Julia Gillard Is No Thatcher

By Niki Savva

"She will hate the comparison, and it is certainly not intended as an insult, but Julia Gillard could end up becoming Australia's Margaret Thatcher.

"Tough, charismatic, articulate, ruthless, razor sharp in tongue and mind, undoubtedly effective. And to top it all off, an immaculate hairdo. Red Maggie."

That gushing commentary was the opening to an opinion piece published on these pages on June 25, 2010, the day after Gillard toppled Kevin Rudd. There was more in that vein as the author, who embarrassingly happens to be me, slobbered shamelessly over the new Prime Minister.

The fact I was not alone then in my endorsement of Gillard and assessment of her talents is little consolation. At the time I was also busily telling Liberal-voting friends and Liberal MPs alike that she was going to kill 'em. What's more, they agreed with me.

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One numbers man rang a marginal seat holder in Victoria that weekend to tell him the latest polling in the state showed Labor at 70 per cent and the Coalition at 30, and to ask the MP what he planned to do about it.

"I am going to watch Mad Men, then go to bed," his friend said, feigning a calmness he did not feel, especially as constituents had already reported they had goose bumps when they heard the new Prime Minister's spiel about the importance of hard work and a good education.

The figures the rattled numbers man quoted were a slight exaggeration, not much though, and a long way from where Labor is now at roughly 50-50 in what is its best state and which happens to be about 5 per cent below the 2010 election result.

Two years later Red Maggie is dead Maggie.

Only a matter of days after her elevation, the issue that marked the beginning of her decline, one of the three that secured for her the leadership, and the one that first exposed a troubling pattern of behaviour, is the one that plagues her still, that of asylum-seekers.

On July 6, 2010, she announced to the Lowy Institute she had discussed the setting up of an offshore processing centre with the president of East Timor, Jose Ramos-Horta. Not only did she speak to the wrong person -- it should have been the parliament or Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao -- but after it became clear East Timor was not interested she first denied nominating East Timor as a location, then for months after it was dead pretended it was still a live option.

She embraced a policy she had previously declared was intolerable, she announced it before it was nailed down, then when it went pear-shaped she denied saying what she said. People are not mugs, yet she insisted on treating them like idiots.

And she has done it over and over and over, most blatantly and most damagingly with the carbon tax, then again more recently over the approval for Gina Rinehart to import foreign workers for the Roy Hill project when she claimed she did not know about it in time to stop it.

She and her staff should have treated the East Timor episode as a template for how not to operate. It should have taught them the importance of attention to detail and the need for candour. Because while she apparently can't remember what she said yesterday, others can, and if a mistake is made, fix it, move on quickly and, if you can bring yourself to do it, say sorry.

Nothing even remotely like that happened. What happened was Groundhog Day before the bit where the hero realised what he had to do to get the clock ticking again. The next time Gillard came up with an asylum-seeker policy, the people-trafficking deal with Malaysia, she announced it before it was nailed down, it blew the budget out of the water and it was repudiated by the High Court last August. Her border protection policy since has been to blame Tony Abbott.


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