Julia Gillard, left-wing opportunist
Is Julia Gillard a conviction politician or simply a political pragmatist? While recent media commentary has centred on what motivates Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, the Deputy Prime Minister has escaped analysis.
Given, as they say about the US Vice-President, that Minister Gillard is a heart’s beat from the top job and being spruiked as the next leader of the ALP, it’s timely to throw the spotlight on the member for Lalor.
Unlike Kevin Rudd, there is no doubt that Gillard is a creature of the left and steeped in Labor values. When describing growing up and her family environment Gillard writes, “Instinctively at home, Labor was our team”.
At university, Gillard was a student activist and supported a range of left-wing causes. She rose to be head of the radical Australian Union of Students and acted as a senior official in the Socialist Forum.
So strong were Gillard’s Labor credentials that in 1996 she was appointed chief-of-staff to the then opposition leader John Brumby. Evidence of Gillard’s commitment to left-wing causes include her involvement in the feminist inspired Emily’s List and moves to positively discriminate in favour of selecting women for political office.
Given Gillard’s belief in Labor’s vision, one she describes as favouring collective action to remedy the perceived evils and injustices of capitalist society, it should not surprise that her first speech to parliament championed so-called traditional Labor values.
In her speech Gillard dismisses conservatives for championing “the cult of individualism” and “survival of the fittest” and portrays the ALP as the party of a “fair go”, a party whose values are “fundamentally democratic and collective”.
In explaining why her political philosophy is “left rather than right-wing”, Gillard paints a romanticised picture of her working class electorate, one where the battlers overcome disadvantage by displaying a “sense of community and a fighting spirit often missing from the sleeker suburbs”.
After noting that students attending an “exclusive ladies college in the eastern suburbs” outperform Year 12 students in her working class electorate, Gillard argues that the education system is riven with inequality caused by socioeconomic background (reflected by postcode) and that one of her priorities in politics will be to overcome “inequality of opportunity”.
That Gillard is a creature of the left is illustrated by her listing Joan Kirner as a close friend and political mentor at the end of her speech. Kirner, one time Victorian Premier, Minister for Education and member of the socialist-left, in a speech to the Fabian society, once famously argued that education has to be co-opted as part of the socialist struggle instead of being an “instrument of the capitalist system”.
During the Howard years of government, one of the defining issues involved the culture wars and the battle of ideas between the left and right and it is here, once again, that Gillard reveals her political values and beliefs.
In a 2003 speech given to the Sydney Institute, Gillard positions herself as a cultural warrior of the left, attacking John Howard’s so-called neo-conservative agenda and characterising his views on multiculturalism, refugees, the republic and reconciliation as “fuelled by bile and venom”.
Gillard calls on the left to take up the battle of ideas and to demonstrate that the ALP is the only party that can guarantee an Australia that is “tolerant, outward-looking and egalitarian”.
Three years after the Sydney Institute speech, in a speech to the NSW Fabian Society, Gillard returns to the theme of the culture wars. Once again, she condemns Howard for implementing policies based on “unfairness, division and exclusion” and calls on Labor and progressive forces to “stand and fight for our values” – values enshrined in the concept of a fair go.
Judged by her long standing left-wing political activism and the call to arms to fight the culture wars, one might expect that winning government in 2007 represented a once in a lifetime opportunity for Gillard to enact her Fabian inspired political vision.
Not so. Based on her actions since becoming Deputy Leader and Minister for Education, it’s clear that pragmatism has overruled ideals and Julia Gillard is no different to many other politicians who put power before beliefs.
Similar to John Howard, Julia Gillard now argues that early European settlement was not an invasion. As a member of the Rudd Government’s “Gang of Four” Gillard is responsible for trying to stem the tide of illegal refugees by copying the very polices she condemned when Howard was Prime Minister.
As Minister for Education, Gillard has also endorsed the Howard inspired funding model for non-government schools for the quadrennium 2009-2012 and argued that the public versus private school debate is part of “an out-dated culture war”.
Gillard, similar to Prime Minister Rudd, now argues that parents have every right to choose Catholic and independent schools and that such schools should be properly resourced.
In a March 2007 speech, instead of criticising private schools for being elitist, Gillard congratulated them for, “giving so many Australians the chance, through high quality education, to prosper and be successful”.
In relation to the curriculum, once again copying the conservative Howard Government, Gillard argues for a back to basics approach to literacy and numeracy, that history as a subject has to be centre stage and that schools and teachers must be publicly accountable.
It’s clear that over the years, Gillard has lost her youthful idealism and that the seasoned politician we now see is both pragmatic and willing to compromise long held beliefs.
Dr Kevin Donnelly
Two questions facing the Australian electorate, especially if Gillard leads the ALP and becomes Prime Minister, is whether a leopard can change its spots and whether Gillard’s new found conservative rhetoric is more about political opportunism than deeply felt beliefs.
Dr Kevin Donnelly is director of Education Standards Institute. He taught for 18 years in Melbourne government and non-government schools and is the author of Australia’s Education Revolution: How Kevin Rudd Won and Lost the Education Wars and Dumbing Down : outcomes based and politically correct – the impact of the Culture Wars on our schools.