PM lives to fight another day
Illustration: Rocco Fazzari
Hanging on the wall in the Prime Minister's office for most of the past two years was a framed caricature of Julia Gillard with a nose so absurdly large that it would surely topple any human fated to wield it.
Politicians need to develop thick skins, but Gillard chose to cohabit with this gratuitous piece of ridicule. This is a politician with not just a thick skin but an elephantine hide.
On the morning after she lost Labor's parliamentary majority at the 2010 election, I walked into her office in Melbourne's Treasury Place to interview her, together with my Fairfax colleague Michael Gordon.
It had been a rough night in politics. She had struck down a first-term Labor prime minister amid a storm of controversy, executed a staccato of dramatic policy changes and raced to an early election. It was a high-stakes approach.
It hadn't worked. After nearly 12 years of Howard, Labor had enjoyed but two years in power and now Gillard had lost Labor's parliamentary majority.
The people had returned a hung parliament and she was about to enter a contest with Tony Abbott to see who could piece together a majority. Power was in the balance and so was her position and her place in history.
Gillard bore no trace of an anxious night, the wrench of disappointment, the tension of the negotiation to come. She was breezy and relaxed, a smile on her face, a joke on her lips.
As we took our seats, she joked about how the undersized ochre armchairs in her Canberra office, themed to the Australian outback, were so tightly restrictive that she dubbed them "gumnuts".
Gordon recalls that she was "focused on the next step". Rather than seeming stressed or careworn, regretful or introspective, "she was refreshed and up for it".
Politicians need to be resilient, but this is a politician not as tough as common diamond but as durable as lonsdaleite, a rare natural substance 58 per cent harder. As we left after the interview, Gillard even found the mental energy to rib me good-naturedly for wearing a suit on a Sunday.
Gillard this year endured a leadership challenge from Kevin Rudd, the maelstrom of the anti-carbon tax campaign and the lowest primary vote Labor has ever known.
Around the middle of the year, the key factional princes who keep her in power were very close to a decision that her prime ministership was unsalvageable. Plans were being weighed for a delegation to tell her so, till a recovery in Labor's polls changed the calculus.
Throughout, her confidence and self-belief were unshaken. There were moments where she was the only person in her office who thought that she could survive, some of her staff have remarked.
This week was another high-pressure week. When Gillard called her 1pm press conference on Monday to pre-empt the opposition's 2pm assault on her in question time, her voice quavered with tension. Her prime ministership was on the line over her conduct as both lawyer and lover to Bruce Wilson, the union leader and fraudster, in the 1990s.
On the same day, unseen by the public, another threat that turned out to be every bit as perilous loomed. Gillard had decided she would commit Australia to vote against Palestine's bid to upgrade its status in the United Nations. Australia would be casting its lot with the US and Israel, but against the great bulk of world opinion. She knew she faced stiff internal opposition, but she misjudged just how stiff it would be.
She overruled her Foreign Affairs Minister, Bob Carr, in a pre-cabinet session with a group of ministers on Monday evening and then overruled a meeting of her full cabinet on Monday night.
At the opening of the meeting, she told her cabinet flatly that Australia would be voting against the resolution in the UN General Assembly, but that she was prepared to hear her ministers' views.
Ten ministers representing all Labor factions spoke against the Prime Minister's stated position in a long cabinet debate: Tony Burke, Chris Bowen, Bob Carr, Simon Crean, Craig Emerson, Martin Ferguson, Peter Garrett, Anthony Albanese, Mark Butler and Greg Combet.
Only two spoke in support of Gillard's position; Stephen Conroy and Bill Shorten, both from the Right. Cabinet ministers said that it was not a heated debate, but that it was an intense one.
Yet despite the overwhelming weight of opinion against her position, she made the same declaration at the end of the meeting that she made at the beginning - Australia would be voting against the upgrade in Palestinian UN status to non-member observer. In other words, she had chaired the cabinet discussion merely to let ministers vent, not to vote.
She asserted her authority as Prime Minister, not expecting that the party would revolt against its leader even as she was fighting for her political life against the Liberal Party.
But she was wrong and her authority was inadequate to the task. Caucus was infuriated by her position, and by her high-handedness in insisting on it. Monday night was a long series of meetings, huddles, phone calls. The Left faction decided that it was prepared to overturn Gillard's decision at Tuesday's meeting of the full caucus.
And, remarkably, so was the Right, the bastion of her caucus support and the majority of caucus numbers. The faction split. Its Victorian bloc proposed imposing a binding vote on the Right; but the larger NSW group refused.
Advised that she would lose a caucus ballot, Gillard capitulated. Australia would abstain. A public humiliation was averted; but within the party her poor judgment and feeble authority were on glaring display and much discussed. It was a rare and real humiliation for a prime minister.
Gillard went from the sting of that rebuke from her own party on Tuesday morning into question time on Tuesday afternoon once more to present herself to the opposition assault. On the nation's airwaves, talk of Gillard, slush funds and fraud on the one hand competed for time with talk of Gillard, revolt and embarrassment on the other.
Did the Prime Minister show the least sign of discomfort, stress or anxiety? She was collected, calm, deliberate. Certainly, she evaded most of the opposition's questions on the Wilson scandal, but she gave no outward sign of the extraordinary pressures that had converged on her as she dared the opposition's Julie Bishop to produce clear-cut evidence of any wrongdoing, then derided her when she could not.
Politicians need to be able to withstand pressure, but this is not a politician who can merely tolerate pressure. She is Parliament's Felix Baumgartner, the man who leapt from a helium balloon 39 kilometres above the Earth and plummeted at one-and-a-quarter times the speed of sound.
Gillard was aided by the ineptitude of the opposition attack. Bishop, chief prosecutor, damaged herself by playing with the truth over her contact with Wilson's bagman, Ralph Blewitt. Bishop went into hiding from the media and was a much reduced force.
And the opposition proved unable to produce any material above and beyond the material turned up by the newspapers. The opposition overreached by calling Gillard a criminal and demanding her resignation. While none of the material was pretty, none of it constituted a crime. And at the denouement, when Gillard challenged Tony Abbott to make his strongest possible case against her and offered him 15 minutes of prime parliamentary time to do so, Abbott failed to make a persuasive indictment.
Not only was his evidence weak, his delivery was uncharacteristically tentative. Labor's abuse of Abbott as a sexist and misogynist who has "a problem with powerful women" appears to have seared him. He seemed so anxious to avoid looking like a bully that he impaired his own effectiveness. He has accepted the handicap Gillard wanted to impose on him.
Gillard proved remarkably tough, certainly, but the opposition proved notably ineffectual. Acutely conscious of its failure to effectively indict Gillard, the opposition did not even attempt to move a motion of censure against her or, more seriously, a motion of no confidence.
Several people, non-political types, remarked to me this week that it was embarrassing for Australia's political system to be in a frenzy over the long-past personal conduct of its Prime Minister.
But this is a standard part of any democracy. The searching public examination of a leader, exploring evidence and testing character, is routine.
Remember the outrage over John Howard's alleged conflict of interest when his government gave government assistance to retrenched workers of National Textiles, chaired by his brother Stan? Remember the parliamentary convulsions over Paul Keating's piggery? The accusations were tested in public; the leaders passed the tests.
Sure, the delegation of visitors from China who witnessed the stinging public attacks on the Prime Minister in the house this week might have puzzled over how this can happen, but it is more a strength than a weakness of parliamentary democracy.
In China, it took a foreign newspaper, The New York Times, to disclose the accumulation of $2.7 billion in wealth by the family of the outgoing Premier, Wen Jiabao, during his tenure. Wen, after denouncing the American newspaper, has now asked for a formal investigation into himself and his family.
There is also the perfectly reasonable argument that time spent on scrutinising the private affairs of a prime minister in Parliament carries an opportunity cost - time on this means less time to debate big problems of policy and national affairs.
And that's true. But this is how democratic nations test their leaders and purge their systems. Gillard has survived the test. The long-festering rumours have been put into the light of day and been scrutinised. The opposition has had a full opportunity to make its case and to hold her to account. In the absence of serious new evidence against her, the opposition should now move on to debate the big issues.
Peter Hartcher is the international editor.
Correction: The original version of this story said that John Howard had been accused of a conflict of interest when his government handed ethanol subsidies to his brother's firm, Manildra. The original version also incorrectly linked Peter Garrett and Martin Ferguson to Labor's Right faction.