Julia Gillard

Julia Gillard

When I saw Julia Gillard on the Andrew Marr show a few weeks ago promoting her new book My Story I immediately added it to my summer reading list.

I’ve enjoyed followed her fortunes from the other side of the world over the last few years as they rose and fell. I met Julia Gillard when she was Deputy Prime Minister and had the portfolio of social inclusion in her brief and was on a fact finding mission to the UK to find out how the Labour government was focusing on social inclusion. As Director of Research at the Centre for Economic and Social Inclusion at the time, I and two colleagues had a meeting with her and two of her officials at Australia House to share the UK experience. I have been a big fan ever since.

The politics of the Australian Labour Party is fascinating, and frank is a complete understatement of the way she describes her relationship with Kevin Rudd, the Labour Prime Minister she ousted with a leadership challenge, in this book.

It’s also interesting to read a political autobiography when you don’t know the policy detail and didn’t live through it at the time. When reading a good political autobiography (see my previous blogs on Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton and Tony and Cherie Blair as well as on Hard Choices) I normally know the detail much better. In this case the majority of this detail was new to me, so you don’t feel that you are getting the inside track perspective from one (always biased) key player of national events that you lived through, when you would have loved that inside track at the time.

We do work on transitioning to government at the Institute for Government where I am now a Programme Director, so it was interesting to read her perspective on what it feels like to enter government having never set foot in the rooms before, and never having seen Cabinet papers before. She describes it as a strange mix of the elevated, like being sworn in by the Governor General, and the pedestrian, like working out where to put your stuff in your new office.

She also describes working with UK Labour politician Alan Milburn who advised her to write down a statement of purpose – what she wanted to change through her work. Reading hers and Jonathan Haidt’s book The righteous mind (see my previous blog) prompted me to do my own and I’d recommend trying it. It helped me articulate more clearly than I ever have before what I want to change through my career.

But for me the most fascinating thing about this book was reading her describe what it was like to be on the receiving end of the most blatant and appalling sexism and misogyny. For me Julia became even more of a role model when she gave what she refers to in the book as ‘that speech’. I watched the speech at the time, as did many thousands of others around the world, and reading this book gave me an excuse to watch it again. If you haven’t you really should – it’s here.

The misogyny and sexism she faced in Australian politics is quite extraordinary and far beyond anything UK politicians could thankfully get away with, ‘calm down dear’ pronouncements not withstanding. But it’s thankfully hard to imagine a UK party leader being photographed next to a ‘ditch the witch’ placard, or an opposition politician calling a serving Prime Minister deliberately barren.

The leader of the opposition (Tony Abbott, the now Prime Minister), said ‘are you suggesting to me that when it comes from Julia, no doesn’t mean no?’ and ‘I think the Prime Minister wants to make, politically speaking, an honest woman of herself’. Julia Gillard points out that even if you are the single most powerful person in the country, the images that shadow you as a woman are of sex and rape.

She also points out that there were absolutely no rules when it came to the treatment of her. For previous leaders there had always been a line that would not be crossed, some sense of respect for the office that set a boundary. She was the first Australian Prime Minister not to be afforded that respect. The pornographic cartoons, the opposition fundraising menu that repeating the words used in the United States against Hillary Clinton, being called non-productive old cow by the CEO of an Australian Agricultural Company in a ‘joke’. Language matters and the language used about her showed a lack of respect for her as Prime Minister that never had happened to a male Prime Minister.

As a women in politics she points out that if you don’t have children you are characterised as out of touch with ‘mainstream lives’. If you do have children then, as she says, the reaction is ‘heavens, who is looking after them’? Then there was the reaction to her clothes. Whilst it’s fine for a male Prime Minister to look the same every day, appearing in suits day after day, it is apparently not for a female Prime Minister. Records needed to be kept of what she had wore when, as she couldn’t wear something too frequently or, ‘heaven forbid’, for two years in a row to the same event.

Like Julia, I was never the girl who ‘cooed over someone’s baby, demanding a cuddle’ or a ‘girly girl, interested in fashion and make up’. Thank God for women like Julia Gillard, who remains for me and thousands of women around the world, a fantastic role model.