It was 1966. The four-year old girl stepped off the ship and looked around at Australia, her new homeland. At the time, little did the Welsh born Julia Gillard know that by June 2010 she would be chosen by Australia’s ruling Labor Party as the country’s first woman Prime Minister.
Following widespread disillusionment with Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s stewardship, then Deputy Prime Minister Gillard challenged Rudd to a leadership ballot on June 23, 2010, paving the way for her ascension to Prime Minister. Barely three weeks into the job, Gillard has already proved that she fits snugly into her new role.
Gillard notched her first victory early on, breaking through the impasse of the mining tax row that had been riling the country for the past two months. Australia’s major mining companies were in a bitter deadlock with the government over the proposed imposition of a 40% tax on their future profits, a move suggested by Rudd. Intense negotiations and hour long meetings later, Gillard arrived at a deal, with the Minerals Council of Australia and Australia’s largest mining companies shaking hands over a tax rate of 30%.
Clearly, the feisty Gillard is a lady of action. Soon after her election, the first promises that Gillard made to the Australian people included strengthening border protection and keeping the flesh trade in check, two of the most pressing matters that Australia faces currently. Impressively, Gillard has already addressed these issues, making arrangements to purchase additional patrol boats for border surveillance, while chalking policies on the side to harden penalties for those plying humans in trade.
Gillard, a law graduate from the University of Adelaide, has always had a reputation for decisiveness, a trait that won over quite a few supporters when she was the Deputy Prime Minister in Rudd’s government. Australians watched her handle the responsibilities of the Minister for Education, Employment and Workplace Relations with ease, earning her the nickname “minister for everything.”
Towards this, Gillard was instrumental in abolishing the infamous WorkChoices scheme, a program that workers’ unions felt disadvantaged employees. On the women’s issues front, Gillard championed the support of women in the workplace. In May 2010, she launched an 18-week national paid parental leave initiative, which also made stay-at-home mothers eligible for a $4,300 bonus.
But it is promoting education that lies especially close to Gillard’s heart, perhaps due to memories from her own childhood. By her own admission, Gillard was able to attend college only because the government at the time adopted the radical decision to eliminate college fees. In 2009, Gillard played a crucial role in the launch of Australia’s “Building the Education Revolution” program, which pumped $13.9 billion for the improvement of school infrastructure, including libraries and classrooms. When she visited India in 2009, Gillard was eager to improve the country’s educational initiatives. In conjunction with the Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU) and Australia’s Queensland University of Technology, she was instrumental in launching three diploma programs. This included the further training of primary school teachers in New Delhi, leading Gilliard to comment that, “This will potentially benefit hundreds of thousands of primary school teachers in India.”
Today, I can assure every Australian that their budget will be back in surplus in 2013,” Gillard promised during her post-election speech.
But being the harbinger of freethinking and often progressive policies has not been easy. The 48-year-old Gillard has frequently been the target of criticism for being an atheist and remaining unmarried. However, her ability to meet challenges head on, as well as her capacity to keep a calm and even temperament at all times, has been much lauded and often compared with Rudd’s notorious moodiness. “She does not rush into things. She is focused, efficient and loyal,” points out Jacqueline Kent, Gillard’s biographer, to TIME.
Currently, Gillard is intently focusing on the challenges that face her. The snap ballot that catapulted her to the leader of the nation overnight has also caused fractiousness and unrest within the party. To win the upcoming Australian federal elections, Gillard not only must unravel the public disenchantment with Rudd but also meet the immense expectations now pinned on her. And it is not just Australians who are keenly watching Gillard’s moves. Global governments are waiting to see how Gillard will unwind Rudd’s decisions on climate change and health care, issues that contributed to his waning popularity and exit.
Now more than ever, Gillard’s much admired leadership qualities will be put through the litmus test. “She is just plain ordinary, from the voice to the hair to the persona. That’s the major part of her appeal,” says Kent to TIME. And as Australia waits in anticipation, it is up to Julia Gillard to prove that the ordinary can be extraordinary.
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© Thomas White International, Ltd. 2014