Julia Gillard has the right stuff to lead

AS natural and impressive as Julia Gillard’s rise through the political ranks to this week’s moment of destiny has seemed, it has not always been easy.

Three times she sought ALP preselection; three times she was rejected. As sharp as a pin, she proved herself a woman of patience and perseverance and finally triumphed, entering Parliament in 1998.

She has been on an upward trajectory ever since.

This week she was virtually forced to ride a wave of party discontent all the way to the Lodge. Loyalty was her byword to the end. Not that she has ever had a problem standing up for herself and for those she led.

‘‘She is not universally loved,’’ a passage in Jacqueline Kent’s book, The Making of Julia Gillard, reads. ‘‘For everyone who cheers her on as she lobs verbal grenades in Parliament there will be someone who thinks she is too shrill, sarcastic or bitchy.’’

Some Labor loyalists still dislike her for her role in toppling party leader Kim Beazley in 2006; others continue to be angry about the immigration policy she crafted for the ALP in the wake of the 2001 Tampa crisis.

‘‘She has been criticised for her hairstyle, for her fashion sense, even for the way she speaks,’’ Kent wrote. ‘‘But many people, men as well as women, will rush to her defence, condemning adverse comment about her voice as snobbish, asking why just because she is a politician she should not change her hairstyle, approving the gun-metal-coloured trouser suits and other no-fuss corporate clothes.’’

A straight-A student at an Adelaide high school, Gillard showed she had the ability to stand up to the blokes when she led a delegation against a physics teacher known to favour male students – his examples were inevitably of motorbike engines and boys’ toys. The adolescent Gillard declared his approach unacceptable and said if he did not include the girls it would be taken up the school totem pole.

The teacher was not the last to learn this was a woman to be reckoned with. From student activist, to union lawyer, to political chief-of-staff, to deputy prime minister, Julia Gillard has had a singular focus, ambition and discipline.

And at crucial moments in her career she has been willing to overturn power structures inside the Labor Party.

Gillard was born in Barry in Wales on September 29, 1961, to John and Moira Gillard, her family hailing from the coalfields. The Welsh Labour leader Nye Bevan is one of her political heroes.

Her parents emigrated to Australia in 1966 and settled, like many ‘‘’Ten Pound Poms’’, in Adelaide.

Gillard’s parents made the move after doctors told them their daughter, who had suffered lung problems since birth, may not be able to regularly attend school.

‘‘[The doctor said] she will not be able to grow up in the very cold weather,’’ Moira Gillard told the ABC’s Australian Story in 2006.

‘‘He said ‘take her to a warmer climate’, so we came to Australia.’’

‘‘My personal story shows the difference that opportunity can make to a life,’’ Julia Gillard said in her maiden speech in federal parliament on November 11, 1998. ‘‘My father John and my mother Moira migrated to this country with my sister Alison and I as assisted passage migrants in 1966.

‘‘Immigrants need courage and creativity; they need open minds and sturdy hearts.’’

‘‘My father worked in a variety of blue-collar jobs before training as a psychiatric nurse,’’ Gillard said in parliament.

‘‘My mother worked as a domestic in an aged care institution. Between them they have contributed more to this country as workers, as citizens, than they ever cost it.

‘‘And because they chose this country, while they still have their accents and their culture, they love this country and the lives they have made within it. Because they chose this country, they take nothing about it for granted: they celebrate and know its worth.’’

In the late 1970s Gillard arrived at the University of Adelaide, enrolled in law and arts and immediately became prominent in campus politics.

Committed and savvy, she made her mark in the sandpit of student politics in an era when the internecine contests inside the left were more vigorously fought than the campus tussles between student ALP members and young Liberals.

Gillard was Labor Left from the start. Many of her peers in the campus Labor club, dominated by communists and militants, regarded her as a sellout, not radical enough.

But young Gillard was a sharp operator.

After her third failed preselection bid for a federal seat, Gillard went to work as the chief of staff for the then Victorian opposition leader, John Brumby, at a time when the incumbent Liberal premier, Jeff Kennett, was regarded as all-powerful.

Gillard impressed.

She finally became Labor’s candidate for Lalor in Melbourne’s outer west, replacing the Pick-A-Box quiz king Barry Jones.

In her maiden speech she identified with the struggle-street ethos of her electorate.

‘‘As part of Melbourne’s industrial west, the people of Lalor have always had to try harder. There is a sense of community and a fighting spirit often missing from the sleeker suburbs,’’ the new MP declared.

She called for ‘‘a return to passion and conviction in Australian politics and to the clear articulation of values’’.

‘‘If the politics of values comes to the fore, then the Labor Party will win that contest,’’ she said.

‘‘It is only the Labor Party that can claim to be based clearly upon a value system, a value system that has endured since the Labor Party’s formation, even though the policies based upon those values are constantly revised in order to meet the needs of a changed and changing world.’’

After Labor’s election loss in 2001 Gillard moved to the frontbench under Simon Crean’s leadership as the spokeswoman on immigration at a time when Labor was being ‘‘wedged’’ mercilessly over policy on asylum seekers. She performed well in parliament and steered a pragmatic new policy through the party’s internal forums.

In a profile of her by Michael Gordon of The Age in 2003, Nicola Roxon, now the federal health minister, said of Gillard: ‘‘She’s got everything going for her: she’s tough, she’s smart, she’s funny – and she works bloody hard.’’

Peter Gordon, a senior partner of Slater & Gordon, was quoted in the same article as saying Gillard’s problem-solving and diplomacy skills were honed during her time representing union clients.

In December 2006 Gillard became deputy leader of the ALP when she teamed up with Kevin Rudd to successfully challenge Kim Beazley in caucus.

Respected national political columnist Michelle Grattan said of her at the time: ‘‘Gillard is disciplined, organised, and good humoured. She is the ultimate tidy-desk person.’’

Grattan continued: ‘‘She is more in sync with the style of the anal Rudd than the rather shambolic Beazley.

‘‘As a political saleswoman, she is relaxed, affable, effective and uses her vivacious style to persuade.

‘‘With her press secretary she often tours the parliamentary press gallery, promoting lines, sharing a joke, her hearty laugh ringing through offices.’’

Gillard was a major player on the election hustings in 2007 and was rewarded after Labor’s victory with the major portfolios of education and workplace relations.

As a previous supporter of Mark Latham, the one-time Labor leader who self imploded, she was allies with Hunter MP Joel Fitzgibbon. She remained loyal to Fitzgibbon during his stint in cabinet, only relenting her support in June 2009 when he was dropped under pressure by Rudd after allegations of ministerial misconduct.

As education minister she had steerage of Labor’s reform to the national curriculum and launch of the Myschools website providing greater transparency on school test scores and demographics.

She has also been responsible for the management of the Better Education Revolution school stimulus program which is under attack for wasting of funds.

As workplace minister she was charged with dismantling the previous Coalition government’s Work Choices program aimed at weakening the strength of unions and increasing employer control over the workplace.

She has been with partner Tim Mathieson, a hair products salesman, since 2006.

At one time she dated parliamentarian Craig Emerson, the current minister for small business.

On Thursday she said she believed that, rather than moving into The Lodge in Canberra, it was appropriate for her to continue living at her home in Altona in Melbourne’s west and her flat in Canberra until she received the endorsement of the Australian public at the general election.

Gillard’s favourite team is the Western Bulldogs in the AFL.

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