Two years on and we’re still obsessed with Julia Gillard. She may not be in your list of top 10 favourite PMs but she’s mounting a hell of a challenge to Gough Whitlam as our most controversial leader. Recently we’ve had journalists and pollies galore (including Gillard herself) give us their takes on that deranged period of our political history when she assassinated, then reigned, then was assassinated herself. Some of them have been great and some of them haven’t been up too much.
Michael Cooney’s attempt is pretty great. He’s the head of Labor’s top think-tank, the Chifley Research Centre, and for three years was speechwriter behind that voice. The Gillard Project is his memoir of life with the first female prime minister.
Of all the Gillard books, Cooney’s is far and away the best defence of her legacy. He understands (to a painful extent) the omnishambles that was her government, he even takes the blame for one or two less fabulous moments. But this is a full-throated love letter to “the Gillard Project” and what Cooney sees as a visionary plan to make Australia “the richest fair country and the fairest rich country”. Listen to the spinmeister.
“In her words in 2013, an Australia ‘strong and fair but also smart.’… modernising our social safety net by launching DisabilityCare, the national disability insurance scheme; renewing our factories of opportunity by improving our schools; strengthening the US alliance and the relationship with China. She put a price on carbon when no one else could or would.”
But what of the prime minister? Cooney captures the grace and the humour and the strength of this woman who just wants to get the job done. If you’re a can-do realist, Cooney’s Gillard is the leader for you.
“She is also smart and tough, proud of her origins. A woman of immense purpose and enormous will. A great Aussie bird, a person with a hinterland, a humble person who sometimes doesn’t like help. She has an accent. She was a shy child. She is the Labor Party’s loyal daughter.”
She sounds fabulous but Cooney’s character and the Gillard we saw on TV don’t correlate. While Cooney is more than willing to admit the faults (including his own), don’t expect a cold eye to be cast on the boss. Her wooden performance isn’t fully analysed, except for its anti-Rudd reserve. And the accent issue is waved away by cleverly citing the uninspiring tones of one Ben “Light on the Hill” Chifley. He admits the cabinet shuffles left much to be desired. Rudd lurks in every shadow. And, of course, there’s the carbon tax.
Cooney argues that the right and proper thing to do was to concede that a fixed price works like a tax (pace Joe Hockey, who won’t admit a co-payment is a tax). And you almost agree with him, it was certainly brave, but he knows what a disaster it was in the end.
You’ll probably like Julia Gillard after reading this book and if you do, you’ll adore Michael Cooney. Unlike many others in the Rudd-Gillard canon, this book is sheer heart.
Here is a man willing to admit to his pratfalls. Including his worst moment as speechwriter, the abominable “We are us” speech at the 2012 ALP national conference. But he had sparkling moments: think of Gillard’s addresses on Afghanistan and the apology to victims of forced adoption. And it doesn’t hurt that he’s very funny and smart.
But he’s a proud Labor “lifer” who loves the workers who power the party, despite every West Wing jibe. His love of these people (he includes a beautiful ode to his friendship with transgender trailblazer Cate McGregor) might convince you to dust off the old “It’s Time” t-shirt.
“That’s the staff, my battalion, and it’s made up of all sorts of funny little platoons. There are ‘wogs’ – their words – and kids, and veterans, and progressives and Laborites, and even public servants.”
If you hate Julia Gillard, then this book won’t convince you she’s a goddess. But even those who shrink from the Rudd-Gillard years will get a better insight into what life was like in the bunker. It’s a crying shame this humble speechwriter wasn’t overlord of communications at the time.
Cooney sets out to articulate the Gillard narrative, the legend that’s been sorely lacking and he often succeeds. True believers and agnostics alike may fall in love with The Gillard Project.