Jacqueline Kent, Take Your Best Shot : The Prime Ministership of Julia Gillard
What if Labour was in power…?
Ow come on, admit it. With all the recent problems besieging Indonesia-Australia relations, it is difficult not to be asking this question. Of course, as officials, we are not supposed to show any preference towards one government or another. That would be “intruding on domestic politics”, a taboo in diplomacy. Then again, for ages, western diplomats have officially indicated their preference for which South American, Middle Eastern or Southeast Asian leaders should be in power. And many times, they were even willing to go to war over this.
I’m only human, and being human means having doubts, and of course, having preferences. I remember once writing in an essay on political theory: “contendo ergo sum”, I compare therefore I am. And when I look at how difficult relations have become between Indonesia and Australia, I can’t help but imagine how things would be if it wasn’t the Coalition government now in Canberra making the calls on Australian foreign policy towards Indonesia.
It was with these thoughts in my mind that I read Jacqueline Kent’s Take Your Best Shot: The Prime Ministership of Julia Gillard in three (or was it four) sittings.
Yes, Julia Gillard. I know most people would probably associate recent images of the ALP with Kevin Rudd. However, I’ve always felt a certain admiration for the smart, sharp-looking Ms. Gillard. Ok, Rudd speaks Chinese, and that certainly makes him cool. But somehow Gillard would be the person I’d chose as my boss (if I could ever choose bosses).
There’s a personal memory that will always remind me of Julia Gillard, Australia’s first female Prime Minister. On December 20, 2011, just as I watched Ms. Gillard meet President SBY (less than 10 meters away from me) for the first ever Indonesia-Australia Annual Leaders Meeting in Bali, my pregnant wife called me and told me that her water just broke. It was a moment in my life. And sure enough, 20 hours later, Gaia Veronika was born. I had thought of naming her Julia, but Gaia sounded close enough to Julia, I figured.
Anyways, back to the book, Kent has previously written a biography of Julia. And so, early in the book, she admitted the possibility of a certain bias, as she pictures Ms. Gillard as Cate Blanchett’s Queen Elizabeth in that 1998 Oscar winning movie. I didn’t mind this at all, because I think there has been just too much bias against Ms. Gillard throughout her leadership of the Australian government.
Kent writes that Ms. Gillard was frequently criticized for being a “nuts-and-bolts legislator, a fixer of problems, rather than a prime minister with large vision”. Many times, visionary leaders are well loved by the people. But there are also moments when the people do get tired of big words, and wish that leaders would just get down to work.
The book is not meticulously detailed, but provides an excellent overview of the challenges that Ms. Gillard faced throughout her three years and three days stay at the top of the Australian government. It talks about her battles with other legislators on issues such as climate change, finance and education. It highlights her success in a passing a sleuth of clean energy bills, achieving something that great politicians like John Howard, Malcolm Turnbull and even Kevin Rudd couldn’t do, especially not with a minority government.
The book also goes into an issue that often pits Australia against its northern neighbours: asylum seekers. Remaining conservative on this issue (unlike Mr. Rudd and his ideal of a “big Australia”), Ms. Gillard put forward the need for border management and a sustainable immigration policy. At the same time, she showed interest in the possibility of working towards a regional solution to the problem.
Of course, the book looks into two issues that seem to highlight Ms. Gillard’s term in office: her supposed inability to convey the successes of her government to the public, and her protracted battle with Kevin Rudd.
On her cold, Elizabethan public image, Kent argues that Julia is actually an eloquent speaker, who narrates in a logical and systematic way. However, her problem is that she prefers to make these speeches at the Parliament, and not in front of the media cameras. Her government had to explain complex policies to a generally resistant public, while at the same time faced the challenges of an Opposition leader who was skilled in crafting “slogans” and a media unskilled in reporting nuance. This kinda reminds me of Indonesia today.
And on dealing with Kevin Rudd, Kent describes the removal of Mr. Rudd was as swift as the Iraqi invasion. However, like that invasion, it was followed by a long period of unpredictability and instability. While Ms. Gillard is portrayed by Kent in a generously favourable manner, the undertone was obvious: the implosion of the ALP leadership. Like that really popular REM song, “Everybody hurts…”
As I finished the book, I felt my honest respect towards Ms. Gillard confirmed. Apparently, being a female Prime Minister is not easy, even in a country as democratic and egalitarian as Australia. And more so, because she didn’t feel the need to ensure a legacy by smiling pretty to the media. Because, like she said, “chasing popularity would be the death of purpose”.