This week former Prime Minister Julia Gillard released her autobiography, My Story – detailing and justifying her experiences and decision-making during her three year and three day term as Prime Minister of Australia. It contains her personal account of Australia’s developing relationship with the international community, the government’s efforts to secure a seat on the UN Security Council and of her relationships with key government figures, among other things.
While some aspects of the book – especially her difficult and complex relationship with Kevin Rudd, who was both her predecessor and successor – have recieved considerable attention in the media, there are other aspects of Gillard’s account which are revealing of key decisions and processes during her tenure which have not recieved much public exposure. Below, we highlight some revealing passages of the book relevant to Australian Middle East policy.
Gillard has a lot to say on former Foreign Affairs Minister Bob Carr, reflecting quite negatively on both his appointment and actions – this was something which was widely noted in the press:
“Then I made the wrong one (decision). I decided to bring former New South Wales Premier Bob Carr to Canberra and into my cabinet.” (p169)
“… unfortunately the promise I saw in Bob’s appointment never materialised. Above all, he found the transition from political retirement back into a huge job a hard one. The workload overwhelmed him. He remarked to me that he had not understood quite how retired he had been. As a result, he was beyond fully stretched with the Foreign Ministry work and never made a broader contribution to the government. The other negative was Bob’s struggle with the focused discipline required for Foreign Ministry work. It is one thing to chat knowledgeably and engagingly about world affairs at a dinner party. It is quite another to methodically pursue Australia’s interests in carefully calibrated diplomatic exchanges all around the world.” (p171)
Gillard then goes on to discuss her views on Australia and the Middle East – especially as they related to the ultimately successful quest for an Australian seat on the UN Security Council begun under Kevin Rudd – that she brought to her position, and their impact on her Cabinet.
“I was prepared to intensely pursue a Security Council seat and push through the carping of the Opposition, but I was not prepared to change our nation’s long-held position on Israel to get there.” (p205)
“On becoming Prime Minister and being briefed on the Security Council campaign it was apparent that one of the challenges in us succeeding was Australia’s long record of supporting Israel in votes at the UN.” (p208)
“I decided that if the only way to become a member of the Security Council was to sell out our nation’s support for Israel, then we should accept defeat rather than compromise.” (p208)
Gillard then directly takes on the origins of Carr’s comments that Jewish groups wielded “extraordinary influence” over her actions, especially with respect to UN voting, revealing these charges, in her view, to be simply something akin to paranoia on Carr’s part.
“Bob (Carr) read into my contrary view that in my eyes he and his advice had a lesser status than the advice provided by my office, which was somehow dictated by the Melbourne Jewish community. He actually screamed at Bruce Wolpe, a staff member in my office, in the reception area of the office. I heard it from my desk. He assumed Bruce was at the centre of the forces ranged against him. Bob’s view was incorrect. I was no one’s captive. I simply did not agree with him.” (p211)
Gillard then goes on to reveal others who attempted to influence Australia’s foreign policy and voting record at the UN, especially on a controversial General Assembly resolution to give “Palestine” the status of “non-member observer state.” She fingers not only former Foreign Affairs Minister Gareth Evans, whose activism on the issue was no secret, but also NSW Senator Sam Dastyari, whose role had previously been largely unknown:
“Gareth (Evans) believed that the call of history was for the world to take a visible step forward on statehood, and that for long-term supporters of Israel this was the best way of sending a message that the Israelis needed to show more openness to negotiations.” (p210)
“The lick of flame started by Gareth was joined by another one sparked by a number of NSW right members, particularly Sam Dastyari. Historically the NSW Right has justified its power within Labor on the basis of its embrace of centrist policies. Among them has been support for Israel. This tradition was being upended on the basis that some electorates in New South Wales were now home to sizeable Muslim communities and voting yes would be a good move in their eyes.” (p210)
Gillard also discusses at length why she views the vote “on non-member observer state” for “Palestine” as ill-fated and destructive of peace hopes.
“I was surprised and dismayed by the debate within Labor that flared over how Australia should vote on a resolution before the UN granting Palestine recognition within its system… to me it was self-evident this was not the path to peace. A million resolutions, billions of pieces of paper would never create a Palestinian state – only fruitful negotiations would.” (p209)
“In the too-familiar cycle of recriminations about why talks broke down, the newest weapon of reprisal was the Palestinian President signing applications to join UN bodies and conventions. Before my very eyes, UN processes were being used as a tactic in a mutual process of chest-beating and obfuscation.” (p211)
Meanwhile, Gillard also delves back into her student days to discuss her own experiences of the origins of the anti-Israel movement within student politics:
“Hard-left activists within the student movement became restless for a new cause and a return to the days of big protests and high energy. The cause they settled upon was fighting for a Palestinian state. Throughout the late 1970s, the AUS [Australian Union of Students] was a vocal advocate for the Palestinian people and a strident critic of Israel.” (p205)
“… the bigger cost for the AUS of this foreign policy preoccupation was the way it alienated the vast mass of students, who were studying to get their qualifications, often while holding down part-time jobs.” (p205)
“The questions of Palestine, Israel and peace in the Middle East simply did not interest students in the same way and many resented the AUS using student money in pursuit of something so remote from their lives.” (p206)
Further, Gillard discusses her impressions following her visits to Israel, and her interactions with the Australian Jewish community.
“I gratefully accepted an invitation to lead a delegation of Labor members to Israel on a trip supported by the Australian Jewish community. I had always wanted to visit.” (p206)
“… in Israel I delighted in the opportunity to set foot in places I had read about so often, such as Jerusalem’s historic old city and on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. The visit furnished me with greater insight into all the complexities of the politics and security questions in the region. Our delegation met with Israeli and Palestinian leaders. Having talked and reflected at length, I returned home strongly reinforced in my view that a two-state solution is the way to a lasting peace.” (p207)
“I came to know and respect Israel’s long-term ambassador to Australia, Yuval Rotem, a charming man with an encyclopaedic knowledge of politics in both countries. I came to know too the key personalities within the Jewish community of both Melbourne and Sydney.” (p207)
“It seemed to me simply dishonest to assert to colleagues and members of the Jewish community that Australia would not change its stance on Israel as part of touting for votes and then do precisely that.” (p209)
While Gillard is no longer Prime Minister, she will no doubt go on to play an important role in advising current and future Australian leaders and as a serious voice in public policy. Her new memoir provides important insights into her perspective on Australia and the world, and is well-worth reading in full.