AUSTRALIA: ‘Ten Pound Pom’s Daughter’ becomes Education Minister
That poll saw the Australian Labor Party sweep the deeply conservative government of Prime Minister John Howard from office after nearly 11 years – and Howard from his own seat as well. Even more amazing for her parents, Gillard became acting Prime Minister this month when her boss, Kevin Rudd, was away for several weeks.
Now that Rudd is back in charge, Gillard has resumed her duties as Education Minister, Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations and Minister for Social Inclusion. Exactly how she will cope with three portfolios that could keep three politicians fully occupied remains to be seen but in Opposition, she proved to be hard-working and fully informed of the different ministries she was shadowing
Labor was elected with its key promise of introducing an “education revolution”, so Gillard has the challenge of reversing many of the previous government’s most contentious policies.
Among those affecting universities will be scrapping full-fee degrees for Australian students, creating 11,000 new government-supported student places, doubling the number of undergraduate scholarships as well as the number of postgraduate PhD and masters by research scholarships, and establishing 1,000 mid-career fellowships for Australian researchers to lure expatriate academics back home.
As a representative of a working-class Melbourne constituency in the federal parliament for the past decade, Gillard has been one of Labor’s top performers. In the bear pit that is the House of Representatives debating chamber, she has fought off attacks from her opponents and out-debated some of the Coalition government’s best ministers.
A diminutive red-head who dresses in designer suits, Gillard unfortunately did not adopt the Welsh lilt of her parents. Educated in state primary and secondary schools, she copied the nasal drone of her South Australian peers so that one critic said she had a vocal delivery “with all the charm and flatness of a punctured tyre”.
During last year’s interminable election campaign, Gillard brushed aside claims in Coalition advertising that she was no more than a union lackey, was dubbed a Communist by the former Treasurer, and derided by a Coalition senator as barren because she was childless and unmarried. When asked how she coped with these personal slights, Gillard commented: "Politics is not for the faint-hearted and I think I am a resilient person.”
In a profile of her broadcast on ABC Television, she spoke of having grown up in an environment where politics was talked about at home, “where we were sort of Labor by instinct”.
“Dad was pro-Labor, mum was pro-Labor, that's just what we were. That was our team. [But] probably more importantly than contemporary events, we'd talk about the values that were behind it. So I guess I've always had that sense of values...from knowing my father’s history it's always burned in me a sense of indignation about what happened to him.
“That someone who had the capacity to go on to higher education, to even more schooling and won a scholarship to do so, could still have that opportunity ripped from their hands by economic circumstance.”
Gillard’s career certainly prepared her for the rough and tumble of political life. After her parents arrived in Adelaide and she finished school, she completed an arts degree at the University of Adelaide – only the second child in her family, after her sister, to go on to higher education. She became involved in student politics and moved to Melbourne to continue her studies in law at the University of Melbourne when she was elected deputy president of the fiercely left-wing Australian Union of Students.
In 1983 she took over as union president, which she said was a “great formative experience”: “It's like compressing 10 years of parliament into one year of heady emotion. I think that's what student politics does for people…if you get the difference between long-term politics and the flashpoint that is student politics – it's a great experience to build up your skills.”
With her law degree, Gillard worked as a solicitor for, and later became a partner in, a noted Melbourne law firm while also maintaining close contacts with the Victorian Labor Party. In 1996, she left the law and became chief of staff to the state Opposition leader in a deliberate step, two years later, to be elected to the federal parliament.
Although she was once a contender to lead Labor, Gillard became deputy to Rudd when he was elected to the post just over a year ago. At the time, Labor was facing the prospect of losing its fourth election in a row But the new team – a mild right-wing Queenslander as Opposition leader and a hard-voiced decidedly left-wing Victorian as his offsider – appealed to the Australian public, which promptly put Labor in a leading position in the polls it was never to lose.
Yet the Murdoch press was unrelenting in its criticisms of Gillard and her past. One reporter uncovered a document he claimed contained material revealing “the radical past of Ms Gillard, including her links to former members of the Communist Party of Australia”. The report said that among the radical policies she had devised or backed as a student activist were scrapping Australia’s defence treaty with the United States, making Leningrad a twin city with Melbourne and introducing a super-tax on the rich.
But the student radical is now a realist in a distinctly moderate social democrat government, which won office by copying many of Howard’s policies. Gillard, however, has made her views clear on the destructive way the former Prime Minister governed Australia. In a speech to the Sydney Institute in 2003, she set out her own views on the ‘cultural war’ that Howard claimed to have won and how it had to be tackled:
“It's time for those who oppose Howard's agenda to admit that he and his helpers have succeeded spectacularly,” Gillard declared. “The nation is in the grip of a neo-conservative political correctness that is out of touch with the values of the majority of the Australian people. It's a political correctness that has elevated values that most Australians don't share: individual selfishness and a strange envy of the less fortunate because they are receiving government assistance.
“It's a political correctness that has produced greater divisions in our society between the haves and the have-nots, indigenous and non-indigenous, new migrants and old. And it is a political correctness that puts winning before all else, where ethics, integrity and values like equality and looking after others less fortunate don't rate.
“John Howard has won his culture war – for now. My argument is that it's time for Australians of all political persuasions who don't like this new political correctness – from Green on the left, to small-l liberal on the right – to wake up to the fact that they have lost the culture war.”
With her personal awareness of the power of education to transform people’s lives, Education Minister Gillard will be leading the charge against “the neo-conservative political correctness” in universities, schools and the wider community.
Speaking at the University of Melbourne last Wednesday, she said Labor’s education revolution ranged from early childhood to schools, vocational education and higher education.
“Our aspirations are for universal pre-schooling, lifting school retention rates to 90%, helping overcome the growing teacher shortage, and implementing new arrangements in higher education so students don’t have to pay full fees for a degree…
“The experts have spoken: if you are going to have a world-class education system, you need action in every part of it.”