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PM who succumbs to image-makers cannot be trusted


August 3, 2010


Will the real Julia Gillard, warts and all, please step forward?


Yes, women were excited about the ascension of Julia Gillard to Prime Minister. The emails flew. She knocked off Kevin Rudd in a decidedly un-Peter Costello-ish way. That showed she was tough and meant business.

I have been a Gillard fan. Many nights I delayed bedtime to watch her on Lateline demolish her opposition, including Tony Abbott, and hold her own with every interviewer. I watched her in the deputy's role in Parliament, on camera at question time, often looking worn and tired but sounding like someone who was working hard, who was serious in her purpose, ambition and her ideals.

She looked like a leader in the making, a role model for all, not simply women. One day, I would think, she will be prime minister.

So what changed? Leaks aside, why are people having second thoughts?

The first shock was the make-up. This was not the Gillard with whom I was familiar. Why when a woman becomes prime minister should she think she is required to look different? Why should she change her style overnight? Gillard had not been elected because of her looks; she was supported regardless of this or her voice; they had become part of her appeal.

Suddenly this was not the serious-minded Gillard we knew but someone prepared to put herself in the hands of image-makers referencing the ideal woman's style guide; the experts who mould the look of the faces you see on every female newsreader or magazine cover.

Suddenly the Prime Minister looked like she was in show business.

Maintaining an airbrushed image is problematic. It's hard. It takes time. You need help. It's false.

Professional women do have a tougher task than men in deciding a style. It's not as easy as donning the suit, shirt and tie - Armani or not.

But the sensible thing to do is settle on a style that is comfortable and get on with the job. Get a hairdo that can be maintained simply, so what you wear and look like is not a dominant focus.

Julie Bishop has this down to a fine art. There are plenty of clothes in her wardrobe but her style is consistent. On the international stage Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany, is taken seriously and is an exceptional model.

Once you start fluffing yourself up in political and professional life to create an image that is not the real you, the image takes over and becomes distracting. The imperfections stand out.

I didn't know Gillard had big ear lobes, although I have watched and listened to her on television many times. I do now, and I know she has grey hair, not bauxite red, as I watch with interest how long it will take for her minders to get her roots recoloured.

Shock number two was what came out of her mouth. She sounded like a wound-up robot. Gone was the passion, the articulate intellect, the words demonstrating competence and vision. Out of this made-up image came bland, boring statements. She said nothing new, had no real vision for Australia. And what a disappointment that has been. The Gillard I had expected to see had gone missing.

The disturbing thought I have is this: If the Prime Minister can be persuaded to accept the advice she is being offered about image and substance to get elected, what will she do to maintain power? Where is that leadership I and others expected? Was that false? Are we living, like Leonardo DiCaprio in the film Inception, in different layers of dreamland?

I was in a store in Geelong, the Prime Minister's neighbouring electorate, at the weekend when I heard a staff discussion about voting intentions. I asked my attendant whether he was thinking of voting for Gillard. The response was: ''It does not matter which of those two clowns gets elected.'' It seems many people may be thinking that way.

Julia, it's good to hear that the person we thought we knew is set to make a comeback. It's not only women who want to see the authentic Julia; we all do. There is still time.

Patricia Edgar is an author, television producer and educator.