Julia Gillard

Images of the floodwaters devastating southern Queensland have captured the world's attention in the past weeks, but one woman is watching more closely than most. The rise of Julia Gillard, Australia's prime minister, has been almost as sudden and dramatic as those water levels. How she handles this crisis, just over six months into her leadership, will be a real test of her strengths.

During a Labour Party revolt last June, Gillard took power from Kevin Rudd to become the first woman prime minister – a big deal in a country not renowned for embracing its feminine side. The 49-year-old Welsh-born daughter of 'Ten Pound Poms' was up against it from the start with the ensuing political instability of the government only settled last September when she finally secured a fragile one-seat majority.

Her endorsement as leader came as a result of her strong left-of-centre politics. She promised to immediately intervene in the controversial 'mining tax' dispute, resurrect the shelved climate-change policy in relation to carbon emissions, and to roll out a €39m national broadband network. It is her aim to declare Australia a republic, and to amend the constitution within the next three years to acknowledge the Aborigines as the first Australians.

But she appears to have bowed to pressure from more right-wing elements in her pledge to tighten up border controls over boatpeople seeking asylum. She is also seen as less experienced in world politics and trade than her predecessor Rudd, who was a former foreign diplomat.

Her condemnation of WikiLeaks has not only been criticised by supporters of Julian Assange, but by international lawyers, who judge such comments by a politician as prejudicial should he be extradited for trial in the US.

But Gillard's toughness was signalled from the start. As a baby, she developed a serious lung infection, prompting her anxious parents to emigrate from damp, grey Barry to warmer climes. They settled in Adelaide in 1966. Gillard, whose political hero was the iconic post-war Labour leader Nye Bevan, eventually became president of the students' union of Australia in 1983. After studying law, she entered politics in 1997, rising to the position of deputy Labour leader.

Not surprisingly, Gillard attracts a huge female vote compared to her conservative opponent, the anti-abortion and anti-sex-before-marriage Tony Abbott. But given the macho culture of her adopted home, it's not surprising that she has been criticised on everything from her voice to her hairstyle and dress sense.

Most vocal of her detractors is Liberal senator Bill Heffernan, who suggested she would be better able to help the community if she didn't choose to be "deliberately barren". Conservatives also see it as a failing that she has not yet married her partner of four years, 'First Bloke' Tim Mathieson. But Gillard has addressed these criticisms honestly, saying she is so "focused and single-minded" about rising to the top in her political career that having a family is not on the cards.

Her remarks in devastated Queensland last week that "there's a real sense of everyone pulling together" is also most likely her wish for the party and government she now heads.