Another Julia

First published in the Australian 17 March 2013

PRIME Minister Julia Gillard was a wildly popular politician, in the community and across the political divide, widely seen as engaging, intelligent, charming and good at her job. The high esteem even extended to conservative commentators.

Andrew Bolt confessed a “secret passion for Julia Gillard” whom he found “warm and attentive”. Janet Albrechtsen reckoned “Gillard is impressive … And she knows how to charm.”

Even grumpy Gerard Henderson described himself as a “great admirer”.

And here’s Miranda Devine reviewing a press club appearance: Gillard “spoke so much sense in her speech, and answered questions with such verve and wit, that reporters leaving the Press Club could do little more than shake their heads.”

No, I’m not describing a weird parallel universe or road not travelled. The trick played here is in time-frame. There’s a word missing from the first sentence: “deputy”. The collective memory has largely excised that two-and-a-half-year stint, when she was viewed very positively, effusively even, in voterland, and not just among Labor’s true believers. The contrast with the cold, clinical Kevin Rudd was alluring to many.

Yet what mostly remains is that final snapshot: widely detested, even ridiculed,and increasingly, in desperation, playing to a shrinking but loud cheersquad.

Talking to, drawing succour from, the self-appointed “base”, the conscience of the party. Rather like Tony Abbott is now.

In recent weeks a few articles have pondered the supposed contrast of deputy Liberal leader Julie Bishop’s rockstar status with Gillard’s diabolical standing. Why has Bishop succeeded where Gillard did not, given their obvious similarities?

But that comparison is wrong. If one must be made it’s between their times as understudies. And there are many similarities: both held in high regard in the electorate and, reportedly, the partyroom. Visits to MPs’ electorates produce flocking crowds.

There are differences. As prime minister, Rudd was once extremely popular, while Abbott never has been. Rudd’s star had waned when Labor’s dills knocked him off in June 2010, but he never reached anything like Abbott’s current plummeting lows.

Gillard was always the obvious replacement for Rudd if and when he departed, while the counterpart today is someone other than Bishop. But thanks to Malcolm Turnbull’s stubborn inability to fully commit to the government’s songsheet, the gap between the two is narrowing.

I got all the above quotes from an interesting Bolt column in March 2010 in which he reflected on his and his colleagues’ affection for Julia. (The middle part, the thoughts of some American psychologist, is not so interesting.)

Bolt perceptively noted that “Gillard’s popularity among conservatives is in part due simply to the fact that she’s not Rudd.” Something similar applies today to both Turnbull and Bishop among the left-leaning commentariat—and more widely. When a leader is doing badly the alternatives always look good.

Bolt ends with this: “So while we love challenger Gillard now, she’s smart enough to know we may find Prime Minister Gillard not so charming, in the end.

“But how keen I am that she prove me wrong. Before the end of the year would be good, Julia.”

Andrew got part of his wish three months later. In March 2010 a Labor re-election later in the year still seemed all-but assured, but by June a Coalition victory looked at least a decent possibility. As election day approaches partisanship hardens; Liberal-supporting commentators naturally barracked for their side.

And regardless of what she did, it was inevitable that Liberal supporters would find Gillard as prime minister “not so charming”. Because she was a Labor prime minister.

The same applies to Bishop or Turnbull this year. If they replaced Abbott they would do and say things Liberal prime ministers do and say. And because they would be the figurehead, the chief spear carrier of the “enemy” they would become the object of feral Labor and Greens supporters’ hatred. (The dark horse, Scott Morrison, can already boast that.)

As Bob Hawke, Paul Keating and John Howard were to the other side as prime ministers, despite the fuzzy recollections today.

The important question is whether whoever replaces Abbott also ends up toxic in outside the politically interested, among the unengaged masses, like Gillard and Abbott (and, to a point, Keating) did. (It’s fair to say Keating was widely loathed, but grudgingly respected.)

By the end of the year, perhaps a lot earlier, we’ll probably be finding this out.