Down to Earth: Australia's First Female Prime Minister

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Mick Tsikas / Reuters

In Jacqueline Kent's 2009 biography of Julia Gillard, then Australia's Deputy Prime Minister, Gillard is quoted as saying, "Anyone who thinks that my being PM is inevitable knows nothing whatever about politics." But less than a year later, the subject of The Making of Julia Gillard is just that — the holder of the highest political office in the land and the first woman to take the position. "First woman, maybe first redhead," the 48-year-old foreign-born lawyer joked with reporters after being sworn in on Thursday.

Her personal life won't stir enthusiasm among conservative upholders of traditional family values. Australia's new leader comes from a Baptist background but describes herself as "not religious." She is unmarried, although she does have what Australians call a "de facto" live-in partner — a former hairstylist and hair-products salesman, Tim Mathieson. Gillard is also childless, for which she was outrageously attacked by Liberal Party Senator Bill Heffernan, who told a newspaper in 2007 that she was not fit for office because she was "deliberately barren."

To her supporters, however, Gillard ushers in a new, straightforward Labor government, in contrast to the wonkish approach of her predecessor, Kevin Rudd, whom she ousted after a leadership challenge. "Rudd's preference for complex policy meant they spent far more time explaining how their solutions work than they spent explaining to the population why their solutions were necessary," says Richard Dennis, executive director of the Australian Institute, a Canberra-based think tank. "I think she will distance herself from his style and substance."

In fact, she has already started to do so. On the very day she took her oath of office, Gillard offered an olive branch to Australia's huge mining industry, which had been stunned by Rudd's hasty proposal of a 40% "super tax" on mining profits — the final straw, some believe, in his government's collapse. Gillard immediately canceled a $32 million government advertising campaign designed to garner support for the levy and signaled a willingness to negotiate. "Today I am throwing open the government's door to the mining industry," she said, "and in return I ask the mining industry to open its mind."

By temperament, Australia's new leader is not an automatic friend of Big Business, however. Gillard was born to working-class parents in Barry, Wales, in 1961. After a bout of bronchial pneumonia, her doctor recommended that the family move to a warmer climate, so they immigrated to Australia, settling in Adelaide when Gillard was 4.

She became interested in politics at the University of Adelaide, where she studied law, and joined the Labor Party in her second year. When she was 20, she moved to Melbourne to take up the post of vice president of the Australian Union of Students, and by the following year, she was elected president of the organization. In the mid-1980s, she became a secretary of the Socialist Forum, left-wing organization.

Gillard described her years of student politics as formative. "It's like compressing 10 years of parliament into one year of heady emotion," she said in a 2006 TV interview. Her political interests carried through into her career at law firm Slater & Gordon, where she represented employees involved in workplace disputes. In 1996 she entered politics professionally and was swiftly promoted within the Labor Party, then in opposition. Two years later, she was elected a member of parliament (for Lalor, in Victoria). In 2001 she became the shadow minister of population and immigration, and in 2003 she was given the role of shadow health minister.

When Rudd became leader of the Labor Party in 2006, Gillard was elected his deputy and helped him win a landslide election a year later. Alongside her No. 2 role, she was given a substantial portfolio as Minister for Education, Employment and Workplace Relations. Her experience in workplace-relations law earned her a degree of popularity, as did her abolition of previous Prime Minister John Howard's controversial WorkChoices scheme — a policy that removed unfair-dismissal laws for companies with less than 100 employees.

Internally, she was also liked. Compared with the infamously moody Rudd, Gillard appeared calm under pressure. "She does not rush into things," says biographer Kent. "She is focused, efficient and loyal. Her co-workers told me they loved it when Rudd was away and she was acting Prime Minister."

Gillard will not have long to prove herself. She has said that she will call an election in the "coming months." Her most important piece of preparation will likely be the restoration of the Labor Party's environmental credentials, which took a near fatal battering after Rudd notoriously shelved his emissions-trading scheme. "If elected as Prime Minister [at the next election], I will reprosecute the case for a carbon price at home and abroad," Gillard told reporters.

Polls in May indicated that Labor would lose at the polls had Rudd remained at the helm. But now things have changed. "I think that with her in power, the Labor Party's chances of winning the next elections have improved dramatically," says analyst Dennis. "She will provide the government with the necessary circuit breaker to really engage with the Australian electorate."

Gillard's ability to capture the female vote across the political spectrum will also help her cause. "I know a lot of women that would normally consider themselves Liberal voters who like Gillard's down-to-earth personality," said Kent. "A lot of women politicians ... are either mumsy or [like] school prefects. She is none of those things. She is just plain ordinary, from the voice to the hair to the persona. That's the major part of her appeal." Perhaps a belief in the inevitability of her rise wasn't such political naiveté after all.