Gillard, from 'Ten Pound Pom' to Australia's first woman PM

By Talek Harris

SYDNEY, Tuesday 7 September 2010 (AFP) - Julia Gillard, a "Ten Pound Pom" who rose from humble roots to become Australia's first woman prime minister, took power in a sudden party revolt but flirted with electoral disaster just weeks later.

The Welsh-born red-head, whose parents emigrated in the 1960s, stunned voters when she replaced elected prime minister Kevin Rudd on June 24, and called polls to seek a popular mandate just three weeks later.

But August 21 elections returned the first hung parliament in 70 years, leaving her Labor party relying on the support of a Greens MP and independents to form a fragile coalition government with just a one-seat majority.

"I know that if we fail in this solemn responsibility, we will be judged harshly when we next face the Australian people at the next election," she said.

Gillard was a firm favourite with voters as deputy to Rudd, as the feared debater tore apart opponents in parliament and cannily skirted controversy.

But on June 24, Gillard told a bewildered public she had relieved Rudd of his duties in an unopposed party vote, calmly explaining that a "good government was losing its way".

Suddenly Australia had a female, atheist, unmarried, childless -- and unelected -- prime minister. Media had a field day, with one columnist noting her famous auburn hair was dyed a "murderous shade of claret" for the occasion.

"I think people were very interested in the concept of the first female prime minister and that bitchy, potentially backstabbing, act," said Melbourne University's Lauren Rosewarne.

The honeymoon period lasted less than a fortnight, when Gillard suggested housing asylum-seekers in East Timor without asking the country's formal permission and then backed away from the proposal.

An even less impressive climate policy and a flat election campaign plagued by leaks failed to inspire the electorate and ended in a hung parliament, the only time a government had failed to win a second term outright since World War II.

But Gillard's Labor party successfully courted the Greens and independent MPs, giving her another shot at the job and saving her from going down as one of Australia's briefest rulers.

Julia Eileen Gillard was born on September 29, 1961 in Barry, a port town central to Welsh coal-mining, and has an elder sister named Alison.

She was just four when she sailed into Australia, clutching a toy koala, in 1966, after her parents took up a cheap 10-pound migration scheme hoping warmer air would cure chronic lung problems.

"(The doctor said Julia) will not be able to grow up in the very cold weather," Moira Gillard said in 2006. "He said, 'Take her to a warmer climate.' So we came to Australia."

Gillard was a bright student who progressed from state school to read arts and law in the quiet, modest city of Adelaide, where her family had settled, and became the president of the Australian Union of Students in 1983.

She then forged a career in industrial relations law, becoming a partner with Slater and Gordon in 1990, before entering politics as chief of staff to then Victoria state opposition leader John Brumby.

After initially being rejected by the Labor Party for a parliamentary seat, Gillard entered the House of Representatives in 1998, winning the safe seat of Lalor in Melbourne.

Gillard, from the party's left, became known for her pragmatism and savage wit, memorably calling the opposition's Tony Abbott a "snivelling grub" and his Liberal Party colleague Christopher Pyne a "mincing poodle".

She also polished her public image after subduing the harsh "Footscray Fishwife" intonations, a thick Australian accent with nasal tones, which marked her early career.

Handed the employment and education portfolios after Rudd's 2007 landslide election, she oversaw a generous spending programme for schools and the winding back of the previous government's loathed labour laws.

Gillard has no children, leading to comments from a conservative opponent in 2007 that she had remained "deliberately barren" for the sake of her political career.

She divides her time between Canberra and the modest Melbourne home she shares with her partner, former hairdresser Tim Mathieson, which may explain her frequent change of hairstyle and shade.

MySinchew 2010.09.07