– Julia Gillard sits calmly in a tub chair in her office, the milky winter sun cutting through the floor-to-ceiling grey curtains behind her. Until last night, June 26th, 2013, she was Australia’s 27th prime minister; today, just 15 hours after her caucus defeat, she is the member for Lalor, a backbencher preparing to leave Parliament. “Out we go with the boxes,” she says drily, surveying her surrounds. The big desk, in front of which she famously welcomed US President Barack Obama in late 2011, is marooned by a sea of boxes.
The bookshelves are empty, cupboard doors spill open, bouquets of fresh flowers with personal notes attached are gathering near the door. The Australian flag still stands in its customary position in the corner. During her 2010 election campaign, Gillard famously declared, “It’s time to make sure the real Julia is well and truly on display.”
“Did you feel you could really be yourself as prime minister?” I ask.
“You can be yourself, but always with a bit of padding on.”
Julia Eileen Gillard ended more padding than most Australian prime ministers. For three years and three days, she was pummelled by a nasty political trifecta. A messy campaign in 2010 yielded both a minority government and the swirling negotiations that would infuse the 43rd parliament. As the first woman to win the nation’s highest office, she exposed a deep seam of personal viciousness not seen before in Australian public life. Sadly, her flaws as a leader seemed to always overshadow her achievements. And from the moment the ink was dry on her commission from Governor-General Quentin Bryce, Gillard had to battle two political opponents – Tony Abbott, who lanced her leadership with the “liar” brand from without, and Team Rudd, whose quest for revenge poisoned her from within.
“Are you angry about it?”
She looks away. “If we were having a red-hot go over policy, a real blue over policy…” she says, before her voice trails off. In her 15 years in the federal parliament and her long apprenticeship before, Julia Gillard was a political warrior and a policy pragmatist. She had been on the winning side of every Labor leadership manoeuvre – Kim Beazley, Mark Latham, Rudd – until yesterday.
I ask her about women in politics. “It’s still worth it,” she insists. The political cauldron has extinguished several careers in the past 24 hours, including one of the most effective legislators and managers of government Australia has seen. And it has burnt a good woman.
When she called the vote yesterday afternoon, Gillard insisted to the TV audience that “leadership is about policy, not personality”. But 21st-century politics, as former Labor finance minister Lindsay Tanner lamented in his book Sideshow: Dumbing Down Democracy, has become an endless spin cycle of entertainment. While her opponents were performing for the cameras, Gillard was “getting it done”, pushing hundreds of pieces of legislation through the parliament.
Bells suddenly ring sharply. “Have I got a pair?” she asks her PA through the open door. The bells are calling members to a vote in the House. The parliament’s work goes on relentlessly with the government still in minority, and every vote is critical unless discounted with a “pair” from the opposition. Gillard is released from voting today as a small mark of respect for a fallen leader. Legislation from this government – until last night, Gillard’s government – will still be passed in the dying hours of the 43rd Parliament.
The previous morning, I chatted to Gillard’s chief of staff, Ben Hubbard, in his office. Gillard popped her head around the corner of the concealed corridor between her inner office and his. She was wearing a casual cardigan over a black dress. I stood up and greeted her. “Good morning, Prime Minister. I hope you know how many women are behind you.”
She looked almost surprised. I was referring clumsily to her support from women out there in the public, but her total attention was now on the moving intrigue of the parliamentary Labor caucus and her ebbing numbers. The prime minister refocused, responding quietly, “I know.”
She asked about former Victorian premier Joan Kirner, recently diagnosed with cancer. At such a time of acute political danger, her concern for her first and mentor was moving. It’s warmth that explains why so many who work closely with Gillard love her. And that laugh, which she gives freely. It’s somewhere between a giggle and a guffaw and it happens often. But there was laughing that day. As I left, her mind was back on the mountain she had to climb – again. I had been pressing for an interview. Hubbard shook his head. “We’ve cleared the diary. She’s ringing the colleagues.”
So it was tight, very tight, and the contest hadn’t formally been declared. It would, though, barely five hours later. Gillard herself would throw the leadership open – again. This time with the spectacular ultimatum that the loser vacate the field and leave Parliament.
I passed the giant frame of education policy adviser Tom Bentley in the warren of the PM’s office and congratulated him on the passing in the Senate that day of the Gonski school funding reforms. “Thanks,” he grinned. (Much later that night, I saw him again, slumped in his airless office. Our eyes met but we didn’t speak. “Five patient years of work,” as Gillard described it, yet at the moment of triumph both Bentley and his boss would be out of a job. Politics burns staffers and politicians alike.) Someone else was writing an event brief. “It’s for next week, but I don’t know if it will happen.”
Then the leadership struggle was on. Both camps messed with each other’s minds over who was voting for whom. Emails came through to the PM’s office on who was “sticking with Julia”. Someone in the media office turned on gentle music. A guillotine had hung above them, but those in the tumbril were calm.
Then there was a key ministerial defection. Policy staff groaned. “We’re fucked.” A female yelled, “Shame!”
Warren Snowdon, one of Gillard’s numbers’ men, left the back way. I noticed soulful music coming from a computer in the media office, a long-haired guitar strummer singing to the trees. Advisers congregated in their offices. There was nothing to say. By 7pm, as the caucus filed in for the vote that would take down Australia’s first female prime minister, many were running on empty.
7:55PM The caucus returning officer confirms a narrow 57-45 win to Kevin Rudd as Labor leader.
8PM Ben Hubbard calls Julia Gillard’s staff to a meeting. A terrible silence falls.
8:30PM Someone turns on the rugby league State of Origin game. Someone else finds whisky.
8:45PM The PM and her thin Praetorian guard of ministers and members walk the long corridor to her office, shoulders upright, only a quiver on Gillard’s lip as she moves through her staff lined up, both sides applauding. It was the same ritual in March, at the stillborn leadership spill. Then the walk from caucus, a smile and a directive to go “back to work”. This time the defeated prime minister, grim and pale, sits in the honey-coloured tub chair in her office and drafts notes for a resignation speech. “She has to keep it together until she sees the governor-general,” former attorney-general Nicola Roxon says to me as she hovers nearby.
There are three Australian female firsts in this context: first female governor-general, first female prime minister and first female attorney-general. This government has made history, briefly. Tonight, only one still on the throne and she has no real power.
9:18PM The prime minister gives a gracious concession speech in the appropriately named Blue Room. Gillard says her gender should not define her prime ministership, that it should be easier for the next woman to hold the job and the ones after that. I hope so, but as I listen to her words I don’t feel it. The media pack do not get a tear rolling down the cheek at her final public event. Not like Malcolm Fraser, Bob Hawke and Rudd when they lost. Gillard keeps company with Gough Whitlam and Paul Keating in controlled, pointed exits from the political stage:
“I understand that at the caucus meeting today, the pressure finally got too great for many of my colleagues. I respect that and I respect the decision that they have made. But I do say to my caucus colleagues: don’t lack the guts, don’t lack the fortitude, don’t lack the resilience to go out there with out Labor agenda and to win this election. I know that it can be done.”
9:30PM Holding a glass of red wine but not sipping it, Gillard thanks her staff and invites them to the Lodge. “Come back for a drink, but remember Rueben is no longer the First Dog.” A few ministers linger. They don’t seem thirsty.
Then her last constitutional duty, a visit to the governor-general, to resign her commission. The historic letter is in her chief of staff’s hand. “GG, here I come,” she declares, as she disappears into the night.
10PM Teary admin staff leave for the lodge.
10.30PM Security locks the PM’s office.
It’s the morning after the night before, and with little sleep, the member for Lalor is talking about political inexorability and the caucus colleagues who stuck with her. “We defied political gravity time after time, even when the going got incredibly tough,” she says. “Some were facing bad polls in their seats. They read the polls and all the commentary that goes along with them, saying they must change the leader. They were courageous against all that. It’s bitter-sweet.”
There’s no sun now as Gillard strides across her marble antechamber and out into the prime minister’s courtyard to join her staff and advisers for the final group photo. “Technically, the office doesn’t exist,” says Ben Hubbard, explaining a sort of virtual reality. “But we have till Saturday arvo to be out. That’s quite civilised.”
Ten minutes later, the disgraced former speaker Peter Slipper is giving a valedictory speech – in case he loses his seat – to an empty chamber. “If you want a friend in politics, buy a dog,” is his most memorable line.
A few hours later, Gillard will be in the chamber to hear more gracious words from the retiring independent MP Rob Oakeshott. His last words nearly undo her as he shares the text he sent to her the previous night. “Your father would be proud of you.” The bereaved daughter in the black suit struggles for composure.
But before that tenderness, Gillard’s last Question Time as a federal parliamentarian will play to a packed house.
1:55PM Restored Prime Minister Kevin Rudd takes his seat centre stage.
1:58PM Gillard and her former deputy, Wayne Swan, find a bench at the back. It’s shocking how fast power evaporates. Cameras claim the close-up. They both sit motionless, their faces drained of emotion.
The leader of the opposition and the prime minister perform the familiar script, yet Labor MPs look sullen, exhausted. Nicola roxon walks over to Gillard and shares a text with her friend. They both smile. A parliamentary clerk asks her to sign something. He pats her on the shoulder.
Community Services Minister Jenny Macklin announces the launch sites for DisabilityCare, which starts Monday. It’s a huge achievement and Macklin nods with respect towards Gillard.
Party elder Simon Crean, the exiled minister who lit the fuse for the no-show ballot in March, had his head thrown back staring into the gilded ceiling. What might have been! Last night, Health Minister Tanya Plibersek was in Gillard’s office in tears; now, pale but perfectly composed, she runs through the government’s achievements in health and announces wider access to dentists.
2:58PM Kevin Rudd brings down the curtain on the final Question Time for this Parliament, and for Julia Gillard. Many words are exchanged, but there’s no mention of Australia’s historic first female prime minister.
You serve, you lose, you leave – Mary Delahunty (GW)