A Failed Gaze at the Gaze on Gillard

It should be obvious, even to the casual observer, that there has been something tangibly different about Australian politics over the last three years. Many words will be written in the attempt to dissect, analyse, and understand the Forty-third Parliament of Australia, and the oft-quoted “new paradigm”. Kerry-Anne Walsh, a twenty-five year veteran of the Canberra press gallery, has been quick to release her effort, The Stalking of Julia Gillard – a self-reflective analysis of the internal and external forces which assaulted Gillard’s prime ministership. It may be a good read, and a fascinating – but fleeting – glimpse inside the press gallery, but a definitive, nuanced understanding of the last three years it is not.

Walsh’s text suffers from a number of critical flaws, the clearest of which is the obvious rush with which it was finished. Originally slated for release mid-August, The Stalking of Julia Gillard hit the shelves on 2 July, less than a week after the Rudd resurrection. Unfortunately this shines through every time that Walsh implies Rudd will never return. The repetition of phrases and simple copy-editing errors aside, the structure of the book is painfully unfinished. It reads like a summary of a work journal, a chronological series of personal observations and opinions, rather than a considered, self-aware piece of work. For those still unacquainted with the last three years, it would make for a fascinating introduction, but for the political junkies amongst us there’s nothing new here. It’s a pity that Walsh and/or her publisher, Allen & Unwin, decided to rush the book into stores, because I believe the framework for a deeper discussion of the relationship between politics, government, and media lay a couple of drafts in its future.

Critically, there is another vital flaw at the heart of Walsh’s argument, particularly in her assessment of Kevin Rudd and the press gallery. Reading The Stalking of Julia Gillard, you could be forgiven for thinking that between 2007 and 2010, Australia existed in stasis, nothing was achieved, and a megalomaniac, hated even by his own party, ruled the land. Compared with David Marr’s 2010 Quarterly Essay on Rudd, Walsh makes no effort to understand or comprehend the man. She describes him as self-absorbed, selfish, vindictive, and impish, and Gillard his binary opposite. Rudd returns to the backbench to ply his media weapons, journalist connections, and ALP saboteurs in unison against his successor. While I too believe Rudd plotted against Gillard, I find myself neither surprised nor infuriated. Rudd is, after all, a politician, and even politicians feel vengeful. Indeed, there are two very human shaped holes at the heart of the text, robbing Rudd, and particularly Gillard of any empathetic comprehension of their character. Politics, after all, is an inherently human pursuit.

The Stalking of Julia Gillard is a particularly media-focused work. Walsh’s consistent claim is that it was political journalism, mainstream media, and shock jocks, which did the visible damage to Gillard.  She is heavily, and rightfully, critical of the recent developments in political journalism, especially the newfound subservience to “inside sources,” and the lack of independent, critical reporting of policy. Walsh pays particular attention to Peter Hartcher, Michelle Grattan, and Paul Kelly, but everyone gets their turn. But what should have been an opportunity for constructive criticism of an industry in crisis, has instead been utilised to present a three hundred page list of savage, sarcastic observations. What I was hoping to see when I came to a book subtitled How the Media and Team Rudd Contrived to Bring Down the Prime Minister was more of the “how,” the root causes and their effects. It isn’t until the epilogue that Walsh even turns her mind to the meaning of polling and the twenty-four hour news cycle. If you’re looking for a definitive discussion of the Labor Government, or a surgical analysis of the 21st-century journalism, this isn’t it.