Prime Minister Julia Gillard is interviewed for Daily Life in her Parliament House suite in Canberra on 30 November 2012 Photo: Andrew Meares for AFR Photo: Andrew Meares
Jacqueline Maley: You’ve gotten over 500 nominations for the Influential Female Voices poll. You get so much criticism and vitriol within these four walls. Do you get a sense when you leave Canberra and the parliamentary sphere of that support and admiration from women around Australia, particularly after that speech?
Julia Gillard: I do get a sense of it. It actually penetrates into this place too. We get calls people send things in, they email things. I’ve had women send in jewellery and scarves and cards and flowers and things they want me to have when they see all the negative onslaught from the Opposition. They want me to know they’re thinking about me and how supportive they are of me and of having a woman in this job. So it does get into this bubble too, but it’s even more transparent when I get to move around and talk to people, where I have both men and women come up and talk about being the first female, the first woman Prime Minister and sign something for their daughter and I’ve had men and women come up and talk to me about the impact of the speech.
JM: Some of the negative spin that has been put on your popularity with women is you might have a good thing going on with female voters but you have a problem with male voters. What do you say to that criticism?
JG: I think that voters will judge. They will judge our plan for the nation’s future. They’ll judge the policies. They’ll judge me. My sense is people get a little too hard and fast about the lines here. I’ve had a lot of men come up to me and say ‘Congratulations to you for giving that speech because my wife or girlfriend, my sister had this problem in her workplace and it kind of gave voice to her experience so good on you’. Or they’ve come up to me and said, ‘You know I wasn’t sure what to think and then I’ve had a really interesting discussion in my own workplace with women there about what the speech meant to them’. I just think we can get a little bit too hard and fast on who thinks what about women’s role in Australia today.
JM: On the speech, had it been germinating for a while? How much of it was off the cuff?
JG: Well ... I knew that on the parliamentary day in question that there would be questions about Peter Slipper and issues about sexism so I did take into the parliament with me Tony Abbott’s key quotes which I thought were objectionable. Apart from that I did hand written notes as he was speaking and just got up and did it. So I hadn’t been thinking about giving a speech like that, I hadn’t prepared for the giving of that speech. I had the quotes with me. I did it off the cuff, made a couple of notes as to how I wanted to structure it as he was speaking.
JM: Why that moment? You had been subjected to a lot of sexist abuse … for at least a year and a half by that stage. You had remained pretty silent on it. Why did you choose this moment to make that calling out?
JG: Because I could not, I could not take the hypocrisy of the leader of the Opposition trying to talk about sexism that was just so over the top, so absurd, so double-standards from a man who has conducted himself the way he has, said the things he’s said and who has in my view such old fashioned and close-minded attitudes. I was not going to sit silent.
JM: What happened after the speech? You come back to your office, did you get text messages? When did you start getting an inkling that it was a watershed moment?
JG: I must admit, I thought I had given a hard-hitting speech so I was satisfied with the speech I had given. It was what I wanted to say, I thought I had given a hard hitting speech but I didn’t have any inkling of the effect of it and I, having given it, swung my chair round to Wayne Swan. [You remember it was then a debate back and forth and there were a number of speakers] and I said to Wayne, ‘Oh, we’re going to have to sit here now and listen to all these bloody speeches in reply. I should get my Chief of Staff to bring some correspondence so I could be getting on with something.
And Wayne with a slightly odd look on his face, and he is not someone known for the most demonstrative facial expressions, Wayne with a slightly odd look on his face said ‘Yeah, you can’t really give the ‘I accuse’ speech and settle back and do your correspondence’.
So I swung my chair back round to face the Opposition and I thought about it and thought, ‘Yeah, that must have been harder hitting than I thought to react that way.’ And then by the time I came back the office was abuzz with the reactions of people here and parliamentarians but also reactions that were starting to flood in from outside.
JM: What about personal reaction? Did you get a text from your mum or your sister or your niece? Did you get any of the women in your life saying ‘Go girl’?
JG: Not directly from my family. I talked to Mum about it on the weekend following. They’re not minute by minute political watchers but certainly from girlfriends, from female friends, got reaction immediately and from many men that I know as well.
JM: What kinds of things were they saying?
JG: It was, ‘Way to go’ kind of stuff. Well done.
JM: What did your mum say?
JG: She obviously knew I’d given the speech and the kind of reaction and was talking about how big it had got. She’s not taking on a whole lot of political content at the moment particularly, but for her it was kind of intriguing and things like YouTube and stuff, you know, social media, she doesn’t understand much about that so we were talking about how social media works and the kind of reaction of social media.
JM: Speaking of social media, I want to quote David Campese who wrote a tweet last week saying girls shouldn’t write about rugby. He was lambasted for it on Twitter and then he wrote a piece on a rugby website saying ‘Okay using the term ‘girl’ wasn’t the greatest but Gillard’s trying to use the sexist thing about everything right now in Australia’. What would you say to people who accuse you of playing the sexism card just to stanch any criticism?
JG: Well it’s absurd. And no proper analysis of Australian politics could lead you to that conclusion. I am someone who across my political life and particularly this year have responded to criticisms I give as good as I get I am not precious about criticisms but I am also not going to pretend when those criticisms are sexist that they are something other than sexist.
So I’m going to name sexism when I see it but I am equally going to deal with non-sexist criticism as what it is and give as good as I get on non-sexist criticism. I’m happy to have a feisty debate about anything but that doesn’t excuse sexism in public life and it doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t deal with it.
How can anybody make the intellectual slip that a woman saying ‘I’m not putting up with sexism, I’m standing up for my rights’ is somehow playing a victim-style card? How do you get yourself there? Does that mean that people shouldn’t stand up for their rights and just allow themselves to be there silent?
JM: How do you deal with the criticism on a personal level? Do you have particular support people you go to? Are you able to compartmentalise it or does any of it get to you?
JG: I am able to compartmentalise it. I draw a very hard line in my mind between the public hurly burly and my sense of myself and who I am and I don’t let that public hurly burly affect my sense of myself and who I am. And also criticism most hurts when it comes from people you respect.
JM: What kind of support does Tim give you? Do you talk through the minutiae of the political day or does he give you more a sense of normality and fun outside politics?
JG: More a sense of normality and distance. We don’t talk through the minute details of every political day. He watches it very very closely. Sometimes we have a discussion about whether he’s watching it too closely in the sense that he’s more at risk that it emotionally affects him than it emotionally affects me.
I think that’s partly because the people who care about you are more ferocious in your defence, more ferocious in their emotional reaction to the need to defend you than you are for yourself and so things that get said about me, often he’ll feel more hurt or agitated about them than I will.
He watches it closely but we don’t clock on for the night shift and re-live it. We talk about other things.
JM: What kinds of things do you talk about?
JG: We’ll talk about his day, we’ll talk about friends and what they’re doing, we’ll talk about TV shows, we’ll talk about what the dog’s been up to that day. Just all the normal stuff of ordinary life.
JG: Your toughness and steeliness is often noted. Is that something that you think is innate in your personality or is it something you’ve cultivated over the years?
JM: I think some parts of it are innate and some parts of it have been strengthened. I have always been a very, even as a child, I have always been a very calm person. I am not someone who gets upset easily. I am not someone who screams and yells and carries on and throws tantrums. I am a very even tempered person. That’s who I am.
I have always had a very strong sense of myself and not had that easily pushed and pulled by the views of others. And I suspect that being able to get a sense of remove on it. It’s bit like a muscle, the more you work it the stronger it gets.
JM: If you were going to give women advice in any field of endeavour to cultivate their own strength inner strength and toughness, what would you say?
JG: What I’d say is it’s only that woman who truly knows who she is and she should keep very strongly that sense of self. You don’t have to let others define you.
JM: You’ve got a day off and you’ve got a couple of bottles of wine and you can go anywhere you like for lunch. You can have any group of women with you, which women do you take?
JG: Ahh. I would, um, go to any of our great waterfront restaurants that would offer me a view a seat outside on a day on a balmy but not too hot day. So you need the right day and the right place because I’m a person who gets sunburnt in 20 seconds flat.
So: right day right place. Group of women: I’d take some of my long term mates, friends I’ve had for a lifetime and my sister Alison and we’d add in for company some interesting women from around the world. I’d certainly want Hillary to be there. She’s a fascinating person and a great discussion. It’d be nice to have some women like Cate Blanchett there to see what they’ve got to say about life and hear amusing stories about movie-making and, uh, who else? I need to think about this. Who else would you want there? I’d probably get out some of the wise ones too like Joan Kirner, Anne Summers. Some of the wise ones.
JM: Which brings me to my next question, which is feminist icons, women you admire.
JG: Well certainly Joan Kirner, I first got to know her, not as a big time politician but as the mother of a mate of mine in uni, as Dave Kirner’s mum. But I think I had some ability watching her, to know what the reaction to women in politics can be like. She had to put up with all the, you know, Mother Russia, spotted dresses cartooning. She dealt with it with grace and humour. She’s someone I admire. I admire Hillary Clinton, what a life, with potentially more to come.
JM: Just quickly, which skill, political or otherwise, do you not have that you wish you do? You can say dancing if you like, or rap?
JG: [Laughs] I am not a great actress so what you see is what you get and sometimes I think it might be better to be a little bit more poker faced about it and able to pretend.