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AUSTRALIA - FIRST FEMALE PRIME MINISTER, JULIA GILLARD

 

By Neil Sands

June 23, 2010

 

Australia's first female Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, entered federal politics in 1998 as a liberal railing against big business and opportunism but has since displayed a pragmatic streak her Labor Party supporters hope will help correct the mistakes that led to her predecessor Kevin Rudd's downfall.

The 48-year-old has always stood out in the male-dominated world of national politics and was tipped as a future leader years before ousting Mr. Rudd in an uncontested party ballot on Thursday morning. A key ally in Rudd's landslide win over John Howard's conservative government in 2007, she takes the helm with Labor trailing in opinion polls and smarting from a voter backlash on a number of issues, most prominently the resource "super profits" tax, which has enraged the mining industry.

Where Mr. Rudd was seen as a control freak whose inability to delegate eventually cost him the support of Labor's factional chiefs, Ms. Gillard is viewed as a consensus politician who will consult her peers to avoid the missteps that dogged Mr. Rudd's final months as prime minister. She began by extending an olive branch to the mining industry, saying she wanted to negotiate, and ordered the cancellation of government advertisements supporting the new levy.

Victorian Premier John Brumby, who once employed Gillard as his chief of staff, said he also expected her revive the emissions-trading proposal that was shelved by Mr. Rudd earlier this year, to the dismay of the Labor Party faithful. "The quicker the Federal Government can get back on track on that issue and get focused on it again to make a really meaningful change in this area [the better]," he told the Australian Broadcasting Corp.

Ms. Gillard's position in Labor's left faction means she may also come under pressure to amend social policies such as tough treatment of asylum seekers, gay-marriage legislations and Aboriginal welfare restrictions in the Northern Territory, although the conservatives who delivered her Thursday's victory are likely to stymie any change deemed too unpopular.

Born in Wales to a father who worked in the coal mines and a mother who was a psychiatric nurse, Ms. Gillard came to Australia as a 4-year-old and grew up in the South Australian capital Adelaide before moving to Melbourne in her 20s and joining a law firm where she specialized in representing employees embroiled in workplace disputes. She forged close links with the Labor movement and with the union-aligned Labor Party, including working in Mr. Brumby's office, before her election in 1998 representing the gritty electorate of Lalor in Melbourne's western suburbs.

While RBC Capital Markets economist Su-Lin Ong said her union roots meant she supported government intervention and spending, Australian Council of Trade Unions Secretary Jeff Lawrence said she was nobody's puppet.

"I don't think Julia Gillard is controlled by anyone," he said. "I've known her a long time, and she's a very independent, forceful person. She will set the agenda for the government and the country."

In opposition, she took the portfolio of workplace relations, where she tangled with the current opposition leader Tony Abbott over industrial overhauls and helped deliver labor's 2007 victory by turning public opinion against the changes. It was around then that polls showed many voters preferred her as prime minister over Mr. Rudd.

After the election, she became deputy prime minister and was part of the Rudd inner circle that pushed through massive government stimulus spending, which has been credited with helping Australia escape the worst of the global financial crisis. However, the stimulus spending in her portfolio of education has faced criticism for being wasteful and poorly targeted, representing the major hiccup in her ministerial career.

All the while, Ms. Gillard has faced scrutiny in Canberra because of her status as an unmarried, childless womanówith one conservative political opponent accusing her of being "deliberately barren" and not understanding families. University of Melbourne politics lecturer Lauren Rosewarne said this would only intensify with her election to the leadership.





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