Comment: Julia Gillard

I’m not naive, you know, I’m not Doris Day who’s just somehow parachuted into Canberra. I had to fight hard to get preselected, I had to play a factional game to do that, I had to count numbers, I had to make deals and I’d do all of that again tomorrow if I needed to.

– Julia Gillard, 2006

When Julia Gillard was sworn in as Australia’s first female prime minister, the greatest plaudits and most excited commentary came from those who leapt upon her difference. She wasn’t just a woman, which, frankly, would have been enough: she was a left-leaning woman who had red hair, had migrated from Wales, did not believe in God and did not know how to cook. We almost forgot, in the midst of all the shock, champagne-popping, gushing, tweeting and cheering – not to mention the overt, unabashed pride of many women who gloried in her long overdue achievement – that Julia Gillard is a politician.

Many people failed to recognise that in Barack Obama too when he ran for president, so brilliant was his rhetoric, so enticing his promise of change and so delicious the joy of long under-represented African Americans and frustrated liberals across the US. As we quickly discovered, Obama, despite the halo of Messianic expectations, is indeed a politician who wheels, deals and compromises, and is idiosyncratic, flawed and interested in power. So is Julia Gillard.

And, just as the emerging narrative about Obama was inevitably to be about disappointment, so it will probably be with Gillard when she is seen to – gasp – play politics just as men do. It is, after all, what got her there: not just the many years of 16-hour days, worn shoes, boring functions, doorknocking in hostile electorates, trying to remember names, shaking clammy hands and handing out pamphlets, but also the fierce factional power plays, the tallying of numbers, the midnight phone calls, and the making and breaking of deals. Gillard, too, is pragmatic, ambitious and, most importantly, eager to win.

In the nine decades since the first woman was elected to parliament in Australia, political women have been forced or encouraged to highlight, debate, defend or dodge the question of their novelty and their gender, depending on the electoral environment, their parties and their personal beliefs. Some posed in aprons, placing muffins in the oven, stirring pots on the stove or leaning on ironing boards, while others dressed in beribboned ball gowns, swimsuits and daringly draped red bedsheets. They published recipe books (Mrs Kelly’s Cookbook!), baked countless pumpkin scones and sashayed down catwalks. Others wore suits with big shoulders, cut their hair and refused to be photographed anywhere inside their homes. Those who polled strongly became media darlings, then media tarts, often accused of adoring their own reflections, of being shallow, lightweight and not as serious as the men. With the singular exception of a clichéd debate about the emptiness of her kitchen, Gillard has, somehow, quietly skipped over these landmines and made her gender, until now, seem secondary.

What is fascinating is that Gillard, at last, is really most remarkable for her similarities to, rather than her differences from, her male colleagues. It remains to be seen whether she will be penalised for this sameness. Historically, women who are strong, confident or ambitious – who act in the same way powerful male leaders do – tend to become objects of scorn and curiosity. They’ve been described as hard, cold and tough when, politically at least, their behaviour has been normal. In order to nudge her party ahead in the polls, Gillard will make compromises, anger some interest groups while appeasing others, whistle at dogs, cats and various other mammals, and she will be hounded for doing so. As she said on Australian Story in 2006, she is no Doris Day who landed, blinking, big-eyed and naive in Canberra. She fought hard and clawed her way there like the rest did – with brilliant success. Julia Gillard, in fact, is the very model of a modern politician.

One of the most peculiar axioms of Australian political life has been the claim that our female MPs should be able to cook. Heaven forbid that men or children should go unfed while women are out fighting elections or forging legislation. In fact, many viewed this as the most persuasive reason to deny women entry to the political world. In 1883, Henrietta Dugdale, the president of the Victorian Women’s Suffrage Society acknowledged this, saying, “Some there are who say, ‘If we permit woman to go beyond her sphere, domestic duties will be neglected.’ In plainer language, ‘If we acknowledge woman is human we shall not get so much work out of her.’” If women took up places in the parliament alongside men, would their homes become sad and soulless places?

In 1921, when Australia’s first female MP, Edith Cowan, was elected to the Western Australian parliament, the Age cautioned against more women entering politics. In an editorial, the august newspaper declared: “Were political office to become … the latest craze of fashion, there would be many dreary and neglected homes throughout the country sacrificed on the altar of political ambition.”

The fact that our first female prime minister does not cook, and does not care, is therefore sweet revenge on all those who harboured the mad idea that domestic order depends on the permanent presence of women in the home, as well as on those who distracted from women’s political performance with stupid, sexist questions. It should not need to be said that the condition of the family stovetop is as irrelevant for female MPs as it is for male ones. When the state of Gillard’s kitchen became the subject of national debate – because it was tidy, empty and clean – instead of becoming defensive, she simply shrugged. She didn’t like to cook, she travelled and she was busy. She bought a barbecue for her partner, Tim Mathieson, on the condition that he would be the only one using it.

Yet the kitchen photo wasn’t the first evidence of her lack of domestic skills. In 2003, following a TV interview with Kerri-Anne Kennerley, Gillard was asked, to her surprise, to go into the studio kitchen and make some gnocchi. Her lumps of dough looked inedible; she laughed it off. She seemed to have taken Julia Child’s advice to heart: no matter what happens in the kitchen, never apologise. Even if nothing happens. However, the fact that Mathieson is happy to cook for the new PM was reported across the world in the days following her coup. Predictably, there are now Facebook pages dedicated to getting Gillard back into the kitchen – odd given she was never in it – and charmless YouTube spoofs pasting her head on top of MasterChef contestants. Ha! Can anyone name a single dish John Howard or Kevin Rudd know how to make from scratch? What about Tony Abbott?

As it was a century ago, the kitchen is a powerful metaphor – in Gillard’s case, for defiance and lack of repentance, as well as for shifting gender roles and modern men who know how to make a bowl of pasta. In June, a nation watched a female governor-general swear in a female prime minister who defied a host of conventional wisdoms about success in politics for women: not simply that you must be a good housekeeper, but also that you should have a husband who is both supportive and not emasculated by his wife’s success (à la Denis Thatcher) and that you should be a mother who is superb at meeting all political and familial responsibilities. This has meant women are judged not just as politicians, but as wives and mothers too. It has long been assumed the families of male politicians sacrifice; those of female politicians suffer.

It should not be surprising that Gillard does not have children – to date, few female cabinet members have. When she was a teenager, Gillard told her mother she did not want to have any children. She believed, somewhat conservatively, that it would be too difficult to both have a career and be a mother. She told Australian Story: “I’m kind of full of admiration for women who can mix it together, working and having kids, but I’m not sure I could have. There’s something in me that’s focused and single-minded and if I was going to do that, I’m not sure I could have done this.” The clear-minded decision-making revealed here is far from what Bill Heffernan offensively tried to evoke when he claimed she was “deliberately barren”.

Gillard, in emerging as a clear-sighted political operative who does not wish to assure anyone she is any particular kind of woman, is free from the patina of the pedestal and unburdened by the guilt and expectation of generations past. She has managed to shake off much of the artifice and coyness women were expected to conform to in order to enhance their electoral prospects. She has played politics, but not personalities, somehow sidestepping many of the pitfalls for women in the past: media tricks that boost your profile in the short term but destroy your credibility in the long term. Her calm acceptance of personal scrutiny might be part of her success. “People want to know who you are, the shape of your life,” she said. “That is legitimate.” In other words, Gillard has played the political game so well that she has, to date, mastered the deflection of gender. Her time for serious scrutiny, however, is now.

Moira Gillard, the PM’s mother, told Australian Story in 2006 that as a child, her daughter could not understand why, at her school, the girls had to stay behind to clean up the classroom while the boys were allowed to run around outside, having fun. She complained to the teacher and offered up a fair solution: the boys should clean up one week, the girls the next. As Moira tells it, the teacher said, “‘Are you into women’s liberation, Julia?’ And she said, she looked at him with utter scorn and said ‘I don’t need women’s liberation, I was born free.’” I love the boldness and defiance of this statement recounted by a proud mother: even as Gillard fought inequality, she insisted she was free.

Gillard still is free, though she is also a feminist, and has benefited from the fruits of women’s liberation. She was responsible for drafting affirmative-action rules for the Victorian ALP that aimed to preselect women for 35% of winnable seats; this also dramatically boosted her own chances of preselection. As Joan Kirner said recently, “It was clear that unless we had affirmative action, women like [former deputy leader] Jenny Macklin and Julia Gillard were going to be frustrated in their attempts to be elected. So she was both a gate-opener and she walked through the gate.”

On the other side of the gate, Gillard’s defining political characteristics have been pragmatism and hard work, as well as loyalty – particularly to the men who have helped her, former mentors and leaders Simon Crean and Mark Latham. She was so disappointed when Kim Beazley deposed Crean, a close friend, as leader, that she criticised what she said was a culture in the ALP of destabilising the leader. If they had stuck by Crean, she told Australian Story, perhaps they might have won the election that was lost with Mark Latham as leader. If not, “at least we would have come out of it with our culture intact – a culture about the team, about supporting the leader.” Instead, Labor had been left with an “ongoing wound” and a culture of “anything goes”. And yet, when Rudd found himself lacking support, this was a culture she exploited and benefited from. Biographer Christine Wallace argued that Gillard’s distinguishing characteristic as a politician is a genuine love of power: “Possessing it acts as a big political multiplier for her: the more power she gets, the better she performs and the more she accumulates as a result.”

That Gillard is tough and practical is no revelation – a hard-headed stance on immigration, for example, has been evident throughout her career. She is an impressive, aggressive parliamentary performer. Wallace describes her as “transfactional”, someone who uses factions to her own ends; historically aligned with the Left, Gillard’s ascension was supported by the Right. Just recently, former ally Mark Latham called her a “very skilled political technician”. Many of us, though, perhaps irrationally, will continue to hope for something different from our first female prime minister. She has shied from stereotypes throughout her career, and we cannot expect her to be kinder or softer than her male colleagues, but, still, wouldn’t it be wonderful if she could be more candid, compassionate and, even, more authentic than the 26 male prime ministers before her? Her speech is not affected, she has no airs or pretensions, she sounds like one of us. In an age of political realism, is it too much to ask that Julia Gillard be just a bit more real and honest than the others? For her to hew closely to the idealism that propelled her into politics and the vision that has sustained her since? History shows that an expectation of virtuosity in women can too easily become an unfair burden; we ask more of them, and feel more betrayed when they fail us. All we can wish for, perhaps, is that the compromises don’t come too early, or cut too deep.


When I wrote my book Media Tarts: How the Australian Press Frames Female Politicians (2004), the carcasses of those high-profile female MPs who were loved by the public, salivated over by the media and then destroyed by their own political parties had been strewn throughout the elections of the 1990s: Cheryl Kernot, Carmen Lawrence, Natasha Stott Despoja and even, in slightly different circumstances, Bronwyn Bishop and Pauline Hanson. They had become cautionary tales and the younger rising stars of both major political parties told me they had learnt from the mistakes of those who had gone before them.

There appeared to me to be several rules young, ambitious women should follow to succeed in politics. Many of them seem obvious now, but Gillard has excelled at all of them. The first was to establish a serious profile as someone who is policy-oriented and has the respect of colleagues (check). Second, avoid the celebrity shots, particularly posing in ball gowns or bikinis (check). Third, steer attention away from your personal life (check). Fourth, avoid a personality cult (check). Fifth, cop criticism (so far, so good). Sixth, do not assume female journalists will be more sympathetic because you are a woman (does anyone even believe this anymore?). Seventh, understand that journalists are not your enemies – or your friends (check). Unlike Cheryl Kernot, for whom proximity to members of the press gallery ultimately caused hurt and a sense of betrayal, Gillard knew this rule instinctively. The job of journalists, she said when I interviewed her, is one of engagement: “trying to get to know people, disarming people a little bit, and our job is to understand that and not fall victim to it”. Eighth, try, in the midst of it all, to be yourself; talk directly, answer honestly (check). This is where Gillard has shone: she projects a sincerity and authenticity that people warm to.

Of all the women I interviewed, Gillard seemed the most astute and the least needy when it came to the media. And she had a sense of humour, too – as evident in Jacqueline Kent’s The Making of Julia Gillard, where we learn about the time Gillard was standing at a shopping centre outside Melbourne, next to a board displaying her photograph. As Gillard tells it: “This old guy comes out of the supermarket, looks at the photo, looks at me, looks at the photo, then turns back to me and says, ‘Taken on a good day, was it, love?’ I said, ‘And you’d be bloody Robert Redford, would you, mate?’”

She reminds me of some of those pioneering women so admired for their candour, such as the outspoken and wildly popular former leader of the Democrats Janine Haines. Haines sacked a press secretary when he suggested she change her glasses, clothes and hairstyle, and said indignantly: “I am not going to change my hairstyle, I’m not going to clip my eyebrows, I’m not going to change the clothes that I feel comfortable in and I’m certainly not going to start working out whether I’m going to offend somebody if I say something.” And former Liberal immigration minister Amanda Vanstone, who was ridiculed for her flamboyant shirts but stubbornly continued to wear them until people lost interest. She laughed: “I’ve worn them out now. If a journalist went to an editor and said, ‘I’ve got a great story about Vanstone’s new shirt,’ the editor would say, ‘Really? Well aren’t you a genius.’” She told me: “People are sick of plastic politicians. Why have this veneer? Why not be yourself? It’s just a lot easier. People will respond to that a lot better in the end.”

She’s right. Politics can too easily sap character from even the most likeable people. Any modern politician will know how important it is to learn to play the system and handle capricious reporters, but it’s important not to lose yourself along the way. Gillard is, after all, from Victoria, the same state where the female former premier Joan Kirner slipped into leather pants, applied red lipstick, gelled her hair and strutted her way through a gloriously awkward, gutsy rendition of Joan Jett’s ‘I Love Rock ’n’ Roll’. Sporting a skull and crossbones on her back, she hooted and howled. People raved about it – even if they had failed to vote for her a year earlier in the 1992 election.

Australians love people who can be themselves, who are not self-conscious. Sometimes, they even vote for them. It’s a bit hard not to be self-conscious when you are squinting in the spotlight, and ruling a country. But one thing we know is that Julia Gillard, as much as the political bullpens, media scrums and her own reserve allow, has tried to be herself. And that self is a decent, fierce, combative, hard-headed politician. That has been her strength. It would indeed be ironic if, now that she is leading the country – doing what we have always seen as a man’s job – this is seen as a weakness.