Prime Minister Julia Gillard sorts through her paperwork in her office at Parliament House. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen
Julia Gillard reads her briefs, and understands them pretty well. Not only in fine points of detail - which can come only from concentrated attention - but also in thrust, central substance and fit within a broader scheme of things. As Prime Minister and, before that, deputy prime minister, she has had to have a good general command of the whole range of government operations, and how and why things are as they are.
That involves good staff work, in the sense of providing her with an orderly but manageable feed of the material that matters, but it also involves a talent for study, for noting and absorbing relevant facts, for regurgitation. It is no disrespect to suggest that these are talents honed as a high school student, as a law student with plenty of distractions, and as a lawyer in a busy firm.
When she was deputy to Kevin Rudd, she was very popular with other ministers and bureaucrats because she didn't muck around. Rudd agonised, dithered, and let business pile up. His staff did not complement his vices, but concentrated them. If logjams had to be broken, it was more by informal meetings and tense talk than by established means of civil and party governance.
Gillard, by contrast, dealt smoothly with the routine paperwork. She was economical with her time. She was, usually, a more effective advocate for the government's position than Rudd, in part because she was more across the detail. She did not get bogged down, as Rudd so often did, in a search for further and more minute particulars as an excuse for avoiding making a choice. She got on with it. Ministers and officials welcomed having Gillard as acting prime minister during Rudd's frequent international forays, because she would move swiftly through the choked in-trays and get things done.
This is one of the reasons why many expected her to be a more effective prime minister than she has proven to be. Some people, wondering why she failed, have suggested that Gillard, as smooth operator and effective deputy, was playing the lawyer-advocate-negotiator she was trained to be, with, in effect, Kevin Rudd as her client. Knowing and understanding what the client wanted or needed - in some cases even better than he did - she could represent him. By this theory, things fell apart, in effect, when she herself was the client, and in part because she lacks a strong core, a strong will, a clear vision, a close understanding of others and, even more fatally, of herself.
Gillard in person is nearly always a pleasant surprise to strangers. She can put people at their ease. She can chat. She had a powerful sense of irony, and is no slouch at self-deprecation (something impossible with an egomaniac such as Bob Hawke). If she is talking to victims at natural disasters, or ordinary people with particular problems, she is generally warm and empathetic, and well briefed. She listens, and gives people her full attention, and answers their points, even when she has no intention of doing what they want. She is equally effective in smallish groups where she has to be spontaneous - as when she appears on Q&A or other such intimate programs.
What she does far less well is the scripted, the set piece, or the entirely predictable and semi-formal encounter. All of her mettle, all of her discipline, all of her training cannot make her seem natural, spontaneous, cogent, persuasive in an artificial context. It just doesn't work. What is amazing is the way that her minders use her - making a fake announcement here, an appearance there, an intervention yonder - failing to use her strengths and underlining her weaknesses. Making her seem fake, artificial, unconvincing, even shifty. Her procession on the tumbrils should be as Joan of Arc, without combed-out hair and make-up, not as Marie Antoinette.
She needs the modern-day equivalent of town hall and street corner meetings. Ones without scripts. Ones without carefully chosen audiences. Certainly not of choreographed party conferences or trade union conferences. Meetings with hecklers. Ones with potentially catastrophic surprises, like the cake shop owner who so riled Paul Keating. Not set-ups, or stunts, or even faked-up and stage-managed walks through shopping centres, or uncomfortable looking chats with building workers at factories. Spontaneous engagements, mucking in without notice.
It's almost certainly too late for her to retrieve much, but it might be nice if she went out smiling, having evoked some emotion, and some affection, rather than some mere admiration for her gutsiness, persistence and courage under fire.
The most recent issue of The Monthly has Anna Goldsworthy writing of the seven women ministers in the Gillard government, and some common cause between them including the fact that five are mothers.
Goldsworthy picks up on a 2004 Gillard remark that a good deal of media discussion about women in politics tends to focus on ''who they are'' rather than ''what they do'' - to the disadvantage of women.
''That men should do and women should be remains a persistent bias of our culture, even as it bears no resemblance to actual division of labour,'' says Goldsworthy, who believes the Gillard prime ministership has been ''about doing, about delivering, rather than about being - a woman or anything else.''
''Gillard's strategy has been to deflect any speculation about who she is almost to the point of self-effacement … she just keeps on doing stuff, resilient as a Duracell bunny: forging alliances, making deals, retracting promises, passing legislation. She wears her action as a kind of armour: her survival strategy is to remain a moving target … getting on with it is Gillard's creed.''
It's a well written piece, but I am far from convinced, whether that coverage of women differs in this manner, whether Gillard's ''doing'' strategy is her strategy (or whether it works for her).
Although much of the stuff of political contest involves past records, future promises, policies, the arithmetic of budgets, and gotcha moments, my guess is that most voters pay only passing attention to such matters, and that when they do, it is primarily only as an incident to the more important business of taking stock of a politician as a character. They want a feel for different politicians - a sense of who they are, where they come from, where they hope to be going. They are comfortable only when they have a sense of that character. They are distrustful of appearances and have a right to be. Once they come to such judgments, moreover, they are hard to shift.
Voters understand that promises are only current statements of future intention, and that circumstances can change. They regard policies and promises as indications of a politician's instincts, but they do not see them as contracts. (Although, as Labor has failed to understand, they also expect straightforwardness, including frank, and sometimes rueful, explanations of why and how circumstances have changed. Gillard has been successfully branded as a liar not for changing her mind but for failing to explain why. No flurry of activity can dilute this.)
Voters had become quite familiar with the character of most politicians over the past 50 years. Most people had a feel for Gough Whitlam, for Malcolm Fraser, for Bob Hawke, Paul Keating, John Howard, and even, in a way at least, Rudd. Such assessments were not two-dimensional: voters expect and assume that leaders have weaknesses as well as strengths, depth as well as breadth, contradictions as well as convictions. Being human can actually help. Being mechanical doesn't.
Yet many voters do not think they have a certain feel for who Gillard is. Even after more than two years as Prime Minister. They have a right to want that feel, to be able to make some assessment of who she really is, so that they can make some judgment about whether they can trust her to make the right sort of judgment in some crisis. In that crisis - whatever it is - there will be no script in the party platform, the curriculum vitae or the record of past platitudes.
Luckily for Gillard, voters are not sure about Abbott either, even if he has been longer on the national stage. For both, the tentative feelings are fairly hostile, and ignore a good many of the real abilities of both. Abbott, too, is good on his feet, and he is infinitely better when he is amicably discussing policy and philosophy than when he is mouthing slogans or, wearing a hard hat, pretending to be just another fellow.
That so much of the coverage of Abbott is focused on who he is, rather than what he does, suggests that the being and doing difference is not primarily gender-based.
Looking or being busy may be Gillard's thing, but it doesn't work for her, or for Labor. Nor, frankly does it work much for Abbott. It is only because both parties are so poor at introducing and explaining their leaders that voters are forced, unwillingly, to look at secondary questions such as the rivalry with meaningless slogans, point-scoring about money, sleaze or misogyny, or dire warnings about the alleged monsters or secret agendas of the other side.
Some observers - who are convinced that leadership speculation or doomsaying about the deflating Labor balloon are insistent that the ''medja'' has consciously failed to subject any of Tony Abbott's policies - by definition a skimpy list - to critical scrutiny. This is said to be happening against a background of non-stop carping about every aspect of Labor policy.
One alleged proof of this is the apparent obliviousness of the Canberra electorate to the impact on the local economy and community of $70 billion of cuts promised by an Abbott government. If this happens (and if it happens as abruptly as these observers claim) the local impact could be worse than the Fraser cuts of 1976, or the Howard cuts of 1996, they say. By definition, the fact that this has not caused a complete rethink about Abbott, or a realisation that the Gillard government, inept as it is, is the better alternative, must be proof that the public does not know, that the media has not told them, and that this is a function of journalistic bias or cupidity.
Likewise, some dyed-in-the-wool Labor voters have looked at me with incredulity when I have remarked that I cannot see that the policies and programs of an Abbott government will not seem very different to those of Gillard to most people.
''Let me just say: carbon tax'' said one person. That might make my point exactly. Not many voters will be affected much in the short or long term by what Abbott proposes to do about a carbon tax, just as they have not been affected, in any way they have noticed, by the fact that Gillard imposed one. Based on what parties promise - there will be some changes of policy in health or education. But all the signs are that a timid Abbott will impose only slight changes of degree. My guess is that Labor, in the 2016 campaign, will promise the people that they will continue doing much as Abbott did - as Abbott did much as Gillard and Rudd did, which was much as Howard did. The Labor leader will say no one need be alarmed about the prospect of radical change after the chaos of Abbott: all they will be getting is a return to calm and steady government. The word Gillard, of course, will not be much used by Labor.