Julia Gillard, Australia's tough prime minister, faces more hard battles

Julia Gillard's steely resolve brought her to the pinnacle of Australian politics and she will need all her fighting spirit if she isto stay there

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 March, 2013, 6:05am


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Julia Gillard is a tough-talking political survivor who won global acclaim for a fiery denunciation of misogyny. But voters have yet to fully embrace the trailblazing feminist, Australia's first woman prime minister.

Gillard fought off the latest challenge to her leadership on Thursday in the uncompromising fashion that characterised her rise to power.

After weeks of mounting speculation that she was finished, she stood up in parliament and told the opposition to take their "best shot" before facing down supporters of former prime minister Kevin Rudd in an internal Labor Party revolt.

"This prime minister is a tough leader," Treasurer Wayne Swan said as Gillard fought for her political life. "She's as tough as they come."

That hard exterior was famously on show in a speech in October 2012, when she ripped into conservative Opposition leader Tony Abbott in an extraordinary outburst watched by millions on YouTube.

"I will not be lectured about sexism and misogyny by this man, I will not," stormed the 51-year-old who had scaled the male-dominated ranks of the Australian Labor Party.

"And the government will not be lectured about sexism and misogyny by this man. Not now, not ever."

The speech was an overnight sensation, with the UK's Spectator magazine noting there was "much to admire" in Gillard's tirade and US feminist blog Jezebel hailing her as "badass".

The episode briefly boosted her in the polls. But the former industrial relations lawyer has struggled to win over public opinion, and according to Nielsen polling has never been in a winning position since clinging to power after the last election in August 2010.

Everything from her Australian drawl to her penchant for white jackets has been criticised. She was once called "deliberately barren" for her childlessness.

When she reversed an election pledge on a carbon tax, Gillard was subject to a furious backlash and dubbed 'Ju-liar', while rallies were held in which protesters held placards reading "Ditch the Witch".

But the Welsh-born immigrant says her formidable inner strength and calm are among her chief attributes.

"I have always had a very strong sense of myself and not had that easily pushed and pulled by the views of others," Gillard said in December.

Steely resolve may not be enough to save Gillard's government on September 14, when Australia will vote in an election expected to see Labor's defeat.

The next set of public polls will show whether Thursday's episode cleared the clouds overhanging Gillard, or deepened voter disaffection ahead of the election.

Any further loss in support would increase the odds of opposition Liberal-National leader Abbott pressing for a parliamentary no-confidence motion in the government, after he lost a bid to hold one on Thursday by three votes.

"Maybe Gillard can use this as a circuit-breaker" to restart the campaign, said Haydon Manning, a politics professor at Flinders University in Adelaide. At the same time, "it's hard to imagine a scenario where she can lead the government to victory from here.

"All she's got on her side is time, and that's only six months and counting."

While Abbott's no-confidence motion failed, Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott - two independents on whom Gillard relies to pass legislation - sided with the conservative coalition's call to debate the motion, underscoring Labor's tenuous hold on power.

"This is all definitely over," Gillard said on Australian Broadcasting Corporation radio on Friday.

"People can be reassured that all of this is done and dusted now so they don't have to worry about that anymore and we'll just be getting on with the big things that really matter for governing and for the future of the country."

The leadership question has hampered Gillard's efforts to focus voter attention on her legislative achievements, which include levies on resource profits and carbon, and forcing tobacco companies to brand their products in plain packaging with graphic health warnings.

Her rapid rise to power, by removing then-boss Rudd in a shock backroom coup, has always overshadowed her time in office and she has never enjoyed his celebrity status.

Suddenly Australia had a female, atheist, unmarried, childless - and unelected - prime minister.

Gillard called polls but only narrowly averted disaster, losing Labor's majority and only just attaining a majority in Parliament with the support of a group of rural independents and a Greens MP.

Considered a brilliant negotiator, she battled to guide a carbon pollution tax and a controversial tax on mining profits through parliament.

Julia Eileen Gillard was born on September 29, 1961 in Barry, a port town central to Welsh coal-mining.

She was just four when she sailed to Australia clutching a toy koala in 1966 when her parents took up a £10 migration scheme hoping a warmer climate would cure her chronic lung problems.

A bright student, she went on to read arts and law in Adelaide where her family had settled. She became president of the Australian Union of Students in 1983.

She forged a career in industrial relations law before delving into politics as chief of staff to then-Victoria state opposition leader John Brumby.

After initially being rejected by the Labor Party for a parliamentary seat, Gillard entered the House of Representatives in 1998, winning the safe seat of Lalor.

Gillard, from the party's left, became known for her pragmatism and savage wit, memorably calling the opposition's Tony Abbott a "snivelling grub" and his Liberal Party colleague Christopher Pyne a "mincing poodle". She lives with her partner, former hairdresser Tim Mathieson.

Gillard now claims to have the full backing of her party and she has six months to prove the critics and pollsters wrong.

But while the possibility of a Rudd comeback has now been ruled out, it doesn't remove disaffection within Labor's ranks over Gillard, said Zareh Ghazarian, a politics lecturer at Monash University in Melbourne.

"There are about 40-odd caucus members who supported Rudd and were clearly dissatisfied with Gillard's performance," Ghazarian said.

"They're going to be agitating for Gillard to fall and so it leaves the door open for someone else."

Agence France-Presse, with additional reporting by Bloomberg.