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Old South Wales socialism made Gillard who she is

The cultural influence of her birthplace pervades the PM’s political outlook and personal style, says David Martin Jones

30 June 2010

12:00 AM

30 June 2010

12:00 AM

The cultural influence of her birthplace pervades the PM’s political outlook and personal style, says David Martin Jones

Australia’s 27th prime minister is not only the first female holder of the office, but also only the second foreign-born PM. Like the first, Billy Hughes, she is Welsh. Ironically, Wales has now produced twice as many prime ministers of Australia as it has of the UK, of which it remains a constituent part.

However, Julia Gillard makes little of her heritage. ‘I always knew, growing up,’ she said, ‘that we had chosen this place [Adelaide] because it offered us opportunities beyond those our homeland could have delivered. My parents could muse on what life might have held for them in Wales. Frankly, I cannot. Australia is and always has been my reality.’ This is not surprising given that her parents took up the Australian government’s assisted immigration scheme in 1966, when Gillard was only four years old.

Nevertheless, the cultural influence of South Wales, rather than South Australia, lingers in both her political vision and her personal style. Indeed, even in what she identifies with most strongly as an Australian, the egalitarianism and mateship of the land of the fair go, unconsciously reflect her parents’ unequal struggle to get on in postwar, working-class, industrial old South Wales.


This egalitarian sensibility, moreover, demonstrates that she is her father’s daughter. Much has been made in Australian media reports of her ties to Barry, where she was born, a port town on the Bristol Channel which once exported more coal than any other port in the world, but by the late 1950s functioned primarily as a downmarket resort for daytrippers from Cardiff and the Valleys, with candy floss, warm beer and kiss-me-quick hats. Barry Island eventually became home to one of Billy Butlin’s holiday camps, the kind of postwar working-class resort satirised in Eighties sitcom Hi-De-Hi. It was in Barry that her father courted local girl Moira Mackenzie.

But it was John Gillard’s formative experience and its frustrations which particularly shaped the personality of the young Julia. Those experiences were located farther west in the brooding heartland of industrial South Wales, where the mining village of Cwmgwrach nestles in the Vale of Neath close to the steel town of Port Talbot. John Gillard was born here during the Depression, which hit the South Wales coalfield like a sledgehammer. A bright boy from a large mining family, he left school at 14, despite qualifying for a scholarship, to work in a series of lower-middle-class occupations. He was a policeman when he met Moira and subsequently a booking clerk on British Railways. The relative poverty and stunted opportunity fed a class-consciousness bred into the fibre of South Wales, where it is still rare to find a constituency that does not instinctively vote Labour.

Significantly, her father’s political hero, the Tredegar-born miner and militant class warrior, Aneurin (Nye) Bevan, is also Julia’s. This influence too is Old rather than New Labour. Nye would have had little time for Tony Blair’s ‘Third Way’ or Kevin Rudd’s micromanagement. Bevan famously observed that ‘politics is a blood sport’ and considered Winston Churchill’s Tory party ‘lower than vermin’.

South Wales socialism still reveres Nye Bevan, who served as health minister in the postwar Attlee government. His bloated legacy, the National Health Service, is responsible for much of the UK’s current unsustainable debt. Bevan placed education and health at the core of the postwar socialist vision. Politics was about passion and interests, and Bevan would undoubtedly have favoured Rudd’s dessicated managerial approach with his quip, ‘Poor fellow, he suffers from files.’ The Bevan style was also about pragmatism and never walking naked into the conference chamber, a style that Gillard has also cultivated.

Gillard’s natural wit and her common touch are also very much Old South Wales. One of her two biographers, Jacqueline Kent, relates an incident in a shopping centre in her electorate in 1998. While she was handing out literature and standing next to a board with her photo on it, one of her passing constituents comments, ‘Taken on a good day, was it, love?’ She instantly responds, ‘And you’d be Robert Redford, would you?’ Delivered in a Cardiff accent this could be a line straight out of the Barry-based sitcom Gavin & Stacey. Similarly, her ‘non-practising’ Baptist faith reflects her Welsh Nonconformist roots. Nye Bevan was also a lapsed Baptist. To subscribe to the disestablished Anglican Church of Wales would have invoked the putdown: ‘There’s posh.’

It does not require Sigmund Freud, therefore, to see that the experience of the father, the levelling wit and the visceral passions of South Wales Labour, play out in the daughter’s determination to succeed. They are evident from her political coming of age in the hyperactive world of Australian student politics, through her involvement with Socialist Forum in the mid-Eighties, her work as an industrial relations lawyer with Slater & Gordon and her subsequent involvement both personally and politically with the Australian Workers’ Union. Widely regarded as well-organised, a skilled networker and a powerful communicator, it is noteworthy that the portfolios she has most identified with, both in opposition and government, are health, education, and industrial relations, reflecting the interests of her socialist father and her socialist hero.

The comparison should, however, not be overstated. Bevan’s political romanticism would never allow the pursuit of power to stand in the way of a good line or a grand gesture. Significantly, he never led the British Labour party, and the last decade of his political life is remembered for his rhetorical gifts rather than significant policy achievements. This cannot be said of Gillard, who, far more than her immediate predecessor, recognises that politics is about power.

Given this background and her pragmatic affinity with the Victorian Labor left, we can expect a more organised and networked approach to policy and its implementation. But this policy will not necessarily offer much comfort to the likes of Rio Tinto or BHP, and business generally will look to her in vain for market-based solutions. What Gillard also knows from her lifelong involvement in Australian Labor is ‘that there is a lot about being involved in politics that does have the capacity to turn your stomach’. But she comes from a hard school. Her friend Josh Bornstein remarked, ‘If I ever meet anyone tougher than Julia Gillard, I’ll fall over.’ As she said to Tony Abbot in Canberra on her first day as Prime Minister, ‘Game on.’ You can take the girl out of South Wales, but you can’t take South Wales out of the girl.

David Martin Jones is author and editor of several books, including ASEAN and East Asian International Relations (2006) and The Howard Years (2009), co-edited with Keith Windschuttle and Ray Evans.


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