early 1970s when Gough Whitlam came along to liven things up, politics was a rather dour, arcane interest: unless voters had direct contact with their MPs, they knew very little about them (and, presumably, cared less). Today’s 24-hour media cycle simply did not exist: most politicians treated radio and the newspapers, and early TV, as electronic versions of town hall rallies or stump

s dull as that sounds. And no journalist would think of asking a political leader about his (always his) private life.

With the rise of ‘personality politics’, fuelled of course by the democracy of the internet, Julia Gillard, like all Western politicians, is acutely aware of the importance of image, of public perception. And her public image has been remarkably consistent. 

As a journalist for Vive magazine wrote some years ago: ‘There is something about Julia Gillard’s public persona that is grounded and ordinary. Julia Gillard comes across as absolutely one of the girls. You went to school with a Julia, you live next door to her, you work with her.’

Well, maybe not: Gillard’s grasp of detail, quick intelligence and ability to get across a brief are quite exceptional. But this perceived ordinariness of Gillard’s is a vital factor in her popularity, I think. We tend to like politicians who give the impression that they are just like the rest of us. We’re not especially comfortable with those who need to show us how clever they are: we’re much happier with a Bob Hawke or a John Howard, someone who looks as if they’re up for a beer and a yarn. 

It’s tempting, in fact, to compare Julia Gillard with Bob Hawke – both are extraordinary people who know how to appear ordinary. They’re friendly and approachable, highly intelligent, legally trained clear thinkers and good at putting across complicated policy ideas in simple and accessible language. (However, Gillard is better at not appearing to take herself too seriously.) Last but perhaps not least, both have very broad Australian accents.

Of course Julia Gillard isn’t ordinary, which is why she is always being asked about being the next PM. She dodges the question because it’s complicated, depending on a wide range of factors, some of which would be outside her control. 

But our soundbite-and-personality-driven political culture, dependent as it is on electronic and digital immediacy, is not sympathetic to any kind of nuanced answer, and so the question persists. 

The answer will presumably become clear before too long.

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