Julia is looking more and more like a future leader
POLITICAL dropout Peter Costello is unlikely to have spent even a minute watching A-Pac’s live feed of this mundane ALP national conference. There’s every chance the footy-mad ex-treasurer is mooching around the house in his black and red tracky dacks watching Essendon tapes, his mind focussed on tomorrow’s do-or-die clash with West Coast as the Bombers try to keep their spot in the eight.
Had he tuned into proceedings from Darling Harbour, John Howard’s perpetual political bridesmaid would probably have had a bit of a knowing grin at watching Julia Gillard make her own transformation to the position he held for so long - warm-up act to a bloke who has no real intention of ever leaving the prime ministership.
Costello has spoken about the sense of tedium and frustration which accompanied his bib-and-bub act with John Howard at the annual Liberal Party conventions.
As a gifted and humorous speaker - but also as a hungry politician who felt he deserved more - Costello would schlep along to convention, take a deep breath, and go through the motions to laughter and applause, firing up the crowd before the immoveable object took to the podium and received a mandatory standing ovation.
It was one of the most galling features of his job as deputy - revving up the party faithful into a kind of three-more-years mania, as he sat back, zoning out as Howard spoke, wondering if he’d ever get his own shot at the title.
Julia Gillard would not be wondering that, or rather, she would not be wondering that yet.
But at some stage in the life of the Rudd Government the point will inevitably arrive where the question of succession is real, and a permanent and destabilising distraction for the incumbent leader.
In this early stage in the life of the Rudd Government, it has been a terrific thing for Labor that Gillard has shown such polish and poise in power. She was widely regarded in opposition as a weakness for the ALP. Her background in the Socialist Left and as a student political firebrand meant she was viewed with suspicion if not alarm by business, by many commentators, and most of all by conservatives within the ALP, especially in New South Wales and Queensland.
Her elevation as Rudd’s deputy was seen by many as a marriage of convenience. The two had never been close, either personally or politically. And Rudd had made no secret of his disdain for her early plays at establishing a profile through outings like her Good Weekend cover spread, regarding them as an attempt to position herself as a contender for a bigger prize than 2IC.
It’s interesting to contrast this ALP conference and the get-together in April 2007, where Rudd made his debut as Opposition Leader, to examine the role which Gillard played.
The party seemed to be hiding her in 2007.
A string of stories involving bovver-boys from Labor’s industrial wing had spooked the party - yobbos from the construction unions in WA appearing on grainy video tapes in Doc Marten boots and braces spouting obcenities, rabbits such as Dean Mighell from the Electrical Trades Union referring to bosses by the evocative term “c**k-smokers”.
Part of Labor’s problem with these industrial dinosaurs was that the woman who would be deputy prime minister obviously seemed quite comfortable in their company, as demonstrated by the leaked footage of Gillard giving Dean Mighell a friendly peck on the cheek at a party get-together.
The 2007 event was purely and wholly the Kevin Rudd show - “My name’s Kevin, I’m from Queensland, and I’m here to help.”
And Gillard was shunted to one side, as the ALP desperately tried to reassure the public that it had no time for the class war of the past, even if some in the party - including the deputy - didn’t mind knocking around with blokes who thought bosses by definition were the scum of the earth.
Two years and three months on, Rudd has obviously enough taken centre stage again at the conference - but much of his shine has come via his deputy, who has meticulously transformed herself from SL rabble-rouser into a capable and measured politician who is regarded by her former critics as more of a strength than a liability for Labor in power.
Her speech this week introducing Rudd was typical of the stuff you get at Labor conferences - its Ben Chifley-meets-Iwo Jima overtones describing Rudd as “the man who dragged us up the final slopes and planted our flag on the top of the high hill” - but the point is that unlike 2007, where scary pinko Julia was in the shadows, this time we saw measured, responsible, credible, likeable Julia playing a front-of-house role for Labor in power.
This transformation has been a good thing for the party in these early stages of its life in government. But down the track the last thing Kevin Rudd will want to read or hear are continuing assessments of just how well Julia is going.
Like Costello, Gillard is a career political obsessive who from her days on the SRC at Adelaide’s Unley High, and through university and her early political career working in opposition for John Brumby, has been on an upward trajectory, accumulating and wielding greater power with every passing decade.
And again, like Costello she is going to reach a point where she’s a little tired of being the faithful number two, the smiling MC at party get-togethers, destined forever to pump up her leader’s tyres while dutifully deflecting any talk of designs of the leadership as baseless speculation.
The issue Kevin Rudd will eventually have to face is that not only have her former critics been pleasantly surprised by Julia’s transformation, the party is genuinely in love with her too. Not just her Left Faction, but many members of the Right, who in this age of factional collapse, nowhere moreso than in states such as NSW, will increasingly be prepared to pick leaders on merit and electability, rather then the old tribal lines which count for little in the modern ALP.
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