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Julia Gillard (Prime Minister of Australia): psychological profile · 3 April 2011

In an article in“The Australian” newspaper on 23 March, journalist Paul Kelly commented on the attitudes and values of Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard – and on her apparent contradictions and back-flips on policy.

Kelly wrote: “She warned Kevin Rudd (the former prime minister, whom she deposed) against pricing carbon and then seized this policy. She campaigned against a Big Australia (large population growth) and then dropped the rhetoric. She partly re-regulated the labor market and then paraded as a pro-market reformer.”

Kelly concludes that: “She appears too much as a work in progress. The reason is obvious – Gillard is a Prime Minister under construction. She is engaged in self-discovery, sorting out not just her policy framework but the convictions for which she will live or die. She is not fully formed as a political persona because she got the job too early.”

Yet, there is possible a more basic – and psychological – explanation. On the face of it, Gillard seems to have many of the personal characteristics of someone who has a fear of failure rather than a need to achieve (in comparison, Tony Abbott, the Leader of the Opposition, has many of the characteristics of the latter category). The difference was extensively explored by Professor Norman Dixon in his book, “On the Psychology of Military Incompetence”.

Dixon, stressing that he was concerned with primary motivation, rather than secondary motivation, wrote:

“The crucial difference between the two sorts of achievement – the healthy and the pathological – may be summarized by saying that whereas the first is buoyed by hopes of success, the second is driven by fear of failure. … The former is associated with the possession of a strong ego and independent attitudes of mind, the latter with a weak ego and feelings of dependency. Whereas the former achieves out of a quest for excellence in his job, the latter achieves by any means available, not necessarily because of any devotion to the work, but because of the status, social approval and reduction of doubts about the self that such achievement brings. Although these two sorts of achievement motivation may bring about rapid, even spectacular, promotion, their nature and effects are very different. The first is healthy and mature, and brings to the fore those skills required by the job at hand; the second is pathological, immature, and developing of traits, such as dishonesty and expediency.”

Dixon noted that a “distinction that has been drawn between ‘irrational’ authoritarianism (as dealt with in his book) and so-called ‘rational’ authoritarianism. By the latter is meant the readiness to accept and obey the dictates of rational authority.” For so-called ‘rational authoritarianism’ Dixon prefered the phrase ‘autocratic behaviour’. “Whereas the autocrat exercises tight control when the situation demands it, the authoritarian is himself tightly controlled, no matter what the external situation.”

As an example, Dixon wrote of Napoleon Bonaparte: “The evidence suggests that though he was ambitious, ruthless, devious, unscrupulous, grandiose, despotic, Machiavellian, dictatorial and autocratic, he was not authoritarian. … Napoleon’s peace of mind did not depend upon the authoritarian defence of structuring his social environment into in-groups and out-groups.”

I have never met Gillard, and do not know a lot about her. But what I do know—from articles by Kelly and others – suggests that Gillard has a lot in common with an “irrational authoritarian”, or simply (on Dixon’s preferred terminology) an “authoritarian”.

Let’s try to look at Gillard more closely.


One of Gillard’s cabinet ministers has been reported as saying: ‘’Gillard is at her best when she’s on the front foot. When she’s scared of making a mistake, she’s not good.’’

Dixon wrote that “people vary in the degree to which they adjust the riskiness of their decisions to the realities of the external situation. Individuals who become anxious under conditions of stress, or are prone to be defensive and deny anything that threatens their self-esteem, tend to be bad at judging whether the risks they take, or the caution they display, are justified by the outcomes of their decisions. For example, they might well adopt the same degree of caution whether placing a small bet, getting married, or starting a nuclear war.”

So, a question is: When is Gillard scared of making a mistake? Is it only on big issues, or also on small?

And Dixon continued: “Nervousness, the need to respond because of the fear that one will lose either the desire or ability to respond, enhances the likelihood that a response will be triggered off by an insufficient stimulus, and thus make for instability. …a proportion of people will make irrational decisions whose riskiness is unrelated to reality … because, being neurotic, they will strive to maintain an image of themselves as either ‘bold and daring’ or as ‘careful and judicious decision-makers’, and the urge to sustain their particular conceit will take precedence over the need to behave realistically.”

Kelly wrote that “after her elevation (to the position of prime minister) by the (Labor Party) caucus Gillard felt a legitimacy problem and dashed off to an election where, mid-campaign, she felt driven to reveal the ‘real’ Julia.”

Was the legitimacy problem a “threat” to Gillard’s “self-esteem”? Was the decision to dash off to an election unnecessary and “triggered” by an “insufficient stimulus”?

Gillard, contrary to her expectations, was able to remain prime minister only with the help of the “Greens” and independent members of parliament.

Was Gillard “bad at judging whether the (election) risks” she took were “justified by the outcomes” of her decision?

Kelly wrote that “from this saga of near (election) disaster Gillard has taken a strategic decision – to operate as a strong policy leader. She has nothing to lose.” Nothing to lose, perhaps, except the position of prime minister!

But, is there something of the “real” Julia in this “strategic decision”?

Dixon wrote that “the authoritarian personality …(tends) …to be aggressive, superstitious, punitive, tough-minded.” Gillard claims not to be religious, but we do not know if she is superstitious. However, Kelly wrote that she has “tenacity and ambition”.

Dixon wrote that “the lifestyle of the authoritarian personality is one of finding and prosecution in others what he has come to fear in himself. … attack, being the surest method of defence, would be incomplete, however, if the individual did not entertain a highly idealized view of himself. … Because he has to deny his own shortcomings, he dare not look inwards. He is fearful of insight, and strenuously avoids questioning his own motives … In the place of free-ranging, creative and inventive thought, an authoritarian’s thinking is confined to rigid formulae and inflexible attitudes. He is intolerant of unusual ideas and unable to cope with contradictions… (with a) preference for order and simplicity. … If he has a problem the best thing to do about it is not think about it and just keep busy. … Similarly, the authoritarian personality is intolerant of ambivalence and ambiguity.”

Gillard’s “strong policy leader” decision would fit nicely with someone who is “intolerant of ambivalence and ambiguity”. The “real” Julia?

And, as Kelly noted, Gillard has never written anything “philosophical” – or, as far as I know – “free-ranging, creative and inventive”.

Troy Bramston, a former speechwriter for Kevin Rudd, wrote that Gillard is “at her best – developing personal relationships and communicating her warm personality, intelligence and integrity.”

Dixon wrote of the “the relationship between conformity, authoritarianism and the tendency to yield to group-pressures”.

Is Gillard really preoccupied with being part of an “in-group”? Is this the reason she puts a lot of effort into “developing personal relationships” with members of such groups!


Kelly wrote that “in the past Gillard has denounced (former prime minister) Howard’s social views on many occasions …(and) her origins on the political Left and her personal life choices led many to assume she was a dedicated social progressive. Yet Gillard backs welfare reform and personal responsibility”.

Kelly wrote that as “a childless atheist living in a de facto partnership” Gillard is nevertheless “a political conservative” on many social issues.” “Her views, as she says, are tied to her past and identity. ... her belief in personal responsibility, rejection of the option of state-sanctioned killing, support for biblical and cultural dimensions of the Western canon and the belief that social heritage should keep marriage to an institution between a man and a woman. She is an atheist who likes the Bible … happy to accept the brand of ‘traditionalist’. Explaining her family background in a pro-union, pro-Labor, conservative household, Ms Gillard said: ‘We believed in politeness and thrift and fortitude and doing duty and discipline. These are things that were part of my upbringing. They’re part of who I am today.’”

Dixon wrote that “it seems that authoritarians are the product of parents with anxiety about their status in society. From earliest infancy the children of such people are pressed to seek the status after which their parents hanker. . …the values inculcated by status-insecure parents are such that their children put personal success and the acquisition of power above all else. They are taught to judge people for their usefulness rather than their likeableness. … They are taught to eschew weakness and passivity, to respect authority, and to despise those who have not made the socio-economic grade. Success is equated with social esteem and material advantage, rather than with more spiritual values. Then again, they are imbued by their parents with rigid view regarding sex and aggression.”

So, is Gillard essentially a “product of parents with anxiety”? Are the apparent contradictions noted by Kelly really the result of Gillard’s attempts to position herself in whatever way will, at any given time, bring “personal success and the acquisition of power”?


Kelly wrote that “despite her long and strong origins with the Victorian Left, Gillard has become a champion of Israel, the American alliance and the war in Afghanistan. Having declared no passion for foreign affairs she now works to leave her mark on foreign policy. Pledges to the US alliance, operates in lockstep with the Obama administration and speaks to the US congress with a more pro-US line than anything (former prime-minister) Howard said.”

Dixon wrote that “ignorance tends to evoke pontification in those who wish to conceal their lack of knowledge, or for whom ignorance of the facts means that they feel free to express strongly held beliefs of a contrary nature.”

Are these the reasons that Gillard, despite her ignorance, is happy to voice such strong opinions?

Having found a new “in-group”, is Gillard displaying particularly “aggressive, punitive and tough-minded” attitudes to its “out-groups”?


Gillard put forward an idea of a creating a processing center for asylum seekers (who are trying to get to Australia in small boats) in East Timor or some other place in the region – only to have it very clearly rejected by East Timor and other countries. But, she continued to pursue the issue for an inordinate amount of time.

But why?

Dixon wrote about “Rokeach’s “The Open and Closed Mind” which centered on an individual’s capacity to absorb fresh information. … At one extreme are ‘open’ minds, ready and willing to entertain new facts, even if these are incompatible with their previously held attitudes; at the other extreme are ‘closed’ minds, which … resolutely resist taking in anything that conflicts with their preconceptions and treasured beliefs. Not very surprisingly, the possession of a ‘closed’ mind turned out to be yet another facet of the authoritarian personality.”

Or, to look at it another way, Gillard seems to have “cognitive dissonance” on this issue. Dixon wrote: “This uncomfortable mental state arises when a person possesses knowledge or beliefs which conflict with a decision he has made. … Once the decision has been made and the person is committed to a given course of action, the psychological situation changes decisively. There is less emphasis on objectivity and there is more partiality and bias in the way in which a person views and evaluated the alternatives.”

Dixon wrote that leaders “with weak egos, with over-strong needs for approval and the closed minds will be the very ones least able to tolerate the nagging doubts of cognitive dissonance. In other words it will be the least rational who are the most likely to reduce dissonance by ignoring unpalatable intelligence. … the less justified a decision, the greater will be the dissonance and therefore the more rigorous its resolution … In short, an inability to admit one has been wrong will be the greater the more wrong one has been, and the more wrong has been the more bizarre will be subsequent attempts to justify the unjustifiable.”

Are these the reasons that Gillard stuck with the regional processing center idea for so long?


Kelly wrote that after trying to dissuade her predecessor on the issue, “Gillard now gives ringing speeches as a PM with a passion for carbon pricing” – and is “hell-bent” on it.

Dixon wrote about “the relationship between pontification and cognitive dissonance. Pontification is one of the ways in which people try to resolve their dissonance. By loudly asserting what is consistent with some decision they have made and ignoring what is contrary they can reduce their dissonance.”

“They are, so to speak, driven from behind rather than pulled from the front. They have to achieve, not from the satisfaction which achievement brings but because only by doing so can they bolster up their constantly sagging self-regard …. But herein lies their special dilemma. Though they need to achieve, it is the very act of trying which exposes them to what they fear most – failure. … Thus the person who fears failure prefers tasks which are very easy or very difficult. If they are easy, he is unlikely to fail; if very difficult then the disgrace attaching will be small, for no one really expected him to win.”

Does “carbon pricing” fit-in here as a task that is “very difficult” for Gillard?


After a series of relationships with influential people, Gillard has now settled on a hairdresser who has given no sign of any intellectual ability.

Dixon wrote that authoritarian personalities “are taught (by their parents) to judge people for their usefulness rather than their likeableness. Their friends, and even their future marriage partners, are selected and used in the service of personal advancement; love and affection take second place to knowing the right people.”

While this may play out in various ways, this sort of “usefulness” may conflict with another need noted by Dixon – the “tendency” to be “preoccupied with dominance-submission in their personal relationships”.

Is his is where the hairdresser ultimately came to fit into the psychological picture after Gillard had a series of “useful” relationships?


Dixon wrote that authoritarians “fear of failure predisposes toward secretiveness”.

Kelly wrote that “the electorate saw Gillard as loyal to Kevin Rudd until the evening she knifed him” and that “she ascended under the worst circumstances, as a willing recruit to a leadership assassination”.

Gillard was inordinately angry about the public release of US diplomatic cables by Julian Assange and the Wikileaks organization. But was this because of her view of the US (and its alliance with Australia), or does Gillard have a “predisposed toward secretiveness”?

Having found a new “in-group”, is Gillard displaying particularly “aggressive, punitive and tough-minded” attitudes to one of its “out-groups”?

Dixon wrote that “is a common observation that those over-concerned about their image devote considerable attention, energy and time to a continuous self-assessment against some external standard, usually another person”. He continued: “There are really two components to this process. The first concerns the way an individual sees himself in comparison with his competitors, the second the way in which he thinks others will see him in comparison with his contemporaries. In either case, he may try to elevate his own self-estimation by choosing a low standard with which to make comparison. Hence the phenomenon of people who tend to shun the company of individuals more gifted and even to choose workmates or select as subordinates people whom they consider inferior to themselves.”

Does this account for the reportedly low-quality of the staff in the Prime Minister Gillard’s office?


Dixon was concerned with the competences of military leaders, but his observations have wider currency.

Dixon also made it clear that “the apparent intellectual failings of some military commanders are due not to lack of intelligence but to their feelings. Cognitive dissonance, pontification, denial, risk-taking, and anti-intellectualism are all, in reality, more concerned with emotion than intelligence”.

Bramston wrote that Gillard has a “warm personality”.

But it depends on whom it is aimed, and is not necessarily inconsistent with the “authoritarian” personality described by Dixon. He wrote: “It has been suggested that those most susceptible to ‘group think’ will tend to be people fearful of disapproval and rejection. ‘Such people give priority to preserving friendly relationships at the expense of achieving success in the group’s work tasks’.”

Dixon added: “Conversely, the sort of person who, as we have seen, makes the best military commander – the outspoken individualist – clearly cannot give his best in the group situation. If he fails to hold his tongue, he runs the risk of being ejected by his colleagues.”

Thus, he concluded: “Notwithstanding …exceptions and at risk of over-simplifying what are really very complex issues, there are grounds for believing that high achievement-motivation characterizes highly successful (military) commanders.”

And: “There are grounds for believing that incompetent military commanders tend to be those in whom the need to avoid failure exceeds the urge to succeed.”

Dixon wrote that “a number of consequences follow from these differences in achievement motivation. The first is that while both the drive towards self-betterment and the drive towards professional excellence may take a man to the top, only the latter guarantees that he is fitted for the job of high command, for only in the latter case can we be sure that he has the requisite expertise. (He must have it then, because this was his only qualification for promotion.) Conversely, the man who reaches a position of great power as outcome of his drive to achieve greater self-esteem may not necessarily have any outstanding military ability, for his ascent did not depend upon professional excellence. More serious is the fact that even if he has the requisite military skills these may be rendered quite nugatory by those other traits that are part and parcel of his underlying personality-structure: moral cowardice, indecisiveness, secretiveness and sensitivity to criticism.”

Is this Julia Gillard?

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