‘She’s got everything going for her: she’s tough, she’s smart, she’s funny and she works bloody hard’ – Nicola Roxon, Minister for Health
Julia Gillard is an exceptional Australian political figure. The first woman to be deputy prime minister – and tipped by many to get the top job in the future – she is admired on both sides of politics as well as by the public.
‘Julia Gillard is not about policy . . . her aim is the celebrity that brings public approval’ – Michael Costello, The Australian
She is not loved by everybody. Her career has been marked by pitched battles with jealous rivals and powerful factions. To conservatives she is still ‘red Julia’; to some on the Left she is still a politician too willing to compromise. She is widely perceived to be ambitious, and yet does she want to be prime minister?
‘I am proof that a woman can thrive in an adversarial environment’ – Julia Gillard
The Making of Julia Gillard tells Gillard’s remarkable story, including her Adelaide childhood, her time as a fiery student activist, her battles to get into Parliament and her relationships with the important men in her political life: Simon Crean, Kim Beazley, Mark Latham and Kevin Rudd.
In this immensely readable book, acclaimed biographer Jacqueline Kent draws on interviews with Gillard’s friends and foes – and with Gillard herself – to reveal just how adversarial her environment has been and how she has thrived.
In a country where distrust of politicians is almost an article of faith, Julia Gillard is a political celebrity. Ever since Labor won the 2007 federal election, and she became deputy prime minister, scarcely a day seems to have gone by without a media story about her somewhere. She has smiled out of the pages of the glossy women’s magazines, gazed thoughtfully into the distance for the broadsheet newspapers as a woman of destiny, laughed and joked on TV and radio, been photographed and quoted as she shreds the Opposition in Parliament. Type ‘Julia Gillard’ into Google and you come up with hundreds of thousands of entries, including opinions about her right across the political spectrum.
She is not universally loved. For everyone who cheers her on as she lobs verbal grenades in Parliament there will be someone who thinks she is too shrill, sarcastic or bitchy. Some Labor loyalists still dislike her for her role in toppling party leader Kim Beazley in 2006; others continue to be angry about the immigration policy she crafted for the ALP in the wake of the 2001 Tampa crisis. She has been criticised for her hairstyle, for her fashion sense, even for the way she speaks. But many people, men as well as women, will rush to her defence, condemning adverse comment about her voice as snobbish, asking why just because she is a politician she should not change her hairstyle, approving the gun-metal-coloured trouser suits and other no-fuss corporate clothes.
Julia Gillard tells this story: ‘At a shopping centre in Hoppers Crossing I’m handing out stuff. I am standing next to a board with my photograph on it.
‘This old guy comes out of the supermarket, looks at me, looks at the photo, looks at me, looks at the photo, then turns back to me and says, ‘Taken on a good day, wasn’t it, love?’
‘I said, ‘And you’d be bloody Robert Redford, would you, mate?”
One of the obvious things about this revealing little anecdote is that the incident could have occurred only in Australia. Not too many British or US voters speak to their elected representatives as the ‘old guy’ speaks to Gillard. (And not just Gillard: one Australian voter even pinched the prime ministerial bottom.) Australian MPs are often bailed up in the street by voters intent on pointing out where they think their representative is going wrong. It is part of the ‘I’m as good as you’ ethos that we like to believe is part of our national identity.
There is no ‘side’ to Gillard, but as the story shows she is no pushover. She can give as good as she gets, and she manages to do it without offending someone or sounding in any way superior. There is clearly a payoff: in this case the man at Hoppers Crossing said he would vote for her.
She can have fun with her political celebrity. Adam Hills, the stand-up comedian and host of ABC- TV’s music quiz show Spicks and Specks, recently told a story to Channel Ten’s Rove Live of finding himself on the same plane as Gillard.
During the flight she came over and sat next to him, put a hand on his arm and said, ‘I’m the acting prime minister, and so I can order you to do whatever I want. And I order you, now, to be very nice to my assistant, who fancies you.’ (‘What an abuse of power’ gasped Rove McManus.)
When Gillard and her entourage – including the bedazzled Adam Hills – got off the plane, the assistant said Gillard should be on Spicks and Specks.
‘Oh no,’ said Gillard. ‘I’m really bad at music.’
‘No problem,’ said one of the accompanying security men. ‘You take my earpiece and I’ll feed you the answers.’
Women voters often identify with Julia Gillard, whatever their own circumstances. In May 2007 Liberal senator Bill Heffernan described her as unfit for leadership because she was unmarried and childless.
‘People can be very generous during those times,’ Gillard has said. ‘I was walking in Altona and a woman went past in a car with a back seat full of kids. She wound her window down and called out, ‘If you want any kids, love, you can have mine!”
A few years ago a journalist for Vive magazine wrote: ‘There is something about Julia Gillard’s public persona that is grounded and ordinary. The public’s instinct is never to give her an honorific, nor is it hers to demand one. Julia Gillard comes across as absolutely one of the girls. You went to school with a Julia, you live next door to her, you work with her.’
This is a comment that has been echoed elsewhere. It is not as though the voting public is unaware of Gillard’s extraordinary qualities, just that she is not seen as someone who is ‘up herself’. We do not much like politicians who present themselves as cleverer than we are. Classical scholars or enthusiasts for Second Empire clocks are all very well in their place, we think, but we are a bit suspicious of them if they are heading our governments. Nor are we very keen on leaders like the Malcolms Fraser and Turnbull, who if not actually born with silver spoons in their mouths have certainly acquired them. We are much more at home with a John Howard or a Bob Hawke, blokes who look as if they are up for a beer and a yarn.
If Gillard’s political style is to be compared with anyone’s, it is probably Bob Hawke’s, although the comparison should not be pushed too far, not least because their temperaments are so different. But both are extraordinary people who know the value of appearing ordinary. Both connect easily with the person in the street; both are generally friendly and approachable. There are other similarities: both are highly intelligent, legally trained clear thinkers, good at putting across complicated policy ideas in simple, accessible language. And, possibly coincidentally but probably not, both have broad Australian accents.
Bob Hawke is said to have deliberately set out to broaden his Australian accent when he decided on a public career. (At about the same time, Margaret Thatcher was working hard to eliminate all verbal traces of the provincial grocer’s daughter.) When she is making a point in Parliament, Gillard’s voice can be flat, her delivery aggressive. This is something women often do not much like about her, whether they approve of her or not. (Note: her male colleagues’ voices and demeanour do not attract this kind of scrutiny.)
Gillard smiles or shrugs when asked about her voice, telling journalist Michael Duffy: ‘As you can probably tell from my voice, I’ve never been involved in voice coaching, though there have been a number of people who have suggested that I ought to, and ought to do so immediately, and not utter another word until I had. So I’d have to say I think it’s not exactly dulcet tones but I think I’ve got a pretty strong voice and I think I can hold my own in Parliament, no matter what the noise level, and on various occasions have had to . . . I think in a perfect world it wouldn’t be like that, but in the world we inhabit it is, so having a somewhat gravelly voice helps.’
Gillard’s refusal to take herself too seriously is one of her most effective ways of connecting with the public. Another is her empathy, which was fully displayed when she spoke to a parliamentary condolence motion on Monday 9 February 2009, in the aftermath of the appalling Victorian bushfires.
Very close to tears and, like other speakers, rejecting high-flown rhetoric, she simply told some of the stories of the people affected: ‘Let me share some of the media reports with the House: the tragedy of Rebecca Buchanan, who lost her fifteen year old son Macca Mackenzie, nine year old daughter Neeve and her brother Danny Clark, who was thirty-seven years old. Two young girls from down the street also perished inside the house of Rebecca’s mother, Jenny Clark. Jenny is seriously injured with burns to thirty per cent of her body after she desperately tried to save her grandchildren . . .
‘There is the courage of Kinglake resident Karen Drenan and her son Jakob. Karen was lying in the bath with her son, neighbour and a dog when she realised the front door was on fire. She then put wet blankets over her ten year old son Jakob and told him to run to the other side of the road. His shoes had melted, so he grabbed a pair of high-heeled boots. She said of her son: ‘He was so brave, he did everything that was screamed at him to do. We called him the high-heel hero’ . . .
‘As a Melburnian and a Victorian, the reality of the loss took on a familiar face with the death of Brian Naylor and his wife Moiree at their Kinglake West home. I am one of the millions of Victorians who for years only got the news because ‘Brian told us’. He was loved and trusted like a reliable uncle.’
It is a very powerful speech. Much of its force and emotion comes precisely from Gillard’s perceived ordinariness: here she is speaking for all Australians.
Australian politics has always been, and to some extent still is, a boys’ club. This is gradually changing. Crude attempts at gender politics, like those of Senator Heffernan, gain very little advantage these days. Gillard has certainly been fortunate in her time. Former senator Susan Ryan, who was minister for education in the Hawke Labor government in the late 1980s, has observed that Gillard benefits from not being burdened with the huge expectations of the 1970s feminist movement, as she felt she herself was. It is a view that former premier of Victoria Joan Kirner, a staunch Gillard supporter, disagrees with. ‘A lot of women worked bloody hard to get her there,’ Kirner says of Gillard. So did a number of men. Most of all, so did Gillard herself.
Sometimes politics, especially on the Labor side, can seem too complicated for its own good, or indeed anyone’s. To those not actively involved, the distinctions between the various factions in the Right or the Left can be like the difference between C sharp and D flat in musical notation: both are the same pitch, but what they are called depends totally on context. Weaving one’s way through the factional complexities, let alone prevailing against them, is not something for the faint of heart.
But as her story demonstrates, Julia Gillard is one of the most single-minded and determined realists in this or any other Australian government. These are qualities that have traditionally not been associated with women in politics. In the words of one Labor source, ‘Julia Gillard knows how to play it as hard and as well as the blokes.’
She scoffs at the assumption that women are unsuited to the rough and tumble of politics. ‘The kind of image that somehow we are too gentle for it, I resent that,’ she has said.
She also rejects the idea that if there were more women in politics it would be a different, probably kinder, profession. ‘Certainly five or ten years ago people would have [had] the view, if only there were more women in politics somehow it would be a less adversarial, more caring and sharing environment. I have always thought that was bloody nonsense. One of the things I have always wanted to show is that it doesn’t matter whether you are a man or a woman, you can thrive in an adversarial environment.’
About the Contributor
While still in his twenties, John Purcell opened a second-hand bookshop in Mosman, Sydney, in which he sat for ten years reading, ranting and writing. Since then he has written, under a pseudonym, a series of very successful novels, interviewed hundreds of writers about their work, appeared at writers’ festivals, on TV (most bizarrely in comedian Luke McGregor’s documentary Luke Warm Sex) and has been featured in prominent newspapers and magazines. Now, as the Director of Books at booktopia.com.au, Australia’s largest online bookseller, he supports Australian writing in all its forms. He lives in Sydney with his wife, two children, three dogs, five cats, unnumbered gold fish and his overlarge book collection. His novel, The Girl on the Page, will be published by HarperCollins Australia in October, 2018.