June 24, 2010 / 7:17 AM / in 8 years

NEWSMAKER-Australia's first woman PM an old-school Labor leader

SYDNEY, June 24 (Reuters) - Australia’s new prime minister, Julia Gillard, has become the first woman to lead her country, but her leadership style evokes the past, not the future.

A quick-witted politician, with a broad Australian accent and a working-class pedigree, Gillard is in many ways an old-school Labor Party politician, more reminiscent of Labor prime ministers from the 80s and 90s than her bookish predecessor, Kevin Rudd.

Like previous Labor prime ministers Bob Hawke and Paul Keating, Gillard stands in stark contrast to Rudd, a Mandarin-speaking ex-diplomat who broke the mould as a Labor leader in 2006 when he took control of a then demoralised opposition.

Rudd won a landslide election victory in 2007, ousting veteran conservative leader John Howard, and then dominated the opinion polls until, suddenly, last April the fairy tale ended.

Thanks to a few big policy failures, Labor’s “Prince Charming” began losing the confidence of voters and, just as suddenly, Gillard was emerging as a new but much more familiar Labor hero, a working-class politician with a talent for plain-speaking.

Where Rudd once told lawmakers about “evidence-based policy” and explained in heavy detail the complexities of his tax or climate-change policies, Gillard stood in parliament on Thursday and launched straight into vintage Labor rhetoric.

“I grew up in a home of hard-working parents,” began the 48-year-old daughter of a former policeman and rail clerk.

“I believe in a government that rewards those who work the hardest, not those who complain the loudest,” she added.

“I believe in a government that rewards those who, day in and day out, work in our factories and on our farms, in our mines and in our mills, in our classrooms and in our hospitals, that rewards that hard work, decency and effort.”

Gillard arrived in Australia, aged four, in the 1960s from south Wales, a cradle of Britain’s own Labour movement. Her father had gone to work before finishing school, his family too poor to support him through higher education.

Gillard initially lived in a migrant hostel in the rural town of Adelaide before her father bought a house. She studied law at university, where she got involved in politics and then became a partner in a law firm specialising in class actions and personal injury cases before working as a political adviser.


Gillard was first elected to parliament in 1998, and quickly rose to become a leading light of the Labor left, becoming shadow health minister in 2003 and then backing Rudd for the leadership in return for the deputy Labor leadership.

Gillard kept in Rudd’s shadow until this year’s opinion-poll meltdown when, without apparent hesitation or squeamishness, she made her move just months away from a general election, just as Hawke did on the eve of another election in the early 1980s.

Gillard seems to model her leadership style on the Hawke era, when cabinet forged policy by consensus -- another departure from Rudd, whose corporate-style management rankled Labor MPs.

“Her consultation skills are fantastic,” said one senior industry figure who negotiated opposite Gillard on labour-market reforms. “She is bloody good,” he told Reuters.

That will be good news for global miners that are threatening to pull more than $20 billion in investment unless the government overhauls its proposed 40 percent mine-profits tax. Gillard has refused to drop the tax so must negotiate a solution quickly.

Even if Gillard shares Hawke’s famed negotiating skills, and Keating’s sharp wit, she also faces a challenge that no previous Australian leader has ever known: being a woman in power.

She has long attracted headlines for her hair, which she recently restyled and dyed an auburn shade instead of its natural ginger, her partner who is a hairdresser and her decision not to have children.

One conservative lawmaker even once remarked her unmarried status made her unfit to govern. He later apologised for the comment but, in the socially conservative heartland of middle-class Australia, it can be an issue.

“She’s not married is she? No children either,” remarked Elvie Santos, a legal secretary, when asked during her lunch break on Thursday whether she liked Gillard.

But she added: “Let’s give her a try. You never know.”

Additional reporting by James Grubel; Editing by Ed Davies and Miral Fahmy

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