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Julia Gillard: Australia's First Female Prime Minister

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Thursday in Canberra, Julia Gillard emerged from a meeting of the parliamentary Labor Party ('the caucus') as the new leader of the Australian Labor Party (ALP). She had, with the assistance, direction and support of ALP factional leaders, deposed Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, a man who had swept to power in 2007 on a pre-Obama 'change' campaign. As the new leader of the ALP she also became the Prime Minister of Australia, the first female, and possibly she suggested in her press conference, the first ranga (or red-head) to hold the position.

Critics and commentators have been breathless in covering the 'coup' -- detailing the internal mechanics of the ALP, including the personality politics and the power of union-backed factional bosses. Prominent Australian blogger, Mark Bahnisch at Larvatus Prodeo was deeply disturbed by the passage of events:

Let's make no mistake. It is a [sic] historic day for our country to have a female Prime Minister. But it is also a historic tragedy that a first term Prime Minister, the first Labor leader to win a national election since 1993, has been politically executed by his own party. It's a tragedy which will set a disturbing precedent. Julia Gillard has become Labor leader at the wrong time, for the wrong reasons, and through the agency of the wrong people.

Mark's criticism is premised on the idea that a poll-driven, value-free cadre of ALP apparatchiks has orchestrated the elevation of Julia Gillard to drive policy changes from the Labor Government, particularly on the issue of a new mining tax and asylum seekers or as it's called when you want to stand tough: "border protection." Mark's conclusion is that this unprecedented political event will have dire future ramifications :

Will any future Prime Minister take the time to reflect, or have the courage to lead, knowing that a few marginal seat polls and a media firestorm can dissolve their legitimacy in the flick of an eyelid?

But it's unclear that this future threat to a PM's legitimacy is borne out entirely in the political assassination of Kevin Rudd. Rudd did not lose the support of the caucus because of weakening polling numbers alone. He lost support because strong polling numbers was all he had driving support in the caucus in the first place. He was always a loner in the party and his style of micro-management in government only isolated him further. The fact that he couldn't even bring himself to publicly bless the new Prime Minister in his final press conference speaks volumes of how little regard he has for the ALP as a movement. It does not seem apparent that a different leader, one who had respect from her colleagues, couldn't withstand a couple of mediocre polls.

But polls aside, what will Julia Gillard deliver as a leader of Australia's mainstream centre-left party and new Prime Minister? The answer from her first press conference was a lot less clear than the message articulated back in December of 2006 by the man she replaced. Her statements yesterday seemed to announce a campaign strategy focused on what the right-wing Liberal opposition is for, rather than what a new Gillard Labor Government would deliver. It heralded a return to 'bread and butter' issues over reform-focus and change. In case you couldn't guess, according to Gillard, the Liberal Party, under arch-conservative Tony Abbott, want to cut funding to health, education and attack workers' rights.

On the big issues of the day Gillard obfuscated -- the mining tax would happen but would be 'negotiated' because the 'doors of Government are open to the mining industry.' On climate change she would 'prosecute the case' for a price on carbon, sometime after the election, with the objective of building a 'consensus' on taking action on climate change (regardless that it already exists) and on the human rights of people seeking asylum in Australia she 'understood' that Australians were worried about arrivals and would be 'tough' in 'protecting the border.'

As Australia heads into an election campaign, promised by the new Prime Minister to be held in the coming months, she will need to both clarify whether she is going to 'lurch the party to the right' and establish a method of managing her colleagues so that she too is not just a series of bad polls away from political oblivion.