Gillard’s Oprah tears

Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s stilted façade appears to have been blown away with the force of a category 5 cyclone. She’s gone from wooden to maudlin without stopping anywhere in-between. 

Climate catastrophist and former US vice president and Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore was often criticised for being wooden and lacking passion. In an apparent effort to counter that tag, he gave a rather mawkish 1996 convention speech about his late sister’s battle with cancer (notwithstanding his tobacco industry donations). And in 2000, there was that famous not-for-prime time tonsil-tickler he planted on his now estranged wife. 

Neither performance helped his political fortunes much – nor his marriage it would seem. Likewise, Gillard, suffering the same stigma, has given two similar performances – her post campaign launch smooch with partner Tim (what’s his name?) and now her teary, quavering delivery of a condolence motion in Parliament for the victims and families of the summer’s floods and storms. 

Leaving aside her public canoodling, a condolence motion in the people’s house should not look and sound like a soul-spilling guest appearance on Oprah; Gillard’s was an exercise in self-indulgence unbecoming of her role as political leader. 

We haven’t heard such an overwrought dirge since … well, since she twisted the knife into her "New Leadership" team mate. Her weepy exhibition turned what should have been a condolence for the victims and their families into a look-at-me, I’m-not-really-wooden display. 

Vivien Leigh’s Oscar-winning performance in Gone With the Wind had nothing on Gillard’s. But at least her character Scarlett showed true grit and even optimism in front of ruined Tara after Sherman’s march to the sea. Gillard offered very little of that. 

Rather than reflect on the victims, I was thinking, a-w-k-w-a-r-d and time to put the kettle on. The only thing missing was Elton John in the background singing “Candle in the Wind”. 

It is one thing for a PM to show some emotion – Howard did after Bali as have other past PMs – it is another to sob on the nation’s shoulders for 15 minutes after literally wrapping oneself in the flag, as Gillard did at the outset of her laid-on-thick grief-filled remarks. 

Watching the spectacle, I was left with the uncomfortable impression someone should have assisted her away from the despatch box to the nurse’s office for the administration of a curative sherry instead of letting her moan on. A stiffer upper lip is not a bad thing in a leader either. 

Maybe, you say, I am being a heartless, unchivalrous bastard to dare criticise Gillard for being so lachrymose. It is not easy to write about it. Many millennia of cultural imprinting get in the way. We (men) are at a distinct disadvantage when confronted with a woman’s tears, even if shed in an official capacity. The point is not to doubt the sincerity of her feeling; only the appropriateness of the way in which she has expressed it. 

Nor am I criticising Gillard because she is a woman prime minister. Senator John Faulkner’s public personal grieving over the combat death last year in Afghanistan of Lance Corporal Jared MacKinney was also over-the-top and out of place for a wartime defence minister. 

Though Faulkner’s sorrow was no doubt very genuine and heartfelt, he has a job to which doesn’t permit for that intensity of anguish for an individual soldier killed in action or even for 100. He has a duty to not undermine the morale of the living who must fight on. Opposition Leader Tony Abbott’s pithy “shit happens” assessment of war’s brutal randomness was closer to the mark.

As a culture, we’ve come to expect, particularly since the death of Princess Diana, our public leaders to grieve in a profuse, infantilising way, slowly turning the culture into a population of Bambi-eyed grief junkies. We need to harden up collectively. 

In avoiding being seen to be aloof and uncaring, Gillard has apparently fallen into that trap. Whichever is the "real Julia", I’d rather a cold-hearted one who is not only predictable but treats the electorate as adults. 

Abbott’s condolence motion remarks were by comparison gracious, empathetic but strong and uplifting – he was a leader. Abbott was also right not to endorse Gillard’s repeated claim that this summer’s weather is “unprecedented”. It’s called the cyclone season for a reason. Australia has endured bigger floods and more deadly and destructive storms. 

As tragic as the storms and floods have been – heart wrenching at times to watch – can anyone imagine Ronald Reagan carrying on like Gillard after a similar event or the Challenger space shuttle disaster? America cried on his broad shoulders. Bill Clinton’s I-feel-your-pain lip-bighting sermons were low-key studies in stoicism by comparison to Gillard’s overemotionalism. 

Whatever private grief they felt after September 11, former president George W. Bush and New York’s mayor Rudy Giuliani did not publicly indulge themselves as Gillard has. They fulfilled their duties as leaders and expressed the nation’s immeasurable sorrow, but still showed resilience and optimism in the face of truly unprecedented calamity. 

Crisis and hardship test the ability of political leaders to balance many competing communication burdens – concern, calm, authority, control, empathy, optimism and so on. Gillard has yet to show the necessary equilibrium to make good on those demands. She seems to swing around emotionally, autistic-like; never quite able to show the right emotion for the right occasion. Her emotional ineptness is disquieting. 

Given Gillard’s noticeable emotion deficit in discreet, individual one-on-one encounters, the more cynical would find her now copious woefulness in Parliament, with the entire nation watching, as confected and politically motivated as the rationale for the flood levy. And some have. I wouldn’t go so far. Who but Gillard would know?

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