Julia Gillard: on standing for something

Julia Gillard

Julia Gillard: “I wanted to write a book because I wanted my story to be told”. Picture by Peta Brew-Bevan

 Ben Nielsen

After three years and three days in the nation’s top job, Julia Gillard returned to her Altona home in June 2013 to an “eerie silence”. She had been ousted from politics in a whirlwind that mimicked her induction to the job.

“It hits you pretty hard, because there are the emotions about the defeat and there’s the physical reaction. It takes you a bit of recovering in every sense,” she said at the Sydney Writers’ Festival sold-out event, ‘On Standing for Something’ on May 1.

As prime minister, Ms Gillard achieved major policy reforms and social transformation as well as re-establishing the functionality of government, which had been left in tatters following Kevin Rudd’s reign. This was done in the face of internal division, minority government, and gratuitous scrutiny.

In the days after the leadership ballot that returned Mr Rudd to power, Julia Gillard lived as a fugitive. It was a conscious decision, she said, to vacate the domestic political arena in order to give the new generation of Labor the best opportunity of survival and success. For someone who had spent 10 years trying to break into federal politics, it was a gracious departure.

“I didn’t want to get in the middle of the [2013 election] campaign, but I emerged afterwards and I wanted to organise what the rest of my life was going to be,” she said. “I wanted to write a book because I wanted my story to be told – and I wanted it to be told quickly because I feared that a lot of young women had watched my experience and said ‘politics isn’t good’.’

Julia Gillard’s memoir, My Story, was one of the most anticipated books published last year. While a spokesperson for Kevin Rudd dismissed it as a mere “contribution to Australian fiction”, other critics deemed it thought-provoking and unexpectedly candid. As The Sydney Morning Herald wrote, “Gillard is an engaging and incisive guide.”

While My Story doesn’t provide a comprehensive record of her life, it offers readers select political highlights and personal anecdotes. Ms Gillard also discusses the issues that dogged her career: leadership tensions, gender inequality and the harsh tactics of then opposition leader Tony Abbott. In some ways, she also finds an intimacy in the written word that, for the first time, bridges the divide between personal and public life.

“I’d brought to politics an inherent sense of personal reserve. There’s an intensity to being prime minister that I did feel uncomfortable with, because at the end of the day, politics is about serious things and hard decisions. I think that our focus on the more personal things distracts from that debate.”

In hindsight, she said, this misplaced focus and the media’s “Lady Macbeth frame” might have been abated if she had written My Story earlier. But she said she was never in politics for the applause of the crowd, and instead became known for her public displays of resilience, determination and integrity.

Even as a student, she used politics as a platform to create social and political change, specifically relating to issues of gender, education and opportunity. This guiding sense of purpose is given its own chapter, in which Gillard also reproduces the personal manifesto she wrote after becoming prime minister.

“Absolutely the best thing about the job was the ability to take your sense of purpose and your drive to see things be better in our nation, and actually make it happen,” she said. “That means you can make improvements to Australian schools, create a National Disability Insurance Scheme, and you can start a Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. These things, the ability to make the big policy calls and the judgements, were the best things about the job.”

She said there has been very little time for reflection or indulgence in recent years, as she is always looking for new ways to contribute. While she lives simply at home in Adelaide with partner Tim Mathieson and their cavoodle Reuben, she does more international travel now than during her prime ministership.

Among her new roles, Julia Gillard is a Distinguished Fellow of Washington-based think tank The Brookings Institution, Chancellor of online education provider Ducere, Board Chair of the Global Partnership of Education, and an honorary professor at the University of Adelaide.

“These things have given a lot of meaning and purpose to this phase of my life,” she said. “I’m happy in this period of my life to have a portfolio of things that come together and works well for me. It means that I still get to make comment on the parts of politics that were, in some ways, the dearest to my heart.”

Julia Gillard spoke with Jamila Rizvi, Editor in Chief of the Mamamia Women’s Network. My Story is published by Random House Australia.