Julia Gillard with kids at Ballina Public School.
Julia Gillard with kids at Ballina Public School.

Sisters doing it for themselves

Julia Gillard is having a look at how the kids in kindergarten at Richmond Christian College in Ballina are learning to read.

A little girl sticks her foot out in front of her because she needs her shoelace done up.

The Deputy PM smiles, bends down and ties a bow.

This is Australia’s highest-ranking female politician in action: friendly, down-to-earth, natural and practical.

When she arrived at the school she was met by the principal and four students, one of whom welcomed her in another language. Gillard was immediately at ease, making jokes with the kids, sharing a hug with Page MP Janelle Saffin, at whose invitation she is in Ballina, seeing the practical results of the federal government’s economic stimulus package, the government-speak-named Building the Education Revolution.

Throughout the day, no matter what is thrown at her, Gillard maintains her composure and behaves professionally and with grace; under fairly heavy questioning from a seasoned ABC radio reporter Gillard deflects with the verbal equivalent of Wonder Woman’s bullet-repelling bracelets. She manages to stay calmly ‘on-message’ the whole time, but it comes across as second-nature, not forced.

She and Saffin both believe politics is no longer the boys’ club it used to be.

“Obviously, historically it has been, because it’s been overwhelmingly male but I think it’s changed a lot in the last 20 or 30 years,” Gillard said. “There’s still more to do because women aren’t at half-half in the house of reps or senate but it’s changed very quickly. The way I experience my life in politics I don’t feel particularly excluded or looked at differently.

“I think we’ve got to the stage where women can be in politics and be treated pretty equally.

“There’s a bit more media interest in some appearance questions and hairstyles but we’re in a far easier time than the Susan Ryans, Carmen Lawrences or Joan Kirners, even the Cheryl Kernots; I think we’re in a far more equal time for women in politics.”

Saffin, who is a former NSW MLC as a member of the notoriously tough NSW left and a petite redhead who used to own a pub, you’d imagine has seen more than her fair share of inappropriate behaviour by men.

“I don’t think about it much because I’m just in there working with colleagues which means the sexism that existed in the past, while it’s not gone, it’s just not a dominant factor there any more,” she said. “There’s certainly more to do in terms of numbers for a start and politics can sometimes be a bit of a put off for women.

“They look at what they see through the prism of the media and look at it and think, ‘that’s not for me, you have to get in and be assertive and be upfront and everything’s public’. But that’s changing and increasingly more girls are telling me they want to go into politics.”

Saffin said she believes there is a certain solidarity between female Labor politicians but that time to interact is limited by their long work hours.

“We feel good about Julia, the women in caucus, there’s a good feeling: ‘Great, she’s the Deputy Prime Minister and we like what she does and who she is,” Saffin said.

Gillard has been the target of numerous attacks by opposing politicians, including the pugnacious Liberal senator Bill Heffernan describing her as “deliberately barren”.

“We’re in an age where we’re rightly diversifying our perceptions of what it is to be a man or what it is to be a woman so that stereotyping is less true now than it would have been even a very short number of years ago because I think things are changing quickly, so I think people are more open to seeing women playing leadership roles and strong roles and less likely to characterise that as shrew-like than perhaps they were even a relatively short time ago,” Gillard said. “I also think people are much more open to seeing men in caring roles as a result. It’s a time where things are equalising out and there aren’t as many labels on people’s foreheads as there used to be, fortunately.

“You’ve got to have a pretty strong sense of yourself. You can’t judge yourself on what you read in the newspapers, whether it’s good or bad, you can’t let yourself become hostage to that because there will be good days and bad days.

“On the Bill Heffernan or Tony Abbott type statements about me, I think it says more about them, so I don’t let it grind me away or worry me.

“When we did have that huge flurry of the Bill Heffernan stuff, I did worry that my mother and father would find it a bit upsetting but it didn’t really make me, personally, anxious in any way.”

Gillard takes her role as role-model to women very seriously, as she does her views on reforming the education system. But that doesn’t mean she’s aloof or untouchable; with children at schools, she’s effortlessly hands on.

“I do have women come up to me and I have some men come up to me and say, ‘I was talking to my daughter about you and what it means to have a woman as Deputy Prime Minister and what that means to her future’. I do feel a connection to that sense of enthusiasm to seeing a woman come through to this level of politics,” she said, adding that it’s not just her flying the flag for women in the Rudd government and naming the other ministers. “With the kids there’s an energy that comes with it; it’s not all one way, it’s not you just putting out an energy, there’s a flow to it.

“I really like having the opportunity to muck around with kids and they ask some amazing questions.

“You learn a lot – some of the things the kids talk about and show you, the things they’re working on at school, it really is a fascinating study and there’s a sense of excitement about what’s possible in education when it’s going well and I get to see the best of it.

“I’m really conscious too that not every child is getting that quality education and that’s why we’re so driven to make a difference to education.”

Gillard was the first person in her family to attend university, which she said was made possible by the education reforms of the Whitlam government. She began to be interested in politics while at uni, when the “Phillip Lynch razor gang” under Malcolm Fraser began making cutbacks to university education.

“A theme of my life has been the power of education and that government can make a difference to it,” she said. “We went out and protested and got some things changed, not wholly reversed, but we got some things changed and that gave me the sense that if you went out to have your voice heard it can make a difference.”

From protester to being protested to, at the Workers Club on Tuesday night, Gillard sweeps past protesting farmers, who are repeating the rather bizarre chant:

“What do we want?”

“Aussie beef!”

“When do we want it?”

“Now!”

To which the obvious answer is well, why don’t you sign in to the Workers Club and order a steak, but they are protesting a serious point about the federal government relaxing import restrictions on beef from countries that have had bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE or more commonly mad cow disease).

At the dinner, which is, after all, a $100 a head fundraiser for Janelle’s campaign, the room is packed and they’re not there for the Aussie beef. Although there are, of course, a fair share of died-in-the-red-wool Labor supporters, there are also National Party members, Greens Party members and former National Party candidate and health advocate Sue Page.

Saffin introduces Gillard with obvious respect and tells the audience that in Canberra she and the other female politicians love the way Gillard conducts herself in the chamber.

“We quietly say ‘you go girl!’,” Saffin says.

So Gillard isn’t exactly speaking to the converted but she manages to hold the attention of the entire room, except for her staffers sitting at the media table, who look up long enough from their mobile phones where they’re obviously doing enormously important government business (or twittering to their equally-jaded mates in Canberra about having to visit regional Australia again) to notice when I and the other print journo at the table pull out our notebooks. They pull rank on Saffin’s media advisor and order her to tell us that everything the Deputy PM said was off the record.

I waited with baited breath for some earth-shattering announcement, but nothing caused me to dive for my iPhone and add to the huge amount of important electronic data being transmitted from our table.

Gillard talked about education, the difference a strong local member like Janelle can make to her electorate, Tony Abbott and finally climate change, about which she said she is ultimately optimistic, because of humans’ ability to learn, understand and adapt. She compared climate change to smoking.

“Thirty years ago, half the people in this room would have been smoking... Now we look back and say ‘how could they do that?’ I’m hopeful that in 20 years people will look back and ask ‘how could they do that?’ about carbon pollution,” she said.


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