MELBOURNE, Australia — Recently I saw Julia Gillard, Australia’s first female Prime Minister, in conversation with Anne Summers at the Melbourne Town Hall. She and Anne spoke for 50 minutes and the audience asked a variety of questions for the remainder. It was her second extended interview since losing the Prime Ministership.
People queued early. Reports from Twitter said the line was snaking from outside the Town Hall in Swanston Street and around the corner to Exhibition Street. The audience was excited. The woman next to me told me Julia Gillard was her “heroine” and that she wouldn’t queue to see a band or for a restaurant, but she’d queue for Gillard.
Julia Gillard is smart, warm, engaging, open and very funny. Gosh she was funny. And she is caring – her heart is set on improving the lives of our nation, especially for women. She firmly believes she has paved the way for women in leadership, particularly in parliament: “Now I’ve smashed my head through the glass ceiling, it should be easier for women to enter parliament,” she said. I really do love her.
Here is a summary of what I took from the discussion. The summary below and opinions above are my own and do not reflect those of my employer, and quotes are Julia Gillard’s.
On empowering women
Gillard is so articulate and passionate about equal opportunity and empowerment for women and girls, and wants to make a real difference to females in her post political career. She recently went to New York to work with Hilary Clinton at a global leaders meeting. Her (former) government embedded funding for empowering women in neighbouring developing countries. She hopes this funding will survive the current government.
“Development statistics tell us if we can empower women and girls, we can make a difference to the nation,”Gillard said.
Gillard stands by moving single mothers from a single mother pension to NewStart when their children get older because NewStart gives them the best chance at work, but she believes the rate of NewStart is too low.
“I am a big believer in the dignity that work gives us. Income support is not enough to eradicate poverty,” Gillard said. “I want to see everyone have the benefits, choices, access and dignity that comes with paid work”.
On being ousted as the Prime Minister by Kevin Rudd
Julia Gillard sits at number 14 in length of service. She’s served longer than Kevin Rudd and Gough Whitlam. Summers observed Gillard’s lack of self-pity and bitterness after being ousted as PM in June 2013. Gillard replied: “You have a decision to make: you could have a crap rest of your life”, [or you can move on]. She said that many former Prime Ministers, including Paul Keating, called her afterward, to talk her through. With great humour she quipped: “You know you’re having an intense conversation with Paul Keating when he grips your arm and calls you ‘love’.”
On the misogyny speech
Gillard said she was “astonished” at public reaction to her misogyny speech (on sexism and double standards). She saw eyes glazing over in Parliament, and thought that she’d just be able to return to doing correspondence. Former Deputy Prime Minister Wayne Swan suggested that maybe she wouldn’t be doing correspondence, rather she’d be doing follow-up interviews regarding the speech. She implied that Tony Abbott, then Opposition Leader, was wishing the speech would he over: “Poor Tony Abbott stared at his watch like he hadn’t seen it before”
She received feedback from women from different strata around the world of how powerful her misogyny speech was. Gillard said the misogyny speech was “for every woman who has bit her tongue and thought ‘I shouldn’t say it’. It’s one for her.”
An 11-year-old girl in the audience asked, “Did you have any fun when you were Prime Minister?” Gillard replied that she is pleased her term as PM taught 11-year-old the pronunciation of ‘misogyny.’ She also added that she felt privileged for meeting every day Aussies and have them offer suggestions for the country.
On comments about her appearance and dress sense
An audience member asked how Gillard felt when legendary feminist Germaine Greer made a comment about her bottom. “Everybody had to take a role as a fashion critic,” Gillard said. She went on to say what a role model Greer was when she was growing up. “I was disappointed for Germaine Greer. It let her down as much as it let me down. [But] I’m through the pain barrier,” she confessed. … The criticism about her appearance] didn’t really worry me.”
On not wanting to marry
An audience member asked a question about whether Gillard had ever considered marrying her partner Tim to stop the negative publicity. She said she and Tim are very happy and don’t need marriage to confirm that. “I couldn’t afford the publicity around a PM wedding,” laughing about the pressure there would be for her not to trip over her dress.
On asylum seekers
Audience Question: “How can we change debate about asylum seekers from despair and anger to one about compassion and hope?” Gillard replied that she worries about tenor and language of asylum seeker debate, and believes the asylum seeker policy is “incredibly complex.”
Gillard believes journalists don’t get the time to think properly about what they’re reporting on. “Quick media cycle means there is not enough deep discourse into politics,” she said. Gillard also commented on the protests that took place against her role as leader. She said of the ‘ditch the witch’ slogan – “I was offended by signs, but more so the benign reaction to it by the media.”
The sisterhood in politics
Gillard was asked whether females from other parties reached out to her when she was attacked? “I would like to say yes,” she replied. She proceeded to talk of the bonds she formed with other females from all parties while working on policies prior to her role as Prime Minister. “During the time when I was PM, I didn’t have people from the other side to offer support.” However, she credits Tony Windsor and Rob Oakshott for constant support and protection. They stood up for the nation, she said.
On the current government
“It’s disheartening to have only one woman in Cabinet,” she said. However she is optimistic about the media and public reaction to this sole appointment. She said discussion about women’s rights need to continue. This will make a difference, noting that “we should be complaining that the statistic of one woman in Cabinet is hopeless.” Gillard believes there should always be equal representation of women and women’s issues in government, no matter the personalities in charge.
Gillard had some advice to Tony Abbott, Prime Minister and Women’s Minister: Reach out to Tania Plibersek (from Labor) and do a lot of listening. “I hope Tony Abbott’s time as Women’s Minister is the most character building period of his career,” she said, to which the audience erupted in laughs and applauded.
On the future
Gillard hopes “in 2050, Australia is a fully reconciled country, a more sustainable nation, prosperous economy. … [I hope] we share life’s risks – the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) is the next step in that journey. We need to have each others backs when we’re in need”, she said. Ms Gillard also hopes that in 2050 Australia won’t have an education disparity.
She also hoped there will be equally as many female Prime Ministers as male ones, and that during a game of Trivial Pursuit, players would get the answer wrong to ‘Who was Australia’s first female PM?’ because there’d be too many to remember.
“Genuine equality would mean that you and I would not have to speak about genuine equality,” Gillard said.”Policies should include all our people, not assumed the policies that work for dominant cultures work for everyone.”
Carly Findlay is an award-winning writer, speaker, TV presenter and appearance activist. She likes food, travel and Darren Hayes. Carly blogs about all of her loves, as well as what it’s like to live with a visible difference, at carlyfindlay.blogspot.com.