Australian politics, society & culture

On the road with Julia Gillard

Sketches of a prime minister in her final months

Gerehu Market, Port Moresby. © Ness Kerton / AAP

Gerehu Market, Port Moresby. © Ness Kerton / AAP

Chloe Hooper

Long read11700 words
 
August 2013
Solahudin, trans. Dave McRae; NewSouth Books; $49.99
Gillian Terzis
The legendary war correspondent was in the pay of the KGB
Robert Manne
Karl Ove Knausgaard
James Button
The musical funnyman returns home
Jo Lennan
Shane Maloney and Chris Grosz

Werribee, Sunday, 24 March 2013

On a clear blue day late in March a warm, celebratory breeze blows in the Melbourne electorate of Lalor. Local businesses and sporting clubs are on the pavement inflating balloons that, tied to strollers or toddlers’ wrists, decorate the air. A parade is coming and as onlookers gather, one could mistake the annual Weerama Festival for the locals’ merriment at the Member for Lalor’s latest political victory. It’s only three days since Kevin Rudd declined to stand in a leadership spill. His village is supposedly burnt, the henchmen banished.

The prime minister steps into the crowd, targeting a toddler in her father’s arms: “Hello, I’m Julia. What’s your name?”

No answer.

“We’re both wearing pink.” Julia Gillard holds up the sleeve of her fuchsia jacket. “Your drink’s pink, too.”

Clasping her bottle of fizz, the child is as sullen as the father. 

The prime minister holds out her hand to a wider circle of constituents, but no one rushes to take it. She doesn’t demur or shrink back, and when she thrusts her hand further in my direction, I find myself shaking it: her skin is extremely soft. In the flesh, something about her seems amiss. Later, I realise I’ve seen so many caricatures of a dumpy, pointy-nosed redhead that I find myself surprised at her attractiveness.

She is ushered onto a makeshift stage and sits at the centre, surrounded by dignitaries. Dressed in black trousers, with her pink jacket buttoned at the navel, she surveys the parade from behind sunglasses.

A dance troupe does a cheerleading routine, followed by Coles employees pushing shopping trolleys full of apples for the crowd. Life-jacketed scouts sit in a canoe atop a truck bed, diligently paddling the air. A limping man leads on the Werribee Obedience Dog Club as his dog leads him. There are vintage cars; emergency services vehicles; the Salvation Army band, with electric guitarists and palm-frond wavers celebrating Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem – it’s Palm Sunday, if you need more symbolism; tai chi practitioners; dirt-bike clubs; a collective of town criers; then Hare Krishnas, clapping, chanting and clanging their bells; and still they come, these dance troupe girls in fluorescent spandex. The Werribee Girl Guides has maybe 25 marching, but the dancers parade on and on. Pre-teens in full spangly make-up stop to gyrate before the town burghers. 

Does Gillard look on and wonder if there are any of her ilk hidden within these ranks? And whether they will find the road to power as difficult as she has, taking three tilts at preselection just to make it to the national parliament? Or is she thinking of Rudd? Whether this time he has finally been dispatched?

Like an emissary of the man himself, someone in a giant dog suit comes past, and breaking ranks presents her with a doll that has Raggedy Ann hair and a Pinocchio nose. The media lurch forward, cameras flashing, and Gillard has to laugh and thank the dog-man for his kindness.

The crowd’s murmurs don’t bode well. The locals agree she doesn’t have their votes, some with more politeness than others: “They should fucking drown the bitch!” shouts an older man with withered DIY tattoos. “I wouldn’t give her 50 cents!” He’s just shambled out of the local TAB, which is directly opposite the dais.

Through the sliding doors, I breathe the nicotine air. Here, the parade’s master of ceremonies, describing the minutiae of each passing float, can’t compete with the drone of a race being called. On a Sunday morning, the assembled crop of gamblers are more or less grafted to their bar stools, but past multiple TV sets they have a direct view of their prime minister. 

“Gentlemen,” I try. “You’re betting men: what chances do you give her?”

One toothless man has a face concave as an old boot. He sits with his clothes falling off him, a puckered indentation where there was once a mouth. I stare at him, guessing he may be an idiot, then realise he’s doing the same to me.

“What do you reckon?” he says finally.

“I don’t know,” I answer.

His mouth hole again opens and this breathing memento mori speaks what seems the truth: “Everybody knows. Come September, she’ll be out on her arse.”

Brisbane, Wednesday, 8 May 2013

I wait with a throng of male reporters in suits with tropical-hued ties, outside the gates of Autism Queensland’s Brisbane headquarters. One man with thick orange make-up balances a fluffy black microphone while repowdering his nose in his compact’s little mirror. He glares at me watching him, but I feel I have special privileges: after months of negotiation, the prime minister’s office has invited me to spend a few days with Gillard and her entourage. 

Shortly, a white car pulls up. The prime minister steps out and, sounding thrilled, a child standing on the other side of the fence calls, “She looks wonderful!”

Gillard is met by Queensland’s premier, Campbell Newman, and the two political foes stroll inside and sit down at a trestle table to sign an agreement that will give nearly 100,000 disabled Queenslanders specialised health cover by 2019. It’s a trademark Gillard moment: through sheer tenacity she has “got it done”, and Newman praises her determination, betraying nothing of the bitter back and forth that has taken place behind the scenes. But the suffering in the room makes all words sound slick. Crowding around the politicians are the reporters, and behind the reporters – trying to see past bulky camera tripods – are the people affected by disability. 

A five-year-old the size of a toddler is in a wheelchair, and she can’t talk or walk or eat. By her side is her exhausted-looking father, who has had to quit his job to care for her full time. Near him, a 23-year-old man with an intellectual disability flails his arms and calls, “Mum, mum, mum” as his mother tries to calm him. People are gathered with psychiatric disabilities, spinal cord injuries and cerebral palsy; and overwhelmingly they are with a carer who is a parent. 

After Newman leaves, Gillard stays on. “People want you to really understand their world,” she tells me later. “There’s something beyond anything to do with funding that’s about being listened to.” An elderly couple explain to her they’ve been scared to die, not knowing who would care for their son, whose rare neuro-developmental condition marks its sufferers with elfin facial features, and brain and heart defects. This legislation gives them a degree of peace.

When the prime minister departs, her entourage follows at high speed. In the mini-van of young staffers trailing her car, one man immediately begins tweeting about the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS), using the moniker TeamJG. He then logs on to Facebook to post a pie chart showing the percentage of disabled Australians to be covered by the insurance. As her poll ratings sink, Gillard’s communications team has increasingly tried to reach voters outside the regular channels and, within a few minutes, the graphic has 217 “likes”, 35 “shares”, and 30 or so comments.

But outside, in the mainstream media, “sandwich-gate” is raging. Before visiting Autism Queensland, Gillard had attended a Biggest Morning Tea to raise funds for cancer research, hosted by Marsden State High School, in the under-privileged area of Logan. The visit had seemingly been a grand success, but before long the Albert & Logan News, a News Limited local paper, posted a story online about a student throwing a sandwich at the prime minister. All she had seen was some bread on the ground. Her Australian Federal Police (AFP) detail also claimed the sandwich had been lobbed nowhere near her but, by six o’clock, Nine News had tracked down and interviewed Kyle Thomson, 16, who reckoned he had been falsely accused of being the sandwich thrower.

 

Brisbane, Thursday, 9 May 2013

At a 7.30 am briefing in her hotel room, Gillard eats triangles of toast while her personal assistant packs for an afternoon flight to Papua New Guinea, and her press secretary anticipates the media labyrinth’s issues of the day: there’s been criticism of the NDIS funding model; budget speculation is in the air, with some ministers apparently worried about its austerity; payments are being taken away from asylum seekers who on a second review aren’t found to be genuine refugees; climate change minister Greg Combet has just announced the government will not be proceeding with a range of tax cuts associated with the carbon price, due to difficulties in the European economy.

And then there’s that sandwich. Incredibly, the bit of bread is now up there with that well-aimed boot hurled at George W Bush. It has made international news, and is the fourth item down on the BBC website’s top stories. Gillard feels bad for the school, which had made an enormous effort to host the event, although she agrees that Kyle’s punishment, a 15-day suspension, seems a little draconian.

The press secretary mentions that the AFP officers have reviewed footage of the event and the sandwich only passes in the background.

“So the suspension’s for being a bad throw,” Gillard says drily, finishing her breakfast. 

In the car, as she travels to her first event of the day, she is interviewed by Labby, Stav and Abby on B105, a popular radio station.

HOST: Our prime minister, Julia Gillard, joins us on air this morning. She was in town for the National Disability Insurance Scheme. We’re going to get to that in a sec. First, though, we need to see if she’s OK after sandwich-gate yesterday? Morning, Ms Gillard, how are you?

PM: Good morning, and I’m very well indeed. And I had a great visit to Marsden State High; very excited kids. One little bit of naughtiness, but really a great visit and the school did a wonderful thing in greeting me, and we had the “World’s Biggest Morning Tea” there. So we were actually making a point about cancer, raising awareness, and raising some money.

HOST: Yeah, absolutely, that’s a good cause. But we just were concerned because we obviously saw the Vegemite sandwich that was thrown —

HOST: From a grassy knoll, Julia! A grassy knoll!

HOST: Well, the kid apparently that threw the sandwich – Kyle Thomson – is 16 and he’s been suspended from school for 15 days. He is actually joining us on the air this morning. Hello, Kyle?

KYLE: Hello?

HOST: You are on the air with the prime minister. What would you like to say to her?

KYLE: (in a series of grunts) I’d like to say I’m sorry I punked her, but I’m innocent and I did not throw it.

HOST: So you think you’re innocent and you didn’t throw the sandwich?

KYLE: Yes.

HOST: (to the prime minister) I know with your job comes a certain amount of power. Would there be any way you could do some sort of parliamentary pardon for his suspension?

 

Gillard declines to pardon Kyle, claiming it is a matter for his principal, the unfortunately named Alan Jones. There is the briefest mention of the NDIS, and the interview is over. The narrative has run along its well-worn tracks, reinforcing the usual stereotypes: Logan rhymes with bogan, the place is full of delinquents and Gillard is once again the subject of mild derision. Connecting the dots, she’s brought it on herself – this show of teenage contempt that may never have actually happened – through her diminution of the office of prime minister. 

Her next interviewer, the ABC’s Terri Begley, opens with, “What a pity a flying sandwich seemed to have stolen the headlines …” And so it goes on.

Afterwards, Gillard, who is ahead of schedule, sits for ten minutes with her staff in the ABC’s coffee shop. Now they, too, are discussing Kyle’s sandwich. She calls it “collective psychosis”. 

Before accompanying Gillard, I was told by a junior staffer that attending the last Christmas party at the Lodge had made plain to him how adored she was by all who work for her, from the cleaners to the AFP officers. “If everyone could spend a week with her, she’d have their vote,” he’d said, voice catching, “because she’s ... bloody lovely.” Is he crying? I’d wondered, holding the phone from my ear, slightly repelled. But people obviously do enjoy working for her. Gillard never misses a birthday. She plays “Words with Friends” with her staff and knits them baby clothes.

Why has this warmth not reached the public? The press talk of it switching off when the cameras switch on. Gillard won’t draw a straight line between her extreme shyness as a child and her sometimes awkward, locked-in public persona, although she admits, “Whilst I interact with everyone and seek to get on with everyone, for my truly innermost thoughts I think I’ve still got a bit of reserve from the public glare. Whether that’s a personality trait or bit of a protection mechanism, I’m not sure, but I’m conscious of it.”

That afternoon, on her way to the airport, Gillard stops to do a question-and-answer session at St John Fisher College, a middle-class Catholic girls’ school in Brisbane’s outer-northern suburbs. 

Schools are apparently her favourite venues, and she is led to the front of the gymnasium while the girls stand, wildly clapping. Until her final years of school, Gillard planned to be a teacher and in front of this assembly she has the bearing of a school principal, as well as the power jacket, sensible-heeled navy shoes and soporific cadences. She picks one of the hands held high in the air.

“Prime Minister, how does it feel to be the first female prime minister?”

“Thanks for that question,” Gillard replies. “It’s one I’ve been asked a fair bit, as you can imagine. Stepping into this role, I didn’t do it in order to create the record of being the first woman. I did it because I thought I could offer the nation leadership on things that matter to me and matter to our nation’s future. Nothing’s more important in all that than getting the quality of your education right …”

Outside, the sun bears down on the yellow-brick classrooms and birds of paradise sprout in clumps from a ruthlessly mowed lawn. Inside, the girls are no less decorative, wearing white and maroon–striped dresses, with their sunhats placed neatly under their chairs, behind closed legs in high white socks. Better in this company to sidestep the bloody business of seizing and wielding power. 

“But even though being the first woman wasn’t a driver for me,” Gillard continues, “I’ve been very conscious that [it] is perhaps changing expectations, and I very much like to think that girls of your age look at me doing this job and think to yourselves, ‘It’s not a closed path, and if one woman’s got there, we’re going to see dozens and dozens of women get there.’ And I’m very confident I’ll live to see a time when it’s so routine for a woman to be prime minister that no one bothers to count any more.”

The gymnasium erupts in applause, and one has to assume that as Gillard tours the country talking like this to young women, it has an effect.

She picks the next schoolgirl, who stands, asking, “Prime Minister, who or what inspired you to choose this career?”

“In my family,” she answers, “my parents, particularly my father, were always interested in politics. He was a shiftworker and he’d listen to Question Time on the radio, and chime in as though they could hear him in the House of Representatives, shouting at the radio.” Her voice is fond, amused. “He was always interested in those things and spoke to me and to my sister about how important politics was to the nation, how important it was to our family.”

The family is Julia Eileen Gillard’s touchstone and the fortress from which she derives her sense of self-belief. Born in 1961, a second daughter to John and Moira, Julia’s poor lungs spurred her family to escape the Welsh coal town of Barry and emigrate to Australia, settling in Adelaide in 1966. Moira found work preparing the evening meal at Sunset Lodge, a Salvation Army hostel for elderly women, and Julia would go there after school and eat her dinner with the residents. “I’m conscious of how it sounds,” Gillard mentions later. “Oh, Bleak House: a young girl used to sit on a stool in a kitchen for three and a bit hours each day while her mother finished work. But we didn’t have any family, apart from the four of us, and it was like ending up with 60, 70 grandmothers making a bloody big fuss of you, giving you sweets and playing cat’s cradle, cards.”

Within a few years John Gillard had retrained as a psychiatric nurse, and began working at Adelaide’s Glenside Hospital, a psychiatric facility, in the harsh days before the mental-health sector was liberalised. The prime minister describes her late father, to whom she bears a strong resemblance and was extremely close, as being “very resilient, very stoic. [He] put up with a lot of pressure without complaint.” (All traits, incidentally, her staff claim she shares.) “He was very focused on the family’s finances and security, so he’d work a night, work a day, have a couple of hours’ sleep, go and work another night, work a day, have a couple of hours’ sleep – and do that for very extended periods of time.” John Gillard once saw a patient set himself alight. Another time he found a man who’d hanged himself. 

“There was an editing of some of the harder-edge stuff” – for his children – “so I don’t have a vision of him coming home and telling us about a suicide.” But Gillard and her sister, Alison, knew about their father’s work, and went to Glenside ward parties: “A ward party wasn’t going and hanging out with people with deep psychosis. You wouldn’t get a kid to do that, but we’d [play] with people with Down syndrome, adults that, looking back on it now, I thought of as a different version of children, you know? They’d be 20- or 30-something, but they’d be playing the games with me that a ten- or a 12-year-old would want to play ... It wasn’t a place of big mystery to us.”

It’s a pivot in her father’s earlier story, though, that drives his daughter. Standing in the Brisbane gymnasium, she comes back to it.

“He had very clearly burnt into him from his early life in Wales a sense of fairness,” she tells the schoolgirls. “He’d been denied an education, left school at 14 even though, when they had big exams at the age of 11, he actually went so well he won a scholarship, but his family couldn’t afford to have him [out of work]. He would have liked to have stayed in school and had the opportunity to go on to university – things that I’ve had, and things you’re getting, were denied him.”

Gillard grew up in a household in which she wasn’t conscious of huge gender divisions, and went on to become the only girl in her high school physics class. She succeeded in the “boysy, rough-and-tumble” atmosphere of the union law firm Slater & Gordon, and – after an arduous factional struggle for preselection – Labor politics. One can see her trajectory through a series of male-dominated worlds as following a path her father might have taken had he had an education. It’s said that children live their parents’ unlived lives, although Gillard claims, “I’ve kind of turbocharged it a generation or two. But, yeah, certainly, Dad in different circumstances could have been a member of parliament [or] a leading trade-union official.”

As she tells her tale as a nation-building story, the prime minister repeatedly says she couldn’t have enjoyed the same privileges had the Gillards, her ur–“working family”, not come to Australia. The causes dearest to her are the ones that will make life better for other young Julias or young Johns should they arrive on our shores. Thus she is always a great advocate for anything to which she can attach the word “opportunity”, especially educational opportunity. But it gives the impression of a shrunken kind of politics with a shrunken, message-laden language to match. She’s hardly the only offender in this. Tony Abbott serves up the same diet, although – if the schoolgirls are anything to go by – with greater effect. They keep raising their hands to ask what she plans to do to stop the boats and help small business.

At the end of the assembly, I am ushered into a car with her and we travel to the Brisbane RAAF airbase, where her plane is waiting. Gillard unwraps the school’s gift of a silver votive candleholder, but doesn’t recognise what it is, which seems odd, even for an atheist. The AFP officers aren’t sure of it either. “We’re heathens,” she exclaims merrily, before studying the engraved school insignia. “Goodness, knowledge, discipline. Let that be a message to all of us.”

Why can’t the girls in the gymnasium be “messaged” in the finer points of ball-tearing toughness? When I ask Gillard how she mastered the art, she begins explaining that as a teenager she loved debating. 

“But that’s a cerebral response to a fight,” I say. “You’re in situations a lot of women would find intimidating on a gut level, which don’t scare you.”

“No,” she admits, “so there’s something more.”

“What is it in you that doesn’t back down?”

“I think an unkind person would say I’m bloody stubborn. A kind person would say I’m so fixed on the things I want to do and see done, I’m not going to get daunted by the rest of it.”

 

Port Moresby, Friday, 10 May 2013

Clap, clap, clap … The heat is extreme as Gillard enters Gerehu Market, and the smoke from burning garbage compounds the humidity. Clap, clap, clap … Brightly dressed female vendors, who’ve been sitting in the dirt with their children and modest supplies of plantains, casaba, yams, peanuts, are now standing and together slowly applauding her. They keep a constant beat that’s heard throughout the market while adding long wavering ululations in celebration. Outside, people crowd against the cyclone-wire fence, shouting and cheering, as Gillard, now wearing woven garlands of flowers and smiling broadly, shakes vendors’ hands and reaches out to a scrabble of barefoot kids to run her fingers along the chubby arm of a baby.

On one level, this visit is revolutionary: Gillard’s plane was greeted with flags flying and a 19-gun salute. A brass band, sun glinting off the trombones, played ‘Advance Australia Fair’, while Papuan troops saluted her and Huli tribesmen decorated with paint, bones, shells and feathers danced in welcome on either side of the red carpet.

I travelled into town in the prime minister’s cavalcade with the official photographer and doctor. Our white car’s hazard lights were on, making a rhythmic tch, tch, tch, tch as we passed playgrounds with broken equipment and no children, garbage-strewn creeks, dwellings assembled from scraps. People stood and stared as the cars rolled by, sometimes with broad, scarlet, betel nut–stained smiles, slightly sardonic and like their mouths were bleeding. 

It’s estimated that 70% of Papuan women experience domestic violence, although, according to Amnesty International, in some provinces that figure is higher, and women find being questioned on this topic bizarre – abuse is the cultural norm. Women are also unsafe outside the home: in February, Kepari Leniata was called a witch and burnt alive in the western highlands, on a pyre of tyres. In April, an ex-primary school teacher, Helen Rumbali, also accused of sorcery, was beheaded by a mob in Bougainville. In Port Moresby, women are prey to attacks from the “raskol” gangs who rule the city’s settlements with guns and bush knives, and for whom rape is a form of initiation and part of the ongoing dues of membership.

The city’s markets are one of its circles of hell, and until recently many women reported being raped here at Gerehu. Two vendors lead Gillard around and explain how an Australian government contribution to the UN Women’s Safe Cities Program has provided better shelter, a safe water supply and the renovation of the toilet block where many attacks had occurred. New security officers have been trained – previously they were often in league with the gangs who, after dark, prostituted girls as young as nine here – and a referral service has been introduced for women and children suffering violence. It’s hoped the introduction of a mobile phone payment system will limit the amount of cash circulating, thwarting the gangs’ extortion attempts.

All this highlights Gillard’s intense privilege as a white female leader, and makes you wonder if the sexist abuse she faces at home reflects an ineradicable force in human nature. Are women always to be branded witches if their power makes them a threat?

The more I watch Gillard, the more I feel conscious of the layers of prejudice I’ve picked up by osmosis. “What’s the story with the boyfriend?” I ask a few people who know Tim Mathieson well, and feel stung by my own bitchiness when assured of the couple’s devotion. “I get the benefit of company that’s about me as a person,” Gillard tells me later of her partner.

I am starting to realise that every aspect of this woman’s being has been publicly demeaned. Her body: “You’ve got a big arse, Julia,” brayed Germaine Greer in 2012. (Not something she said about Kim Beazley, but then no one did.) Her sex: jokes about her genitals are OK at Liberal Party fundraisers. Her clothes are dowdy and, according again to Greer, ill-fitting. Her voice is a fishwife’s. Her home is unhomely, or lacks class. (“Boganville”, Rudd allegedly called the Lodge until it was his again.) Her choice to concentrate on her career is emblematic of her lack of “empathy”, “compassion” and “basic human understanding”. (“Anyone who chooses a life without children, as Gillard has, cannot have much love in them,” claimed Mark Latham in 2011.) And earlier this year Joe Hockey felt free to tweet, “She has never deserved our respect and will never receive it.” That’s because, as Tony Abbott’s fellow rally-goers once branded her, she is “Bob Brown’s Bitch”, a “witch” and “Juliar”, who, according to the radio host Alan Jones, should be put in a chaff bag and drowned at sea.

Who can credibly argue this vitriol isn’t intensified by her sex? Yet talking openly about this abuse and calling it misogyny seems to feed the hatred. The more people are reminded of her gender, the more they resent it, and the denial of their own prejudice drives it in deeper. 

Though someone who has long been critical of the women’s movement, she’s accused of inciting gender warfare. Politics is terrain where complexity or ambiguity doesn’t play well. If she mentions sexism, she is playing the victim card, but not to say anything is to collaborate in its denial. In Gillard’s words: “You wake up and you’re [right-wing columnist] Janet Albrechtsen, and no one wants to end up there.” 

Meanwhile, the market women keep clapping and trilling. Gillard has given money to her press secretary and he buys as much food as he can carry, which is later donated to a shelter. 

Above the prime minister, a partial solar eclipse is occurring. Is it an omen of trouble to come? Herodotus wrote of an eclipse during a war between the ancient Medes and the Lydians. The two sides took it as a sign that they should abandon their weapons and declare peace. Gillard’s war is not so simple. Even if she wanted to, with whom should she seek a truce: Abbott? Rudd? The media? Woman-haters, including the women among them?

Some hours later, in her hotel suite, she takes off her shoes and wraps her feet underneath her as she sits on the couch. Fruit and sandwiches are wheeled in on a trolley, and she eats and talks as her press secretary checks his BlackBerry.

I remind her she once said that if people believed having more women in politics would make for “a more caring and sharing environment ... that was bloody nonsense ... I am proof that a woman can thrive in an adversarial environment.”

Gillard replies, “Well, I think I have shown that. Women supporting women, and women getting more women into parliament – I absolutely, genuinely, passionately believe in it and there’s a side of that that’s really empowering, but I felt at some points in [the women’s Labor support program] ‘Emily’s List’ that there was a side of it that was starting to be disempowering. So I came into parliament in 1998, the same time Kevin Rudd did ... and you’d go to these women things and they would say, ‘Oh, how are you going? It must be so hard, it must be so difficult.’ And I used to think to myself, is anybody tonight saying that to Kevin Rudd or Craig Emerson or David Cox? Or are they actually saying to them, ‘It’s fantastic you’re in parliament now, you must be aspiring to be a shadow minister? And what’s your area of interest? And how do you think you’ll go about doing that? And can I help you do that?’ And so I wanted at those women’s events to say, ‘Don’t let our own dialogue about ourselves talk ourselves out of our ability to do this.’ And I was a bit short, but I genuinely don’t think it should.”

Would a man have experienced the contempt she has been shown as prime minister?

“You never get the bloody control test in politics,” she answers. “I think some of it is about being the first woman; some of it is about this period in political history” – which is her shorthand for Rudd’s removal as leader and all that has followed – “minority government, carbon; some of it is that it’s just got harder. I have said this publicly before, but I saw Tony Blair when he was [last] in Australia: he said to me the level of brutality in the media now is so much more than during his time in politics, and I don’t know about you, but I remember his time in politics as like five minutes ago.

“Is the stuff about Barack Obama because he’s African American? ‘He’s a Muslim, he wasn’t born in the United States.’” Gillard spells it out. “Or would they have played as hard as that against any successful Democrat? Well, I suspect it’s a bit of both. It’s probably got harder for any successful Democrat, and there’s an extra edge because he’s black. And I think that’s true for me. I think some of the stuff about me, because it is about gender, gets glossed over more easily. If I was the first indigenous prime minister, and Abbott had gone out and stood next to a sign that said, ‘Ditch the black bastard’, I reckon that would be the end of a political career. And I even think with all the nutty stuff you see in American politics, if a Republican went and stood next to a sign that said, ‘Ditch the black bastard’ about President Obama that would end a political career. And it’s not less because it’s gender. But it’s been treated as less.”

On 9 October 2012, expecting that Tony Abbott would question her about parliamentary speaker Peter Slipper’s recently revealed lewd text messages (Look at a bottle of mussel meat! Salty Cunts in brine!), Gillard made a quick compilation of the Opposition leader’s own “worst clanger quotes”. (If it’s true that men have more power generally speaking than women, is that a bad thing?) As he stood on the other side of the floor of parliament, berating her, she decided on a “scratched-out order in my mind”, ahead of her reply. 

Both men’s comments give a sense of the atmosphere in which Gillard found herself, and why that day she felt so fed up. “I’ll think of a more polite way of putting it,” she says, “but the only way I can think is, ‘For fuck’s sake, after everything I’ve listened to, I have to listen to this? That you’re somehow on a bandwagon to crusade about sexism? Oh, God, give me strength!’

“I didn’t have any sense of the force of my speech [in reply]. I actually swung my chair around to Swanny [Treasurer Wayne Swan] and said, ‘Oh, I’ll have to bloody listen to them reply now. I’ll be bored, I’ll get some correspondence brought in.’ And Swanny, who is not the most demonstrative person on the planet, had this really weird look on his face and said, ‘You can’t give the j’accuse speech and then sit down and do your correspondence.’ I was thinking, ‘Well, that must have hit a bit harder than it felt.’ The Opposition, they all just dropped their heads, so they went from a braying sort of swagger: ‘We’ve got this day won and the government’s in diabolical trouble’ to, like, ‘Oh, shit, is that the time? What’s on my BlackBerry?’”

Abbott had just announced that, “Every day the prime minister stands in this parliament to defend this speaker will be another day of shame ... for a government which should already have died of shame,” thereby echoing Alan Jones’s remarks of a fortnight earlier, that Gillard’s “lying” in parliament had caused her father to die of shame.

Sitting in this hotel room eating lunch, Gillard has been speaking of her father, explaining he had been very ill towards the end of his life. “I think it’s even harder for people who have been physically strong when their capabilities aren’t the same any more,” she reflects. “[He was] a really strong man, and a very sort of gentle person. When Jenna, my niece, was young, you’d play this game with her where she’d put out her hand and you’d sort of tap her hand, smack her hand, and she’d go Ooohh and she’d put her hand back, and you’d say, ‘Do it with Grandpa now’. [But] she knew there was no way in the world Dad was even going to tap her hand.”

Each weekend, Gillard would speak to her parents in Adelaide. “Dad would want to talk about the week in politics, whereas Mum would just want to say, ‘How are you? I saw you on the TV. That was a nice red jacket. Ally’s doing this, Tom [Gillard’s nephew] is doing that, Jenna’s doing this.’ So it would be the family news more than the sort of political analysis of the week that was.” But her father, who was once quoted saying, “When I’m with Julia, I walk six inches taller”, liked to “follow every intricacy”.

Increasingly, what he saw disturbed him. Gillard’s disposal of Rudd and subsequent backtracking on the carbon tax coalesced in people’s minds as evidence of dishonesty. Gillard says she’s gone over and over how the carbon tax could have been better sold to the electorate, but feels, “at the end of the day, if someone is prepared to run a ferocious enough and a dishonest enough fear campaign, then that’ll end up with traction.” She adds, “Our political cycles and the mood of the populace weren’t in sync. People most wanted to see a price on carbon immediately after the 2007 election, when their sense of climate change and the drought was [at its zenith] and we weren’t able to make as much as we should have of the bipartisanship that was on offer for too fleeting a moment.” The implication is that Rudd, intent on wedging the Liberals on the issue, missed his chance to deal with Malcolm Turnbull.

In any case, John, who for so long had taken succour from his political engagement, now worried for his daughter’s security, “given there appeared to be so many cranks and crazies out there”. Moira “wasn’t following it moment by moment, so not scouring the newspapers, and if she were satisfied that I was OK, then she’d be able to just quarantine that, whereas Dad, when it was really citizens’ revolt, carbon, and ‘ditch the witch’ stuff, got a bit fearful.”

“Did he get more upset than you would?” I ask.

“Oh, yeah.”

“And that probably made you more upset?”

“I’d tell him, ‘Don’t subscribe to the Australian,’ and in the end he didn’t.”

Gillard prefers to think of her misogyny speech as a “clinical carve-up” and not an emotional one, but part of the reason it resonated was because people suddenly saw the emotion behind her stern facade, and felt the undercurrent of rage. Gillard admits that “when [Abbott] used that word ‘shame’, I did think, ‘Now you’ve got it coming.’ Yes, absolutely.” 

What does it mean for feminism that the force of this speech came in response to a slur against her father? He had died only a month earlier, and Gillard was the most loyal of daughters. (Indeed, seeing Jessica Rudd half steering, half following Kevin on the day of the final leadership challenge, one senses the blind ferocity women can feel in defence of an insulted paterfamilias.) By defending her father, Gillard could defend herself; and perhaps all motivations are murkier than the public narrative allows.

“Does grieving get any easier?” I ask.

“Not yet.” 

“So how has it been?” 

Wiping tears from behind her glasses, she swiftly composes herself. “I suppose it’s the two worlds thing, that’s the best way of putting it. My father wasn’t generally in this world. He wouldn’t have been here lounging around PNG [so] there’s not much different, day to day, for me doing all of this. Where it’s visible is when you go back to Adelaide, Christmas time. My niece will have a baby in July, which is a great thing, that real cycle of life, and she announced that on Christmas Day, which was good timing. It’s more then that you feel the weight of it, rather than during the never-ending rush this is.”

In 2006, on the ABC’s Australian Story, Gillard said of Abbott, “In private we’ve never had a cross word. At one level I think he’s a, you know, sort of likeable, knockabout Australian character. But he’s a deeply eccentric human being ... I think I’m a much more normal person than Tony Abbott.” 

When I remind her of this, she laughs.

“I think that’s absolutely true. Way back when, in the period when we’d do the Today show, I was shadow minister for health and we used to have more human conversations than we could possibly have now. I remember saying to him, ‘Tony, your problem is you haven’t worked out whether you want to be prime minister of Australia, or you want to be the backbencher who’s noted for pursuing his religious beliefs,’ and he sort of acknowledged that was right. I think the handlers are trying to make him solely into one, and that’s actually not who he is. And I think some of the stuff he’s said now, for example about abortion ...” Gillard didn’t finish the sentence, and raising it later back in Australia will prove a political disaster, but it is undoubtedly true that Abbott has tried to soften his position on abortion. “You know,” Gillard continues, “I can’t imagine the equivalent for me; that the handlers have got him to a stage where he’ll deny his most profound beliefs ... I think, yeah, he’s an eccentric person.”


After lunch, Gillard visits Moresby’s Marianville Secondary School, her second Catholic girls’ school in 24 hours, to open an AusAID-funded dormitory. She sits in a central concrete pavilion with basic classrooms on either side. All the windows have mesh grilles or bars, but are decorated with balloons and chain-linked streamers. The students are meant to be aged between 16 and 18, but really they range from 13 to 21. Outside the school gates, girls in this age bracket have the highest rate of HIV and AIDS in the country, and almost half of all women are unable to read. Here, if a young woman wants an education, she’s welcom e

Together they begin singing the national anthem: O arise all you sons of this land, let us sing of our joy to be free ... Their voices are stunning even if the words’ irony is bitter.

As the prime minister listens, there’s a valedictory feeling in the air. Perhaps it’s the girls’ loveliness that has turned the mood so wistful, but sitting here one can’t help wondering what kind of leader Gillard would have made, had she been given a real chance to grow into the role. She had no honeymoon, no time to learn even how to look comfortable. And because she could never fully explain Rudd’s political execution, she never truly owned her story. What if she’d been granted just one or two breaks and then just a skerrick of legitimacy? What if Rudd had had a skerrick more decency? What if there weren’t so many what ifs?

Marianville Girls School, Port Moresby. © Howard Moffatt / AUSPIC

After Gillard opens the new dormitory, she stands in the garden and does a doorstop interview. She’s just signed a Defence Co-operation Agreement with PNG Prime Minister Peter O’Neill and announced various humanitarian and business initiatives, but most of the journalists’ questions are about the Manus Island Detention Centre. A month earlier the Immigration Department had advised that the centre presented “key risks in terms of safety and health”. A permanent facility was now to be built, but Gillard is not keen to get into the details.

Later, I ask her about mandatory detention, given that her own immigration is a cornerstone of her story. She tells me the last time she was in PNG was as shadow minister for immigration. “I went with Philip Ruddock ...” she grimaces ever so slightly. “I went to every detention centre except Manus Island, because the security situation [had] degenerated ... so I’ve been through detention centres where people have clutched at me with desperation, where people have wanted to run over and touch your hair, hold your hand. I’ve seen that up close and personal, and emotionally you want to respond to that desperation, but you also know that it just takes you to a position where there’ll be more boats, there’ll be more deaths, there’ll be more problems.”

“Do you think that the Labor Party has got it right?”

“I think we’ve got it better,” is as much as she’ll say.

Gillard doesn’t visit Manus Island this time either, but she does manage to look around the $US19 billion ExxonMobil-led liquefied natural gas project. It is as big as a town, with brighter lights. Showing no weariness, she poses in front of this behemoth of towers and cooling stacks while inside the workers in orange overalls move around like little Lego figures. The photographers who haven’t yet dropped from the media contingent carry face washers to wipe their brows between shots. 

At the visit’s end, some of the women in the entourage, including Gillard, have to use the bathroom. She exits a cubicle and I enter it. From inside, I can hear a public servant arrive and try to hurry Gillard to the cavalcade, and I half wish they will just go, so I won’t have to keep up with this inexhaustible woman any more. But the prime minister stays, waiting by the hand driers, to make sure I’m not left behind. In that moment, she doesn’t strike me as turning it on for a flagging journalist. In this tinny toilet block, I have a fleeting vision of her at school: she is a bit daggy but drily humorous, very conscientious and kind. She’s the good prefect, looking out for the kid no one else much likes, because everyone deserves a seat on the school bus.

 

En route to Darwin, Saturday, 11 May 2013

Gillard is sitting in her cabin with her legs up, feet now in sock slippers, knitting booties for her niece’s baby. The sex is to be a surprise and so she uses blue wool flecked with purple – this gender thing again, we fall prey to its clichés the minute we enter the world. She promptly puts the knitting away but, when asked, tells me she’s already made a blanket and a jacket and wants to find a pattern for a small hat. Her clear excitement over this new baby makes the bigotry around her childlessness seem all the crueller; and makes her choice to give everything to her vocation rather than become an absent mother, a choice her male colleagues don’t appear to have to make, seem all the more stark.

Gillard doesn’t know it yet, but she is en route to her final confrontation with Rudd. Disposing of him three years earlier has been her original sin: the unlovely act from which many other misdeeds, real and imaginary, seem to have flowed. The nation apparently can’t forgive her disloyalty: not in the way they forgave Bob Hawke’s disloyalty to Bill Hayden, Paul Keating’s to Hawke, John Howard’s to a string of colleagues, or Abbott’s disloyalty to Malcolm Turnbull. Yet Gillard’s career has been marked by her intense loyalty to the leaders with whom she worked closely. “Many people inside politics would say I stood in a loyal fashion next to Simon [Crean] and next to Mark [Latham] for too long. Beyond reason,” she reflects. “They were not good judgement calls, that I was so supportive of them for so long. And I was completely supportive of Kevin up until the dramatic end. 

“It’s been acknowledged the way leadership campaigns are often mounted,” Gillard says. “His people leak and they background and all the rest of it. I never did any of that. I’ve said to [the press gallery], ‘On the record, off the record, I release you from any obligations. Can anybody here really say that I ever said anything disloyal about Kevin before the moment when it all happened?’ I’ve had a number of them acknowledge to me, ‘That’s right. You were not in the business of doing what is done to white-ant a leader.’ But you know all of that has kind of been parked to one side in the public’s mind because of the circumstances of 2010. So that is ironic.”

On 23 June 2010, the day of the coup, Gillard picked up a copy of the Sydney Morning Herald and, in an article by Peter Hartcher and Phillip Coorey, read that Rudd had sent out his chief of staff, Alister Jordan, to gauge his numbers because “he does not necessarily fully trust the public assurances of his deputy, Julia Gillard, that she is not interested in the leadership.” 

Of this, she says, “I did react very emotionally, because I felt like I was doing everything in my power to try and get the show back on the rails without anything as spectacular as a leadership change, and I did read that story as not only those efforts [not] being acknowledged, but indeed me being accused of undermining ... It wasn’t that piece that was the motivator for what happened – the internal circumstances were the motivator – but I did feel that piece as a blow.” After months spent publicly denying her interest in the prime ministership, Gillard walked into Rudd’s office and told him she now planned to challenge. 

For all the stories of Gillard conspiring to take Rudd’s job, there are as many sources who insist Gillard only reluctantly moved against him. How disloyal one finds her actions depends ultimately on how one sees Rudd.

There’s the Maxine McKew narrative: he was just a likeable egomaniac without any factional friends. Although that tells part of the story, it doesn’t quite explain the AFP officers, flight attendants and public servants – underlings, if you like, without the insulation of McKew’s celebrity – who invariably tell much darker tales. The writer James Button was enlisted to work for Rudd because Rudd was said to be up most nights until 3 am writing his own speeches, while the office sank into chaos and his temper frayed. Button wrote later, “The truth is, Rudd was impossible to work with. He regularly treated his staff, public servants and backbenchers with rudeness and contempt. He was vindictive, intervening to deny people appointments or preselections, often based on grudges that went back years.” And nothing much, in the parlance of Gillard, was “getting done”. Rudd had been issued with continual warnings about his leadership style and substance by Gillard and other senior figures, but nothing improved. The final execution might have been orchestrated by the faceless men – and Gillard, who felt the situation was unsustainable – but they were far from alone in wanting to see Rudd gone. 

It was genuinely thought that Rudd might eventually feel relief to have been moved aside, given he so clearly wasn’t coping with the pressures of the job. It’s possible some part of him was relieved. A larger part, however, felt an Old Testament–style thirst for vengeance. Gillard couldn’t have predicted this, nor the way some in the media would do his bidding.

She didn’t enjoy the same special friendships Rudd had cultivated, namely with Laurie Oakes and Peter Hartcher. “Look, obviously across my time in politics I’ve met and dealt with a number of journalists,” Gillard tells me. “But many politicians [when] they come into politics, they spend a lot of time talking to editors, to key journos, they make it their business to spend time with the media moguls, and I never did that in a sort of forensic, calculated way, the way that I’m now aware people have done it – and I don’t want you to think that’s just a comment about Kevin, that’s a broader comment about people on both sides of politics. I think I took a more simplistic view, which was if you got in, and got things done, and stood out, then the relationships would flow into the press gallery and beyond. [But] it doesn’t work like that. The relationship between journalists and a politician is a co-dependent but not a transparent one.”

Is it possible that the press gallery never gave her the break others were given, because she’d never cut them into the story? Unlike Rudd’s recent coup, which was three years in the making, with Gillard’s takeover there was nothing for the press to see until there was everything to see. It created a sense of hyper-vigilance. So determined were they not to miss out on the action again, that the slightest leadership tremor was recorded in minute detail. And that suited her enemies within the party perfectly.

With the ground so uneven, one couldn’t help but misstep, and sometimes Gillard duly obliged. When she didn’t, she was attacked as though she had. “For many, many months,” she says, “I did work in an environment where it didn’t matter what I did, how good it was, what [I] would wake up to the next day was a chorus of people in the newspaper saying, ‘That was hopeless!’ ‘She’s hopeless!’ ‘Her judgement’s hopeless!’ Then the caravan would roll on and you would do something else that was good policy, good work, and the chorus would start up: ‘That was hopeless!’ You’re still getting good things done, but because of this internal drip into the newspaper, these good things were kind of turning into ashes in [my] mouth, really. I had to keep focused on the substance of what I was doing, and just try to push that away from being the thing that was dominating my sense of me, or my sense of what I was doing. But certainly in the media day after day, it was wearisome, that’s for sure.

“The question for me about leadership is always, ‘What kind of leader will he be? A good one? A bad one? A hard one? A soft one? An inclusive one? An isolated one?’ I always thought the question started for me, ‘Can she lead?’ And it’s a subtle difference. But it’s also a major difference. I think if you start the question with, ‘Can she lead?’ then it more easily leads you to the judgement critique, [as opposed to] assuming, ‘Yes, he can lead and what we’re doing is analysing what sort of leader he’s going to be.’” 

She is staring straight ahead as she speaks and, as the plane takes her back to the savage polls awaiting her, it is hard not to be impressed by her bravery. 

Asked where her resilience comes from, she says: “I doubt you’re born with it.” Her laugh is slightly bitter. “I don’t know, I don’t know. Better get a biologist on the job ... I guess I’ve got a fair bit of practice –” she laughs again, seemingly at the absurd hand-to-hand combat of the last three years – “in extreme circumstances.”

Is she on the strongest available antidepressants?

“No,” Gillard smiles. “Just the peppermint tea.”

Should Gillard move aside to save seats? It’s not yet being screamed from the editorial pages, but I suggest, “A different person might have thought of the last spill: Kevin, you poisoned the chalice, you take it.” 

“There’s not one moment, one time, that I’ve ever contemplated that,” Gillard replies. “Not ever, and maybe there’s something cumulative about it, too; the harder it’s been and the more you’ve endured, and the more you’ve got done in difficult circumstances, the less you want to give way ... I wouldn’t continue if I didn’t have the sense that I’ve got the better capacity, the better ability to do it. Number two, if you take it to the extreme and say it’s just Celebrity Big Brother in a different context, then that way madness lies, I think. There is no purpose.”

I ask if she wishes she were able to say more about why she’d taken Rudd’s job.

“No,” she answers, and it is clear she does not regret having done so. “Look, even though it has brought frustrations, I still think the better course was for me to come in and try to get the job done, rather than try to tell a story about how I got there.”

This is a thread she keeps returning to, the prefect’s belief that by her deeds she will be known. But the fates have turned so sharply against her government that for once one wishes the flight attendants hadn’t skipped the plane’s safety demonstration. While Gillard is up in the clouds, in this bespoke leather-seated bubble, Rudd’s team are down below, sharpening their spears and bush knives, waiting.

 

Melbourne, Thursday, 27 June 2013

The footage of Gillard is still on the television this morning. She is staring straight at the camera as she delivers her concession speech. “The reaction to being the first female prime minister does not explain everything about my prime ministership, nor does it explain nothing about my prime ministership … It doesn’t explain everything, it doesn’t explain nothing, it explains some things.” Already, less than 24 hours after her resignation, these are famous words, and they are bound to grow more famous as the shame they address with such telling mildness grows deeper.

Watching, one can understand why this has happened – the polls are the polls, and who can fight them? – and also not understand at all. Why are the polls as they are?

Gillard described herself to me as a “logical, deductive person. If A is true, then you add B to it, and one plus one always equals two.” But here the logic broke down. Why was this intelligent, dedicated, conscientious, patriotic woman, loved by her staff, glowingly admired by the independent MPs who’d just helped her minority government pass the highest rate of legislation of any prime minister, why was she being killed off? One would have thought from the frenzied, almost primitive calls for her head that she’d brought the government or the country to its knees, not just proven herself to be the most capable person in the Labor party. 

Today there is a sense of sadness, perhaps felt most sharply by women, even those who have never warmed to her. There is something sacrificial about Gillard’s downfall, and after the furore comes a moment of awful silence. Without the white noise, some ugly things are clear about this country: our profound sexism, and our love of the superficial, the snappy slogan over the boring drone of real policy. 

On the phone I find myself telling people in almost gushing terms how much I’d liked Gillard, and I sound like the staffer who’d previously seemed to me so gullible and sentimental.

In years to come I’ll think of her back in the Papuan boarding school, allowed to rise to her full height while the girls sang … Thank you, thank you so much! With a foundation like this, our future has hope. Thank you, it’s a blessing, and will always be a blessing Had the nuns written the lyrics? They were corny, even cringe-inducing, but in strongly accented English it had been difficult to distinguish every word anyway, and the moment’s real poignancy came from the beauty of the girls’ voices, the sweetness of their harmonies, contrasting with the horror awaiting them outside the school gate. Here, Gillard’s power had made a real statement, but it too proved fragile in the world beyond their song.

Meanwhile the middle-aged priest who had just blessed the new dormitory stood in full cassock by the gate, as an elderly nun shielded him from the afternoon sun with a parasol she held over his head. Amid the tropical flowers and high feeling, it was easy enough to ignore this message about a woman’s place.

Chloe Hooper

Chloe Hooper is the author of The Engagement, A Child’s Book of True Crime and The Tall Man.
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