Time wrought Gillard's transformation

Not long ago, Tony Abbott held the upper hand in media coverage and it felt like Australia had no prime minister at all. Ironically, as we enter an election year, the tables have turned.

Julia Gillard has now been prime minister longer that Kevin Rudd. This milestone was marked rather modestly in January but it is a milestone of some significance in this election year.

Given how she came to the job, given the fact that Labor did not manage to win majority government in 2010 and given the fact that most commentators reckon that Tony Abbott has been the most successful opposition leader in living memory, this is a singular achievement.

Indeed, looking back on what has been a tumultuous three years, Gillard’s survival as prime minister is a triumph of persistence, political cunning and self-belief. It took her almost the whole of this term of minority government to do so, but Gillard now appears to be comfortable in her prime ministerial skin.

She is still disliked and distrusted by a significant, if shrinking, minority of Australians and the odds are still that her government will lose the election that is likely to be held some time in September or October. And there will always be a minority who consider her an illegitimate prime minister – just as there is a significant minority of Americans who, despite the fact he that he comfortably won a second term, consider Barak Obama an illegitimate president.

But Julia Gillard has managed to do what many commentators thought was beyond her; survive the political savagery of her ascension to the job, survive the verbal savagery of the personal attacks on her by some leading members of the opposition, including Tony Abbott.

Not to mention Kevin Rudd’s determination to at the very least, remain an alternative to Gillard in the top job if the majority of Labor caucus members happened to become convinced that Gillard was leading them to an electoral disaster.

Gillard has survived all these challenges. She has grown into the job and is more comfortable with the trappings of office. In a sense, time alone – the fact that she has now been prime minister for a considerable amount time, with all the political advantages and burdens the office brings with it – has transformed her.

None of this is to minimise her failings and failures, her cynicism on some issues like asylum seeker policies, or her political timidity on issues like gay marriage; there is no great evidence to suggest that Gillard is a particularly politically brave politician. But those questions about who is the 'real’ Julia Gillard and those questions about the way she came to the job no longer matter all that much. She is the prime minister.

The consequences are significant. For a start, it is now less acceptable to vilify Gillard personally. This applies to the opposition and the shock jocks who routinely referred to Gillard in terms that were never used in reference to any other prime minister.

Abbott’s low approval rating with women has many causes, but it has more to do with the brutality of his political language and increasingly, his seeming lack of respect for the office of prime minister than with sexism.

There was a time not so long ago – perhaps no longer than 12 months ago – when it felt like Australia had no prime minister at all, that the political contest was between two oppositions and two opposition leaders, Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott.

In the aftermath of the 2010 election, and for a significant time after it, Tony Abbott’s great achievement and indeed, the only reason he deserved to be considered an outstanding opposition leader, was that he was able to level the political playing field, to deny Gillard and therefore the government, the political benefits of incumbency.

As a result, Abbott had media 'cut-through’, he was given the sort of media coverage that other opposition leaders would have died for. Abbott managed to create a political climate that felt like Australia could go to the polls at any moment and was therefore in the middle of a brutal election campaign.

Ironically, as we enter an election year, that has changed. It changed some time in the second half of last year when it became clear that the Gillard government was not about to fall over – despite the Slipper affair and the Craig Thomson affair – and would run a full term.

At that point, Abbott’s strengths increasingly became handicaps. Abbott’s discipline, his constant use of slogans, his daily photo opportunities, his political rhetoric, which might have been appropriate if this was the really the most dishonest and most inept government in Australian history, a government that had to be removed immediately, seemed increasingly inappropriate. He was in danger – is now seriously in danger – of being considered a one trick pony, with a trick that no longer suits the political times.

What all this means is that Gillard and her government now have the advantage of incumbency and history shows that incumbency matters, that Australians are reluctant to unseat governments, especially first-term governments like Gillard’s.

There is another important consequence of Gillard’s survival and the fact she is now clearly a legitimate prime minister in her own right. Kevin Rudd’s ability to disrupt Gillard’s tenure or to play a significant role – for good or ill – in the lead-up to the election is now negligible. This is remarkable, for it was only 12 months ago that Rudd challenged Gillard for the leadership and though he lost that challenge comprehensively, many of his supporters – including his supporters in the media – believed it was only a matter of time before Rudd was back in the top job.

There will be no Rudd comeback. There will be no Rudd challenge – as he has affirmed – nor is there the remotest possibility that he will be drafted by caucus to replace Gillard as prime minister.

The improbable has happened: Rudd’s prime ministership is now history and Kevin Rudd is increasingly just another backbencher and about as powerless and inconsequential as most backbenchers.

Kevin Rudd will not be prime minister after this year’s election but there is still a chance that Julia Gillard will be. Chances are that this election will be a real contest.