Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard is sworn in

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Australia's Labor Party changed its leader Thursday, installing Julia Gillard as the country's first female prime minister. Outgoing leader Kevin Rudd gave an emotional farewell speech.

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By Rohan Sullivan
Friday, June 25, 2010

SYDNEY -- Julia Gillard had long been tipped as Australia's first female prime minister, but the way it finally happened has shocked almost everyone.

Only last month she said she was more likely to become a football star than replace her boss. But in a brutally efficient move driven by opinion polls and the approach of a general election, the Labor Party dumped Prime Minister Kevin Rudd for his 48-year-old deputy. On Thursday, Gillard was sworn in.

At a news conference that capped one of the most abrupt transitions in Australia's political history, Gillard said she accepted the job "with the greatest humility, resolve and enthusiasm." She immediately sought to refocus attention on the popular decisions of the government in which she served for the past 2 1/2 years.

She vowed to continue stimulus policies credited with shielding Australia from the global recession and said she would revisit plans Rudd shelved for a greenhouse gas emissions trading system. Gillard is unlikely to change foreign and defense policies, including Australia's 1,500-strong military contribution to the war in Afghanistan.

The biggest change will probably be in style. With a schoolteacher's manner and an Australian twang that betrays nothing of her Welsh origins, Gillard is considered more personable than the wonkish Rudd, a Chinese-speaking former bureaucrat who led Labor to a landslide win in 2007.

Elected as a lawmaker in 1998, Gillard built a reputation as a formidable debater in "the bear pit," the daily question time in Parliament. "She's a good communicator, and there's a warmth about Gillard that Rudd never had," said Norman Adjorensen, a political scientist at the Australian National University. A key member of Rudd's cabinet, Gilliard had long been viewed as a possible future prime minister, and Rudd had praised her as a worthy successor.

Born in Wales in 1961, Gillard came to Australia at age 4 with her parents, who brought her to a warmer climate to recover from a lung infection. Gillard is unmarried and has no children. She is in a long-term partnership with hairdresser Tim Mathieson.

Gillard professes to see nothing significant about being Australia's first female prime minister: "First woman, maybe first redhead -- I'll allow you to contemplate which was more unlikely in the modern age."

Rudd's 2007 election victory ended almost a dozen years of conservative rule. He was a hero of the center-left and scored record poll ratings for two years after ratifying the Kyoto Protocol on global warming and apologizing in Australia's name to its indigenous Aborigines for past wrongs.

But this year, missteps sent his credibility plunging -- including the climb-down on greenhouse gas emissions. Labor members with misgivings about Rudd saw a final chance to call a vote by the party's lawmakers before the winter recess. Rudd, seeing no chance of winning, withdrew. Uncontested, Gillard became leader, promising elections before year's end.

-- Associated Press


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