Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Stiff upper lip trembled -- once

Honourable defeat enhances Gillard's esteem among Australians

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BRISBANE -- The Australian prime minister's official residence last week was the venue for what purists in the Australian lexicon refer to as "a massive piss-up'' as deposed prime minister Julia Gillard hosted a "celebration" after losing the prime ministership.

The noun celebration is not employed with irony, nor is it inappropriate in this context. To celebrate a loss is not at all unusual in a nation that doesn't necessarily condone failure but does seem to have a sneaking regard for a old-fashioned honourable defeat.

The great military campaign we remember annually (Gallipoli) was an unmitigated disaster, our national folk hero, the Jolly Swagman, drowned in a water hole and our most celebrated explorers (Burke and Wills) dropped dead in the Outback without even bothering to first tell us where they had been.

So when prime ministers get deposed, they take on a sheen -- a subtle halo of achievement we hadn't seen before, leaving us pondering whether we might be losing something worth having.

And so it has been with Gillard, who was subject to the most outrageous slurs and personal attacks while she was prime minister but who, after displaying such grace and courage in defeat over the past week, has revealed the qualities we suspect might make her an ideal candidate for the job she was just so unceremoniously tossed out of.

How history will judge Gillard is up to history, but Australians will no doubt one day concede they owe her an enormous debt for paving the way for women to take on the nation's leadership role.

Gillard and the new (or recycled) Prime Minister Kevin Rudd have fought a cold war since June 2010, when Gillard and her backers threw Rudd out of the prime ministerial suite and seized power.

That it was a mistake is no longer open to discussion. More than a mistake, it was an historic debacle that left the century-old Australian Labor Party looking like an amateur-hour outfit.

Gillard's popularity plunged, taking the party with her as the nation turned sullen and stared at its shoes, demanding to know what happened to the bloke they had voted for in 2007.

A second internal party ballot in 2011 reaffirmed Gillard's caucus support, but Rudd's sniping from the sidelines continued. Last week, Gillard turned into a political Gary Cooper, calling Rudd out into the street for a third gunfight that she believed would put Rudd in his political grave.

The loser, she insisted, was to give the victor clear air by leaving politics and not contesting in the looming federal election, which probably will be held in late August or early September.

When the dust settled, it was Gillard face down in the street, with the undertaker taking her measurements.

Gillard's caucus colleagues, recognizing Rudd's extraordinary popularity among Australians, voted 57-45 in favour of the man many of them despise, but who is already turning the polls back towards Labor with that special bond he has with the people.

Gillard demonstrated an extraordinary strength in her concession speech, gazing calmly at the bank of cameras as she prepared to walk away from her stellar career, which included stints as deputy prime minister and education minister.

The former lawyer acknowledged the long cold war between her and Rudd and conceded the pressure to bring him back had overwhelmed her party colleagues.

"I respect the decision they have made,'' she said, before urging her colleagues to fight on.

"I do say to my caucus colleagues: Don't lack the guts, don't lack the fortitude, don't lack the resilience to go out there with our Labor agenda and to win this election. I know that it can be done.''

It was stirring stuff -- the fallen soldier urging her comrades on with her dying breath and all that, and Gillard further captured the nation's heart the following day.

Rob Oakeshot, an independent MP who had backed her minority government after the 2010 election, mentioned on the floor of the House of Representatives he had sent a text message to Gillard before the leadership showdown saying, "Your father would be proud of you.''

Gillard had an extraordinarily close bond with her father, who died recently. Her lower lip trembled in one of the few displays of emotion she has allowed since her defeat.

But it was her behaviour at a party she hosted for her colleagues and staffers at the PM's official residence, The Lodge, just hours after losing the party ballot that showed a side of her that perhaps made the nation most proud.

Reports in News Limited newspapers and political gossips have only given an insight into the night in recent days, and it's apparent Gillard was a good Australian host who ensured nobody went thirsty.

Attended by about 100 MPs and staffers, the party involved much beer and wine but little by way of recrimination or bitterness.

(Rudd, it should be noted, did the same thing after his removal in 2010. His more youthful staffers ended up in the pool after midnight in the middle of a Canberra winter.)

With a glass of wine in hand and dressed casually, Gillard apparently would not hear a bad word about Rudd as she stood on The Lodge's sweeping staircase and told all present not to give up on Labor ideals.

"It's not about us, it's about what we want for others,'' she reportedly told the cheering crowd. "You've been tremendous; don't let this disillusion you. Shit happens.''


Michael Madigan is the Free Press correspondent in Australia. He writes mostly about politics for the Brisbane-based Courier Mail.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 5, 2013 A11


Updated on Friday, July 5, 2013 at 8:57 AM CDT: Corrects spelling of Australian Labor Party

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