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Julia's tears

Nick Bryant | 13:21 UK time, Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Tears from the prime minister and a profanity from the leader of the opposition. Parliament's first sitting day of the new year has not been without drama, some of it scripted, some of it off-the-cuff.

Facing criticisms about being wooden and strangely detached during the floods crisis in Queensland, Julia Gillard gave in to her emotions in parliament, where the day was spent remembering those who lost their lives and paying tribute to the emergency services who have worked so bravely and tirelessly.

With her voice already breaking, she found it particularly difficult to hold back her tears when she recounted the distressing story of a helicopter pilot, Mark Kempton, who rescued a pregnant mother from the floods. When he turned around to check on her condition, she was weeping uncontrollably.

"What Mark was witnessing was a young pregnant mother who, just seconds before the chopper had arrived, had had her young child wrenched from her weary arms by the floodwaters. She finally succumbed to the terrifying power of nature that night.

"How do you tell Mark to rejoice in thinking of the people he saved when that young mother can think of nothing except that child she lost?"

It was powerful testimony, and few would surely doubt Julia Gillard's sincerity in retelling it.

In the Spectator Australia, the former Labor leader Mark Latham wrote a nasty column claiming Gillard "is not a naturally empathetic person - displaying, for instance, noticeable discomfort around infant children".

Crueler still was his claim that this was somehow related to her decision not to have children: "The femocrats will not like this statement, but I believe it to be true: anyone who chooses a life without children, as Gillard has, cannot have much love in them."

Not that it was intended as such, Julia Gillard's speech in parliament was a teary rebuttal, and will probably help rehabilitate her battered image. Australians, after all, are not unused to seeing their prime ministers cry, with Bob Hawke turning it into something of a political art form. More recently, when Kevin Rudd tearfully bullet-pointed his legacy after being removed as prime minister, it won him a good deal of sympathy.

The same will probably be true of Julia Gillard, and this speech may come to be seen as marking something of a turning point in her beleaguered prime ministership - the moment, perhaps, when the "real Julia" reasserted herself.

As for Tony Abbott, he has become embroiled in a row over comments made on a trip to Afghanistan last October, when he was discussing the death of an Australian digger, Lance Corporal Jared MacKinney, with an American commander.

"Sometimes shit happens," he was heard to say, earnestly rather than flippantly.
You can watch the exchange here - along with his 20 second non-response - to Channel Seven, which broke the story.

Tony Abbott claims that the comment has been taken out of context and that he would never seek to make light of the death of an Australian soldier. Again, few would surely doubt the sincerity of that statement. You can read more here.

My hunch is that in both these instances we saw glimpses of both the real Julia and the real Tony, and that neither the teary speech nor the salty exchange in Afghanistan will do either of them much harm (Tony Abbott's mute response to the question from the Channel Seven reporter, on the other hand, might be more damaging). After all, authenticity is what voters say they are craving.

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