Gillard's Place In The Labor Pantheon


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.

Ben Eltham

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.