2 Jul 2013

Gillard's Place In The Labor Pantheon

By Ben Eltham

Julia Gillard was the greatest progressive reformer since Whitlam, but couldn't manage the day-to-day tactics of modern politics. Ben Eltham assesses the outgoing PM's legacy

How should we assess the legacy of Julia Gillard?

Undoubtedly, her achievement as the first female prime minister looms large. As Gillard herself said on the evening of 26 June, she was “absolutely confident” that “it will be easier for the next woman and the woman after that and the woman after that”. Gillard was proud of that, and so should we all be.

The achievements that Gillard noted in her farewell speech were not about gender. They were about policy – a very substantial legacy indeed. To see why, let's examine just three of Gillard's signature achievements: disability care, carbon pricing, and a royal commission into institutional abuse.

Gillard's greatest legacy will be in disability care. When Labor came to office in 2007, it was a national disgrace. In other parts of the rich world, the idea of providing social and economic support for the disabled is longstanding and entirely uncontroversial. For a range of historical reasons, including good old-fashioned prejudice, Australia has one of the worst records in the OECD in this sphere.

According to a 2011 PricewaterhouseCoopers report, Australia ranks dead last of 27 OECD nations in terms of the quality of life for those of us living with a disability. When it comes to employment opportunities for people with disabilities, Australia ranked 21 out of 29: only 40 per cent of Australians with disabilities are employed, compared to 79 per cent for the general population. As Stella Young asked back in 2011, “as an Australian with a disability myself, did this surprise me? Nope”.

For too long, caring for those with a disability has been a burden our society has shirked, thrusting it onto family and charity instead. A devastating story by Cam Mackellar, published here at NM, explains the cruelty of Australia's neglect: “As my mother lay dying from cancer, I spent the last precious weeks of her life in furious negotiations with NSW disability services fighting to establish a system of care for my disabled brother.”

The terrible scenario many families found themselves in was conclusively established by the Productivity Commission’s comprehensive inquiry into the matter, which found that there were nearly half a million Australians living with a permanent disability. More than 42,000 carers needed extra support, just with respite.

That's the world of suffering that Gillard's government finally moved to address. She wasn't the first, and she wasn't alone. The national disability insurance scheme was an idea with long antecedents, and the idea first gained momentum at the 2020 summit before attracting wide community support. Inside Labor, the idea was taken up with considerable enthusiasm by Bill Shorten, and outside it the policy eventually achieved bipartisan support from the Coalition.

But it was during Gillard's prime ministership that the Australian government committed to making it happen. Her government legislated and budgeted for it. Disability Care is the most significant extension of Australia's social safety net since Medicare. For this alone she can hold her head high.

Legacy number two is carbon pricing.

Again, the idea of requiring companies and consumers to pay for the pollution they spew into the atmosphere is an old one, but vested interests don't come any more powerful than the fossil fuel industries. Despite the looming climate crisis confronting Australia, the politics of carbon destroyed the leadership of Malcolm Turnbull and played a key role in the downfall of Kevin Rudd.

It was Julia Gillard as PM that priced carbon, at huge political cost. Unlike the disability scheme, carbon pricing had few friends except the Greens and two country independents, who also paid the price for backing it. This really was a signature achievement that can be slated home to Gillard and her negotiation skills, although Greg Combet, the Greens and some very clever policy wonks in the federal public service can also take credit. 

The Clean Energy Future package is more than just carbon pricing, by the way. It's a sophisticated suite of measures to encourage clean energy investment and bring down Australia's greenhouse gas emissions as a tiny cost. Like any piece of legislation, it has its quirks and flaws. In general, however, it's a highly effective and pragmatic policy to help prepare Australia for a warmer world. 

We often hear lobby groups and members of the public asking our politicians for leadership. If only a politician was prepared to do what was right for the country, not what is popular, they say. I would point those people in the direction of the Gillard government's carbon price.

This policy was manifestly right for a country that will suffer more from climate change than almost every other rich nation. It was manifestly unpopular: Gillard's backflip in the tax quickly destroyed her political credibility. And it was negotiated in the teeth of a dishonest and hysterical scare campaign from the Opposition, aided and abetted by slanted reporting from many sections of the mainstream media. Gillard got it done. She implemented what Rudd couldn't.

Legacy number three is the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

In her valedictory speech, Gillard said that this Royal Commission will “change the nation”, and I think she's right. It's hard to think of a more serious issue of public policy than the long-term, systematic abuse of thousands of children. For far too long, a succession of state and federal governments have been reluctant to look into the issue, in part because of pressure from various powerful interests, including the Catholic church.

If the wrenching revelations of the Irish commission into similar abuses is any guide, the Royal Commission will teach Australians new and terrible lessons. If that forces our churches and other civil institutions to take the issue of child abuse seriously, the vast time and expense will surely be justified. “It will change individual lives as people get to come forward and tell their story,” Gillard said of the Royal Commission last Wednesday night. “It will change the nation because we will learn how to better protect our children for the future.” We can only hope.

If Gillard could claim just these three achievements – Disability Care, carbon pricing, and the Royal Commission – her place in Australian political history as a reformer would be secure. But to these we can add a slew of other milestones, including paid parental leave, the Gonski schools funding reforms, extra funding for public health and hospitals, the nation's first cultural policy in nineteen years, and some surprisingly effective achievements in the field of foreign affairs – just to name five.

Gillard did make some mistakes. Foremost amongst them must surely be her decision to strip welfare benefits from approximately 80,000 single parents, for no good reason except balancing a budget that ended up in deficit anyway. Similarly, her government's wrong-headed embrace of the “no advantage” test for asylum seekers, urged on it by the so-called “experts”, has denied tens of thousands of legitimate refugees their rights to a safe and prosperous future, demeaned Australia in the eyes of our region, and done nothing to stop innocent people drowning at sea.

The decision to bow to industry pressure on the mining tax was also a poor one, delivering a tax that raised little revenue and gifted billions in future tax credits to foreign conglomerates. Slashing $2.3 billion from higher education was also an error, hurting her credentials as a champion of education while making little long-term economic sense. And Gillard had a peculiar blind spot on certain social issues, steadfastly refusing to push forward an enlightened policy of marriage equality for same-sex couples.

Gillard's most serious errors were not in the spheres of legislation and policy, but tactical and political. Almost from the beginning, she struggled against a hostile and often sexist media, a ruthless Opposition, and a wounded and vindictive internal foe. Kevin Rudd proved lousy as a numbers man, but in the role of party guerilla, tearing at the legitimacy of Gillard's leadership, he was relentless.

Her day-to-day political judgment was also patchy: Gillard made a series of unforced errors that allowed her foes to paint her government as out of touch and under siege. Consequently, she never succeeded in controlling the political agenda for long enough to ease the pressure from Tony Abbott. In the modern environment, polls are what count, and as long as Labor languished in negative territory, Gillard's leadership was always under pressure. 

But history forgets about the momentary tactics, and remembers governments for their enduring policies and laws. That's why Gillard's place in Labor's pantheon is assured. In only three years, she has achieved nearly as much reform as the Hawke-Keating governments did in 13. Many will argue, but I think this makes Julia Gillard the most successful progressive reformer since Gough Whitlam.

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lyne fomiatti
Posted Tuesday, July 2, 2013 - 13:31

A balanced discussion. These important achievements of the Gillard Government deserve to be acknowledged and built upon. It is my hope that a return of a Labor Government will ensure these reforms continue to benefit all Australians.

Gordon Comisari
Posted Tuesday, July 2, 2013 - 13:43

Agree. Julia Gillard was indeed  the greatest reformer since Whitlam. Any leader would have succumbed to the constant, unrelenting "regime change" overtures by the Murdoch, Rinehart, ABC triumvirate.

Current status of the OZ media:
“Failure of impartiality, failure of contextual accuracy, and the willingness to exploit rather than challenge debased public discourse”.


Against these criteria Julia Gillard did extremely well. Shame on Australia!

No media mea culpa? Guess not! 


Posted Tuesday, July 2, 2013 - 13:51

I am on the same general progressive side as Ben Eltham but as a humanitarian scientist am compelled to look rather more critically at Julia Gillard's supposed achievements.

1. National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS). The National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) is generally regarded as a very positive achievement of Labor but  can be viewed critically in relation to  (a) why it took Labor nearly 6 years to do this (PM Rudd gives credit to his Summit) ; (b)  payment for the scheme will come from an increase in the health care levy i.e. likely more money for improvement in quality of life at the expense of saving lives (e.g. 66,000 Australians die preventably each year); and (c) the need to ensure that the scheme is carefully managed to prevent profligacy at the expense of genuine need and health care in general.

2. Carbon Tax and Emissions Trading Scheme. The Labor Minority Government introduced a Carbon Tax and Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) in return for parliamentary support from the pro-environment Greens. Whereas overseas a Carbon Tax means a tax on fossil fuels at the mine gate, under Labor it is confined to a tax on fossil fuel transport (outweighed by huge subsidies),  a tax on gas fugitive emissions (scandalously under-estimated by a factor of 140-330, i.e. making fugitive emissions essentially tax-free),  and taxation of domestic and industrial fossil fuel end-users with 90% of the receipts being returned to the end-users in a pathetic futile cycle designed to fool the public into believing that something is actually being done.  The Carbon Tax fraud is exceeded by the ETS fraud. The ETS approach is empirically unsuccessful, is accordingly counterproductive, and is utterly fraudulent in that the Gillard Labor Government will (if re-elected) fraudulently sell licences to pollute the one common atmosphere of all countries on Earth.

There is a horrible likelihood that Rudd Labor will swap the Carbon Tax Fraud (@ $24 per tonne CO2-e) for an ETS Fraud (climate criminals can buy credits in Europe at $5 per tonne CO2-e) (see Lisa Caripis, “Carbon pricing one year on: independent expertise is crucial”,  The Guardian Australia, 1 July 2013:  http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/jul/01/carbon-tax-anniversary-climate-change-authority?commentpage=1  . Decent Labor people must urgnetly try to stop this betrayal of future generations.

3. Child sexual abuse. Labor instituted a Royal Commission that is confined to investigating horrendous institutional child sexual abuse (up to 40,000 cases over the last 40 years by Catholic Church personnel). However Labor ignored the awful reality that 34% of Australian women and 16% of Australian men – 4.4 million Australians in all - have been subject to child sexual abuse i.e. Labor has ignored the huge non-institutional child sexual abuse.

I have publlished a detailed analysis of Julia Gillard's failure as a Labor leader (see Gideon Polya,  "100 Reasons Why Australians Must Reject Gillard Labor" , Countercurrents, 24 June, 2013: http://www.countercurrents.org/polya240613.htm ) in which I adduce  100 reasons why Australians should reject Gillard Labor. However Mainstream media lying in Murdochracy, Lobbyocracy and Corporatocracy Australia ensures that most of these reasons are kept well away from the Australian public. Apprised of these matters, decent Australians will vote 1 Green  and put Labor last until it reverts to decent values (the Coalition Opposition is just as bad but, unlike neoliberal Labor, has not actually betrayed decent Labor voters and values). Please tell everyone you can.



Posted Tuesday, July 2, 2013 - 14:12

Gillard as conviction politician? I beg to differ. Not only did she put aside her own progressive ideals for the sake of sitting in The Big Chair, utterly beholden to the Catholic Right and unable to support equal marriage, she also agreed to the Carbon Tax, the NDIS, dental in Medicare, and many other 'landmark' pieces of legislation simply to hold on to the support of her minority government so that she could *stay* in the big chair.

She kowtowed to mining interests, disempowered the queer community, kept almost all of Workchoices, slashed funding to single parents, stole money from universities already half what they were under the last Labor government, gave us an institutionally-controlled student union funding system, and gave Howard a run for his money in the Cruelty to Refugees category.

Every real victory was due to her need to maintain support for her minority government. We should be thanking Windsor, Katter, Bandt, Oakeshott, and Wilke for the progress made these last three years. Without their initiatives, we would have had just another trudge towards mediocrity.

She had the conviction to remain PM at any cost, and that is all she will be remembered for - The Great Feminist, Atheist Disappointment.

Posted Tuesday, July 2, 2013 - 14:43

Except that the first two weren't her initiatives.  Not sure about the third.

tom appleton
Posted Tuesday, July 2, 2013 - 15:25

looking in from the outside, she looked good. i saw her on youtube one time, she looked and sounded impressive. but eltham's article sounded ironic, satirical. give her credit on the small change, most impresssive labour politician since whitlam, that's 40 yrs ago. jeez. australian politics gives off a whiff of really bad BO, a really sick place. you'd need a real psychopath there to take on that situation, without cracking up. 

Posted Tuesday, July 2, 2013 - 15:47

Ben, you say 'Gillard's most serious errors were not in the spheres of legislation and policy, but tactical and political. Almost from the beginning, she struggled against a hostile and often sexist media'. I wouldn't normally accuse you of this, but surely that's blaming the victim? Whatever errors she may have made elsewhere, there was no excuse for the relentless, brutal and unpleasant attacks made against her person.

Claudette Palmer
Posted Tuesday, July 2, 2013 - 16:09

Ben Eltham, thankyou for your article, presenting to the Nation the outstanding Prime Minister we have just lost. It is a loss too hard to bear for me, personally. Our nation is the poorer without Julia Gillard and so is the Labor Party.& Liberal/National Party.

I disagree with the reason you give about the reluctance of Governments, State and Federal, to look into child abuse. It is good that the sins of the church are there for all to see but there is a more sinister aspect to child abuse in this country. Paedophilia exists not only in the institution s of the church but in Government institutions at the Federal and State level on both sides of the major parties, Liberal and Labor. I an of NSW so I will limit my assertions to that state but believe this sickness to be a nationwide phenomenon. There are protected paedophiles in the NSW Police, the Department of Public Prosecutions...they call themselves the Crown, among judges, in Parliament. The authorities know who they are but do nothing....it appears, it is too widespread. We are naieve to think this problem exists only in the Catholic Church. I take this opportunity to ask people to visit the Roseanne Beckett Website and sign the petition there. This lady, who is of the same calibre as Julia Gillard, is still suffering because she dared  to stand up for the 4 children of Barry Catt who said they had been abused by their father and others including police (Det Sgt Peter Thomas was named by one of the children). There was forensic evidence to back up what they were saying but Det Sgt Thomas came in and fabricated charges against Roseanne. The Barry Catt Trial miscarried. It was a trial about Roseanne not about Barry and on manufactured evidence presented by false witnesses, friends of Barry Catt...thanks to Peter Thomas..his last act as a NSW detective. The rest is history. She served 10 years in jail and has been vindicated by two courts who acknowledge she was maliciously prosecuted...the infamous Patrick Power signed off on her charges...why? Because Thomas knew what he was! Visit Roseanne Beckett's Website and sign the petition soon to be presented to the Premier and Attorney General who are ready to drag this matter through the courts again, at no cost to themselves. They are using your money. In 2006 the Government considered for 12 months giving Roseanne an ex-gratia payment.. .the NSW Crown Solicitor put an end to that. now millions of dollars later in court costs the waste in human life continues. There has to be appropriate closure for Roseanne. She has a tiger by the tail and so cannot let go. Visit my blog Australia's Greatest Miscarriage of Justice. Again, please sign Roseanne's petition to lodge a protest.and help bring this matter to closure.

Posted Tuesday, July 2, 2013 - 17:23

I quite agree with you cvsanders. We can thank the Greens in particular for any action on climate change. Remember the hoo ha that this piece of compromise caused her? I believe her ascension in the first place as PM was because she would agree with her backers to go very Climate Change Light, a position she was forced to drop in return for power in the hung parliament.

suvendrini perera
Posted Tuesday, July 2, 2013 - 17:33

A shocking assessment. It can be refuted with just two words: No Advantage.   

Posted Tuesday, July 2, 2013 - 18:28

I'm glad she's gone and see little of value in what she has done, I only see the great stress, difficulty and struggle as a victim of her policies on my own life and on the lives of my children and other single mothers I know, I actually had modest savings which in 6 months are all gone due to her policies, gone just in order to pay basic bills and provide modestly for my children.  I'm gald all those people working with her are quitting politics as well - thanks for doing us a favour and removing yourselves from damaging others' lives any further...no dount these people will all move-off into jobs with the people/organisations who benefited from their weak values and lack of progressive ideals...maybe a few gambling companies?  I only hope Rudd understand and is willing to fight for true progressive values, rather than pretend ones that make little difference in real life?

Posted Tuesday, July 2, 2013 - 18:59

Gillard wanted to place our country in the very small group of nations that voted "No" on the issue of granting Palestine Non-Member Observer Status in the UN General Assembly.

Would that have reflected the wishes of the Australian people? Opinion polls would not suggest so.

Instead, threatened by a backbench revolution, Australia abstained from voting. At least that saved us from being COMPLETELY on the wrong side of history.

Posted Tuesday, July 2, 2013 - 20:23


whether Julia was good bad or indifferent is up for debate, i happen to think good but made some mistakes and no doubt hung out  a tad with some of the wrong crowd within the labor ranks - however, the way she was treated was a total disgrace and this country should hang its head in shame….but won't because that's the way we are - no wonder so many are leaving their political parties, whichever one or independent - the party's over, and may the next gov' we get be the one we deserve 

Posted Tuesday, July 2, 2013 - 20:36


….pity that posts are not editable here - i just noticed blades' post above and would have added this comment to my previous - so - might i suggest that the Palestine, Assange and other similar results are just a towing of the zionest / US / neo line which is our very own way of subtly brown nosing to the important people….or doing what we're told....as a colony

Posted Tuesday, July 2, 2013 - 20:53

If all Gillard managed to get done was to put Education and what is wrong with education up for review then I think that she individually did well,

as for the gap between the people and the government The Labor Party has been forced to realise it,

Listening to the Independant for Windsor it is a shame we couldn't continue with a minority government but I agree with Fight Mumma and CVsanders that down where the rubber meets the road the things that were traded off were too much for the people to bear.

As for the fact that Abott doesn't have a programme he admitted that when he said "don't be surprised if you wake up to find the ghost of Ben Chifley on this side of the room."

Ben Chifley was given a State Christian funeral the last 3 words are traditionally Rest in Peace.

Abott really thinks he really wants to repeat history?

Menzies installed all of Chifley's programme but installed the reserve bank instead of as Hawke put it Chifley's mistake.

Regarding education "If you divide them in the playground you divide them for life."

Divide and Conquer is the original Roman Strategy.

 So why wouldn't Abott sign up to Gonski or as opposition leader suggest ammendments that he would sign up to?


Janet Chiron
Posted Tuesday, July 2, 2013 - 21:17

Hlewers is completely wrong and like the Greens in general who are a bit too smug for their own good. Says,'we can thank the Greens in particular on any action on climate change.' It was Julia Gillard that said on the eve of the 2010 election 'There will be no carbon tax under a government I lead, but let’s be absolutely clear. I am determined to price carbon’. She then delivered the price on carbon. Which is working by the way. The difference between what Julia Gillard did and what the Greens would do is this, she actually had to govern. The Greens have the luxury of never having to govern.

Posted Wednesday, July 3, 2013 - 09:05

With all due respect to some views expressed In this article, I am of the opinion that Australia will be the poorer for the loss of Julia Gillard.  Apart from the great policies achievements under her leadership I would challenge any person who thinks they could have done better notwithstanding a HUNG PARLIAMENT, A DESTRUCTIVE OPPOSITION, A JIHAD KEVIN RUDD AND HIS LABOR PARTY SUPPORTERS, DISHONEST REPORTING BY MAIN STREAM MEDIA and the list goes on to come forward and put you hand up..  As a result of the events over the last 7 days, I will withdraw my support from  the ALP until Kevin Rudd resigns from the Labor Party and no the Liberal Party will never have my support..  I agree with Mark Latham as a matter of principle it is better to go out standing on your feet  than living on your knees. The ALP is in need of reform if it is to survive in the long term and Kevin Rudd is not the man to do it.

Posted Wednesday, July 3, 2013 - 11:43

What we need to do now, as always, is make sure no party has control of both Houses. Whichever of the old parties takes government, be it Rudd or be it Abbott, we must ensure that they have to negotiate their policy agenda through the Senate. Independents and progressive parties are needed to keep the conservatives (Labor and Liberal - it's been a long time since Labor could claim to be progressive!) mindful of the opinions of the Australian public. Gillard was beholden to independents and Greens, and was forced to do some progressive things. Let's make sure the next Government cannot run rampant over the Senate. Independents and progressive parties are essential to progress. Vote 1 for an independent or a progressive party!

Posted Wednesday, July 3, 2013 - 13:53

I agree with all your points Ben.

Thank you for a Prime Ministership well done, Julia Gillard!

Posted Wednesday, July 3, 2013 - 17:26

Janet Chiron, if you look at the ABC report of Gillard's proposed "Citizen's Assembly," (announced before the previous election) you will see that she was going to ask 100 - 200 volunteers what they thought about a price on carbon, and get them to report back to her government (should she be successful). They specifically were to "guage the feeling of the community on its attitude towards putting a price on carbon."

See http://www.abc.net.au/news/2010-07-22/gillard-to-ask-the-people-on-climate-change/916006

Without trying to be smug, I think we can say that being "determined to put a price on carbon," was very much qualified by the Citizen's Assembly proposal.

This user is a New Matilda supporter. Venise Alstergren
Posted Sunday, July 7, 2013 - 17:38

BEN ELTHAM: Thank you for a fine article. Fo two years I've been saying that history will judge Julia Gillard far more kindly than today's generation have ever done. Thanks for agreeing  with me.

This user is a New Matilda supporter. gvimpani
Posted Sunday, July 7, 2013 - 19:21

Thanks Ben for a balanced acknowledgement of Julia's contribution to public life in Australia.  I agree with all you have said - she made a few bad mistakes, and they maybe became more frequent as the unrelenting pressure increased as the polls got worse.  In that she would be no different from any of us. The fact that the hung parliament worked as well as it did is a credit to her and the Independents with whom she negotiated their support. Her skills in negotiation, her vision for sensible and overdue public policies in the environment, in education, in disability care to name a few areas were enviable and generally well-regarded by the people whom I encounter socially and professionally.  The abuse she was forced to tolerate was something no male PM has ever had to deal with and is an appaling indictment on some of those who dominate our airwaves.  As I write this I feel a profound sense of sorrow, such as one might experience with an untimely death, at the unaffordable loss from public life of one who was so effective, yet with some flaws that led to her demise (isn't that a mark of the human condition?). Similar to the sorrow I experienced watching Rob Oakeshott's valedictory and Tony Windsor's tears.  Both would have made brilliant ministers, but their role as effective parliamentarians will in time be treasured in the collective memories of this parliament.  Thanks to the three of them for providing some good memories.