Why the Gillard memory won't be easily forgotten

The Labor Party may want to forget about the Gillard and Rudd years, but the overwhelming show of love for Julia Gillard in Sydney and Melbourne shows that the Labor has some soul-searching left to do.

Julia Gillard has clearly had a profound and lasting effect on women, especially young women. There is no other way to explain the extraordinary scenes at the Sydney Opera House – repeated last night at the Melbourne Town Hall – where Gillard was feted and loved in a way no other recently retired politician could ever hope to be feted and loved.

Thousands of adoring Gillard supporters turned up at the Opera House and thousands more to the Melbourne Town Hall and not all of them were women – some were fathers of daughters and partners of young women – and all of them were there to celebrate Gillard as Australia’s first female prime minister.

Not just to celebrate but also to express their anger and dismay at how Gillard had been treated, by sections of the media, by some shock-jocks, by misogynist dirt-bags on social media and by some in the Coalition who were fellow-travellers, if not card carrying members of the sexist branch of the anti-Gillard movement.

These were not events designed to examine Gillard’s political failings nor her leadership short-comings. There had been many political missteps and it can be argued that Julia Gillard, in the end, failed to articulate and formulate a narrative for her government.

None of this mattered at the Opera House or the Melbourne Town Hall. Judgments on Gillard’s prime ministership can wait for historians, though the Labor Party cannot avoid examining the six years of Labor Government and the way those years ended.

But in the short term, there is nothing as ex as an ex-politician, even an ex-prime minister. That’s before the mythmaking starts when retired prime ministers – some of them anyway – are transformed into giants of their parties.

For all the Gillard love, for all the anger felt by those thousands who paid to see what was essentially an interview of Gillard by Anne Summers, one of Gillard’s most fervent supporters, all this love and anger, the pundits would argue, is irrelevant when it comes to the future of the Labor Party. Let alone the standing of Prime Minister Tony Abbott and his government – now and in the immediate future.

Indeed, the Labor Party seems determined to put the Gillard years – and the Rudd years for that matter – behind it as quickly as possible. And that’s despite the fact that both leadership contenders make a point of ‘honouring’ Rudd and Gillard before quickly ‘moving forward’, into a future in which they hope Rudd and Gillard and the years of their governments will be forgotten.

It was interesting that neither Bill Shorten nor Anthony Albanese were there at the Opera House or the Melbourne Town Hall to join the Gillard celebrations.

Attending of course would have been awkward for both of them. Albanese was a Rudd supporter even when Rudd and his organisers were undermining the Gillard government of which Albanese was a senior member. Shorten was a key figure in the coup against Rudd and the elevation of Julia Gillard. Then he switched his support to Rudd in that last leadership contest thus ensuring Gillard’s defeat.

Nevertheless, the fact that neither of these men could be there to celebrate Australia’s first woman prime minister does say something about how dysfunctional those six years of Labor were and how, no matter what Albanese and Shorten say about it, that dysfunction needs to be addressed and examined and understood before, in their words, Labor moves forward.

This will be difficult because both Shorten and Albanese were key players in both the Rudd and Gillard governments and to a significant extent, contributors to the dysfunction and the poisonous conflict between Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard.

It will also be difficult because Julia Gillard is writing a book which undoubtedly will force the Labor Party to examine the issues her book will raise and no matter how much Shorten and Albanese and other senior labor politicians want to put the past behind them, Gillard’s memoir will make that difficult.

But most importantly, it will be difficult to ‘move forward’ because Kevin Rudd will be there, sitting on the backbench and in caucus, at first only a shell of the politician he once was, but there nevertheless, in the flesh, a dramatic reminder of the recent past that most Labor people want to forget.

Is that all he will be? Is that all that Rudd aspires to now? To be a sort of memory made flesh, there to never let anyone forget what he once was and how he had rescued Labor from a total catastrophe at the 2013 election?

It is doubtful that this is the sum of Rudd’s aspirations. What we know about Rudd is that, politically speaking, nothing is ever wholly over as far as his ambitions and sense of destiny are concerned. It’s not yet over for Rudd, at least not in his mind. A few years is a long time in politics. Almost anything is possible.

One thing though is certain. Kevin Rudd, for all his sense of himself as a people’s favorite, will never pack the Sydney Opera House and the Melbourne Town Hall with adoring fans the way Gillard has in recent days. Neither, for that matter, will Tony Abbott, no matter how successful a prime minister he proves to be, when his political end comes.

The fact is that Julia Gillard has had a profound and lasting effect on many Australian women and on young women in particular – and not just Labor Party supporters. She has been a role model for them and an inspiration and has embodied the fact that nothing is beyond them, even the prime ministership.

And she has been a sort of martyr for the cause of equality, both suffering and revealing the extent of sexism that still exists in Australia. A martyr in the sense that those women who will follow her in politics will not have to go through what she has been through.

There is a lesson in these Gillard love-ins for Tony Abbott. That lesson is that there is no way he can sustain long term a government in which there is only one female cabinet minister. The days when that was the norm, a cabinet full of men of a certain background, are over. Abbott’s daughters will undoubtedly affirm that for him. If he needs to ask.

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