Julia Gillard, Australia’s first woman prime minister, was pilloried for being female, unmarried and childless. Here, she gives her first British interview since being ousted
The address to which they allude ranks among the most famous political oratories of all time. Miss Gillard’s invitation to her chief opponent to look in a mirror – “If he wants to see what misogyny looks like in modern Australia” – has had more than 2.5 million You Tube hits, attracted the notice of Barack Obama and prompted the revision of the dictionary definition of “misogyny”.
Much good it did her, some might think. Not long afterwards, Julia Gillard was ousted from the leadership of her country’s Labor Party, which went on to lose the next election. Now, when Tony Abbott, the Opposition leader she once rebuked, studies his reflection in the glass, the 28th prime minister of Australia stares back.
Eighteen months after she spoke out, Julia Gillard and I meet for a rare interview during her two-day visit to London to see government ministers in her new role as chairman of the Global Partnership for Education (GPE), an organisation dedicated to getting all children into schooling. Miss Gillard, I am told, will not speak about her days in office. Since she was deposed last year, she has remained largely silent, aside from writing an essay in which she confessed that losing power “hits you like a fist”.
Even that blow seems slight compared with the pummelling she took in office. Her hair, her accent and her unmarried state were derided by opponents, who put up “ditch the witch” posters. One interviewer was critical of her partner, who is a hairdresser, and an adversary accused her of being “deliberately barren” because she had decided not to have children.
Julia Gillard with her partner, Australia’s ‘First Bloke’, Tim Mathieson
If she chose to draw a veil over all such memories, that would be understandable. Instead, she is open about a past that helped turn her into an evangelist for the world’s forgotten children and, in particular, for the girls denied an education.
She has just been to see the Foreign Secretary, William Hague (“nice to catch up with an old friend”), before a planned meeting with the Development Secretary, Justine Greening. She is deeply grateful to the generosity of the UK, the biggest donor nation helping her organisation with a contribution to date of US$770 million (£460 million). Now she is working to raise money for the next four years and would be “delighted” if Britain were to offer a similar amount.
Julia Gillard speaking in parliament in Canberra (AP)
Miss Gillard is particularly enraged at the plight of girls denied a safe school place – a problem thrown into the spotlight by the crisis in Nigeria, where 250 schoolgirls abducted by the Islamist group, Boko Haram, are still missing after five weeks.
With the West looking increasingly powerless to help them, what would she do? “There’s no simple solution. We’ve fought terrorism in its many guises, and this is terrorism. It requires a policing response, a law and order response. As the chair of the GPE, I’ve added my voice to the outrage of the world.”
Does she think the girls will ever be restored to their families? “I’d need a very good crystal ball to predict what’s going to happen next, but the world community coming together and working with Nigeria is the only way forward.” So all talk of military intervention is nonsense?
“I don’t think it’s for me to rule in or out what would be the most effective strategies, but the world is now engaged. That happened far more slowly than I would have liked. If 200 girls were kidnapped here in London, the reaction would be instant. It shouldn’t be any different for girls in Nigeria.”
Julia Gillard chats with Barack Obama while they attend the Association of South East Asian Nations summit Gala dinner in Cambodia (EPA)
If she is guarded, then her diplomacy is hard-wired by years at the top table. As leader of one of the most influential nations on earth, she played host to David Cameron, Ed Miliband and a host of international leaders. These days she lives in a smart suburb of Adelaide, with her partner, Tim Mathieson, and their dog, but for the years of power she chose a simple, three-bedroomed house reminiscent of her humble background.
Australia’s first woman prime minister was born in Barry, South Wales, to parents from poor mining stock. John Gillard and his wife, Moira, had two daughters, of whom Julia, the younger, contracted broncho-pneumonia as a baby and spent weeks in an oxygen tent in hospital. Told by doctors that she needed to live in a warmer climate, the Gillards decided to emigrate to Australia as “Ten Pound Poms”.
Prince Charles with Julia Gillard (Reuters)
The six-week boat journey from Southampton must have been arduous for a family with a sick baby, though she rejects any suggestion of danger as “too dramatic. But yes, we went out as assisted passage migrants – one of the last ships to get through the Suez Canal before the crisis – and that has been our life ever since.”
While her father trained as a psychiatric nurse and her mother worked as a cook for the Salvation Army, Julia became a straight-A student, graduating from the University of Adelaide in Law and Arts and working as a lawyer and then a political aide, before embarking on a path to power, inspired in part by her lifelong hero, Nye Bevan.
As she confessed much later, she did not think she could have juggled work and children. There are, she says, still no regrets. “Look, I’m comfortable with my life’s choices. It gave me my chance to work as minister of education and PM, and now in this role, working for children in the most disadvantaged places on earth. I do get the delight of family contact and children. Post‑politics, Tim and I moved back to where I grew up.”
Her mother, now widowed, lives nearby. “So do my sister, my sister’s children, and now the first of the next generation – my niece’s son, Ethan, who turns one in July. I love travel, but when I’m back in Adelaide, I have plenty of time and contact with all of them. And now I have the delight of watching a baby grow.”
(Australian Women’s Weekly – Grant Matthews)
As PM, she was photographed for the Australian Women’s Weekly, knitting a toy kangaroo for Prince George. “The then High Commissioner delivered it, so it has been duly received,” she says. While some critics greeted her endeavour as the image-building stunt of a pro-republican leader, she is actually a devoted knitter. “I find knitting is a good wind-down thing at the end of big days, and knitting for babies is so much faster than doing an adult jumper.”
Mostly, however, she is focused on the dropped stitches of human progress. She is eager to play down the bitter legacy of the discrimination she encountered, stressing that her days running a country left her well-prepared for the politics of the development world. “I know what it’s like for donor nations to put taxpayers’ precious money into supporting change in some of the poorest countries.
“I know what it’s like sitting round cabinet tables and having difficult discussions; I know what it’s like to assess priorities from the perspective of countries like the UK. In the 59 countries we work with, I know what it’s like trying to build an education programme from scratch or trying to get more money into schools.”
As for resilience and hard times, she says: “I’ve had a bit of practice. But looking across the broad sweep of my life, I think of the advantages I’ve had, growing up in a wonderful country and having the support of a strong and loving family. I don’t feel I’m in a position to lecture on what it’s like for girls in Pakistan or female teachers in Afghanistan, because I have never faced challenges of that order.”
Though progress is being made in fragile and war-torn states – she points to the 23 per cent increase in girls at school in the areas where her organisation is working in Yemen – the challenges continue. Few people, it is fair to say, are more adept at dealing with adversity than Julia Gillard.
Julia Gillard accused Tony Abbott of sexism and hypocrisy (Reuters)
Her famous misogyny speech, she now confesses, was not destined to be a speech at all. Despite accusations about alleged sexist messages sent by the Speaker, she never planned to give the Gettysburg address of feminism, in which she told Mr Abbott that she would not be lectured by him on prejudice – “not now, not ever”.
“I knew I was likely to face a question time focused on gender issues, but I didn’t know I was going to give a speech. I wrote the notes there and then and spoke in the moment, and perhaps that was the power of it. But I didn’t know it was going to reverberate around the world.” In general, she is less impulsive, saving her full account of her years running Australia from 2010 to 2013 for the memoir which – no doubt to the alarm of her opponents – she will publish this October.
“I wrote it in Adelaide in one long, hot summer, working for 11 hours a day.” And will it tell the full, unexpurgated story? “You’ll have to read it and see,” she says, which means yes. With Britain on the cusp of an election, she is too diplomatic to pronounce on the downbeat nature of the Europe poll, though she does commend Australia’s compulsory voting system.
Would she recommend it here? “Every nation has its own system, but it does mean our politics is about the mainstream views of the mass of the people. It works well for us,” she says, adding that she would never tell other countries what to do.
Except in one respect. For the sake of the 57 million children in the world who cannot get an education, she is relying on politicians of all nationalities and allegiances. Her UK connections notwithstanding, she declines to get involved in the homegrown political fray. “Both Prime Minister Cameron and Ed Miliband are making a quality contribution, but I’ll leave domestic politics to the people here.”
For Britain as a whole, she has nothing but gratitude for the cross-party support to safeguard international aid, even in hard times. “That goal has not been resiled from, and that says something about the generosity of the people of the UK and their ability to join the dots between development, security and a more prosperous and peaceful world.”
The credo of Australia’s pioneering prime minister will, she hopes, echo from the staterooms of Westminster to the pit villages of South Wales, which she is proud still to call her home.