Julia Gillard’s Autobiography and Principles of Political Leadership

Former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s political autobiography, My Story, has been gaining considerable coverage in recent weeks, as Gillard has launched a speaking tour – including to New Zealand – and has been candid in her criticisms of another former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.

In some ways My Story is a conventional memoir. Following some introductory chapters, Gillard examines a series of policy areas – children’s policy, climate change policy, and identity, amongst others – and outlines the Labor-led Government’s contributions to these areas under her premiership in 2010–2013. In most cases she defends her Government’s legacy and at times the analysis is a little pedestrian.

In other ways, however, the book defies conventional structure and approach. It avoids the retreat into childhood and family history that is found in so many political autobiographies. It is openly critical about certain figures, most notably Rudd. And, perhaps most memorably, it offers some useful insights into political leadership more generally. It is worth recounting these as the New Zealand Labour Party has this week elected a new leader, Andrew Little.

  1. Purpose and political leadership

Gillard underscores the importance of purpose in driving her leadership. “Purpose is not ubiquitous in politics,” she writes (at 131). But “[t]hose who enter politics without purpose are those who are most easily buffeted off course when the going gets tough”. And it is evident that Gillard herself was clear about her purpose before rolling Kevin Rudd to become Australia’s first female Prime Minister in 2010. Former British Cabinet Minister Alan Milburn encouraged Gillard to write down on one sheet of paper a summary of her purpose in politics. She includes the document in her autobiography (at 134–136), which notes Gillard’s values, where they came from (her family home), and explains how these values should affect national understandings of work and a broader egalitarian culture. Gillard is so emphatic about purpose that occasionally her references to her own drive and values comes across as a little self-congratulatory or obviously intended to differentiate her from Kevin Rudd. But the message is clear: a sense of direction, and values, was crucial to Gillard’s political leadership. It is a useful general precept.

  1. Being organized and being a leader

Less directly, Gillard shows that being organized is an underrated part of leadership. She notes that Kevin Rudd’s administration was hopelessly disorganized. “The [Rudd] government left 2009 with no real planning or preparation work done for the 2010 election campaign,” Gillard observes (at 15). Personally, Rudd’s leadership style was responsible for much of this, she argues. He demanded “more and more paperwork … only for it to never be read or properly responded to” (9), had a “demeanour … of paralysis and misery” (17), and “found it impossible to delegate” (17). What emerges from these descriptions is a sense that we do not pay sufficient attention to organization when developing traditional models of political leadership. We usually associate political leadership with charisma, oratory abilities, or ability to exert discipline over a team. Gillard reminds us that organizational capacity should be added to this list of leadership attributes, that organizational capacity was lacking in Rudd’s premiership, and that she attempted to rectify this defect in his leadership.

  1. Hard work and leadership

Lastly, Gillard raises as a recurring theme the importance of hard work – for her own leadership endeavours, but also for the progressive project more generally. Her first speech as Prime Minister spoke about the value of setting alarm clocks early and rewarding “those that day in, day out, work in our factories and on our farms, in our mines and in our mills, in our classrooms and in our hospitals, that rewards that hard work, decency and effort” (280). Of course, it is possible to present a simplified version of this ‘hard work’ narrative, which demonizes some groups and wrongly glorifies others for being successful purely because of their own merit. But as long as this narrative is avoided, it seems that there may be some value in progressives highlighting the importance of hard work. There is sometimes a loose linkage drawn, often implicitly, between left-wing policy and laziness or idleness: this crops up in criticism of welfare beneficiaries and also lurks in the background of claims about ‘tax-and-spend’ parties. An emphasis on hard work in leadership can help to decouple these unfair associations.

There is much more, to be sure, that could be said about Gillard’s views on leadership. The book’s chapter on gender is powerful and pithy: she speaks about how “both women and men continue to be trapped in gender prisons” in contemporary Australia (98), and notes interestingly that the stereotype that “women feel” and “nurture” (sometimes supported by thinkers working in the “ethic of care” tradition, such as Carol Gilligan) can undermine successful or ambitious women’s likeability.

There are certainly also weaknesses in some of My Story’s policy analysis. On some issues, Gillard seems too willing to go along with the Australian Labor Party’s standard position, rather than to interrogate deeply-held dogmas. This is particularly the case on the issue of Israel and Palestine, where Gillard focuses on the politics of attempts by Labor insiders to change Australia’s pro-Israel position, instead of offering any careful review of the merits of the policy. She is also far too sanguine about Israel’s recent invasion of Gaza. She writes: “In the months since [her original writing], the outlook has become so much darker. Children have died; violence has been answered with violence.” The broad, passive language evades any attribution of responsibility, and glosses over the fact that 513 Gazan children were killed in the 2014 Israeli invasion, compared to one Israeli child, according to reputable sources (the BBC and the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs).

Overall, though, My Story provides some useful navigating lights for any political leader – including leaders operating outside the unique context that is Australian Labor politics. Gillard’s three lessons of political leadership – relating to purpose, organization, and hard work – may be obvious to some, and may not be a complete manual for electoral success. But they may also be a sound starting point, especially for political leaders like Andrew Little in New Zealand and Ed Miliband in the United Kingdom seeking to win upcoming elections in a principled and progressive fashion.


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