It's Time To Get Over Our Sexist Summation Of Julia Gillard's Ambition


On 23 June 2010, Kevin Rudd asked his then Deputy Prime Minister “Julia, you’re a good person, why are you doing this?” Probably because she had the numbers mate.

Maybe Julia is a good person, maybe not. For some reason, even in retirement, Kevin Rudd still believes this is relevant.

Rudd’s belief that Gillard had committed a moral wrong is even more astonishing considering that just four years before 23 June 2010 he had paired with Gillard to remove Beazley, and three years later he would avenge his loss. In the world of Rudd, the knifing is only wrong when he’s the victim.

Julia Gillard’s challenge has been viewed as a morality tale. Not just by Rudd and the Liberals but by Gillard herself, and her allies.

Gillard’s enemies claim she was strategically pursuing Rudd’s job. When talk of leadership change came to her, Gillard did nothing to quash it. Gillard’s supporters argue the party thrust the leadership upon her.

In The Killing Season Gillard herself maintains her claim the change was necessary to avoid an election defeat. Everyone starts from the presumption that if Gillard acted out of ambition, even in part, it was wrong.

I refuse to accept that gender is not at play. Obviously, a male MP who rolled a first term Prime Minister would certainly face similar questions about loyalty and honesty. I doubt though that discussion of a male challenger’s legacy would be forever mired in questions of the morality of the assassination. Neither Keating nor Hawke has ever been asked to apologise for his ambition.

For some reason we expect Julia Gillard to have demurred, let Kevin lead, and go to her political retirement comfortable in the knowledge she was a “good person” who was the first woman to have the numbers to be PM.

I am confortable with the notion that when Julia Gillard was told the caucus would overwhelmingly support her challenge, she decided to challenge out of ambition, even if it is a narrative she refuses to accept. I am comfortable that Gillard chose not to unilaterally end leadership rumblings on her own behalf, because deep down, she liked the idea.

I would respect Gillard less if she were not motivated by ambition. Do we really want a Deputy Prime Minister who responds to an offer of the leadership with: “No, I’m not good enough”, “it’s not my time”, or “Lets tell Kevin I’ve got the numbers, but give him three months to take them off me”?

Political leaders must have self-belief. To say Gillard coveted the Prime Ministership should not reflect negatively on her character. Rather, it is a compliment. Gillard had the necessary qualities of a leader. People without personal ambition are unlikely to have ambition for the nation.

If Gillard had refused to take advantage of the numbers this would not have been evidence of her inherent goodness. She might have chosen not to challenge for tactical reasons or a lack of self-belief. But if she had refused purely not to hurt Kevin Rudd’s feelings, it would only have revealed her to be foolish, not “good”.

A scene from the opening credits of The Killing Season

Now, I am not arguing that rolling Kevin Rudd three months out from an election was smart.

A pretty strong argument can be made it was a catastrophic mistake. The Government lost its best argument for re-election, the handling of the GFC. The Government gave the impression of chaos. Gillard tied herself in knots explaining why a Government that had lost its way should be re-elected. 

I found the explanations for the challenge proffered by conspirators on the Killing Season wholly unpersuasive. None of them seemed to ponder Albanese’s prophecy that their actions would kill two Prime Ministers.

There is a difference though between tactical madness and a moral mistake.

Placing your own ambition above the interests of the party, country, and people you pledged to represent is immoral. I’d be willing to say it’s a sin to sabotage a government internally, leak to the media, and sow the seeds of dysfunction in pursuit of your own ambition.

That is not how Julia Gillard behaved. Arguably, that is how Kevin Rudd behaved after 2010.

Julia Gillard wanted to be PM, thought she could do a better job, was given a chance, and said yes. I doubt any Labor MP would have acted differently in the same circumstances. She was a typical politician. Lets get over it.

Mathew Kenneally is a stand up comedian who moonlights as a lawyer. He's a regular new Matilda columnist and is the co-author with Toby Halligan of the satirical blog Diary Leaks. He is also the co-founder of the topical comedy room Political Asylum.