So how do former prime ministers fill their days after leaving office? Some hit the lecture circuit or head to the boardroom; others stay on in Parliament and plot a potential comeback; others leave politics entirely. In Julia Gillard’s case, it was none of the above. She may have left politics after stepping down as Australia’s first woman prime minister, but politics hasn’t left her.
Today, she lives something of a globetrotting existence – a testament to her array of academic commitments (she lectures in Adelaide, London and Washington, DC) and her roles as patron of the Campaign for Female Education and chair of the Global Partnership for Education. Her passion for both comes through loud and clear.
“The Campaign for Female Education is a wonderful organisation that makes a difference to the lives of girls in Africa,” she explains. “It helps them to stay in school, and then acts as a network to help the next generation of girls stay in education, so it is an incredibly sustainable model. And the Global Partnership for Education is the global institution that catalyses donor funds from governments to support education in developing countries. By 2030 – the end period of the Sustainable Development Goals – there will be 1.6 billion school-age children on the planet and if current trends work their way through to 2030, 800 million will emerge from school without secondary level skills, which is a recipe for disaster in all sorts of ways.”
So, in other words, she is keeping herself very busy.
Gender on the agenda
Gillard served as Australia’s prime minister between 2010 and 2013. They were years of achievement and challenges, highs and lows, intensity and pressure. Granted, those words could be written of practically any prime minister, but in Gillard’s case she also had to face down other problems – particularly the personal criticism and abuse that stemmed from her gender. Indeed, type her name into Google and among the top results is her epic anti-misogyny speech that went viral around the world.
Looking back at this period, Gillard admits to some regret about how she dealt with what was a consistent wave of gender-based attacks. “For a long time in office I didn’t respond to it at all, and I look back now and think that was probably an error,” she concedes. “I had assumed that the maximum reaction to me being the first female prime minister would manifest itself in the immediate months after I took over. What I actually found was that because I came to the premiership in a political crisis, the months afterwards were not the peak of the reaction – rather, the gender stuff grew over time.”
She goes on to say that as her government sought to tackle hard issues and headed into “politically choppy waters”, her gender repeatedly came to the fore. “The harder it got, the more likely that the gendered insult became the go-to weapon and it got worse and worse over time,” she recalls. “The proposition was effectively that because I didn’t have children, I didn’t understand ordinary people and their lives. I was also labelled ‘ruthless’ in getting the job and therefore everything was about my ‘political vanity’. It was a narrative that grew a lot of traction and certainly the language and imagery around it was highly gendered.”
Although Gillard won global sympathy – particularly from fellow women in public life – she believes there is much still to do in breaking through the glass ceiling that hovers, persistently, over too many boardrooms, legislatures and corridors of power. “We are still not at the stage where we have enabled our working structures to allow people to combine work and family life,” she says.
“This still happens today and it still creates a career track for women who bear the predominant caring responsibility. They step out to have children and the step back in is very difficult, as they are not on the same track they envisaged themselves being on before they stepped out of the workplace. Although there are some women in Australian politics today who have very successfully combined work and family life, I would hope that the dialogue isn’t about the choices women have made around their own family structures. Instead, it should be more about the challenges which still exist as we try to support women – and men – with a wider array of choices about how work and family life can go together.”
As prime minister, Gillard’s in-tray – naturally enough – did not lack for challenges. And while she is at pains to stress that her predecessors also faced daunting issues, she suggests – politely – that today’s generation of government leaders are confronted by a myriad of problems that have made governing far more difficult than in previous decades. She cites the impact of technology on the media as a case in point.
“It’s not just the speed of the media cycle but also the way it has affected the way the media engages in political debate – the premium is now the number of people reading the content, so they want it to be as schlock-horror as possible to get as many readers as possible,” she says. “I think this has changed the rhythm of government. Even when I was prime minister and things continued to get faster, you’d put out a major policy statement at 10am and, by midday, journalists were ringing my press secretary to see if they had another story from us. This rhythm is not the rhythm of good government.”
Looking more broadly, she goes on to say that the forces at play in today’s public arena are very different to what existed a decade or more ago. “In many communities around the world, there is a loss of faith or backlash against globalisation and migration, as well as concerns about identity and where digital disruption is taking us,” she points out. “These undercurrents have all been turbo-charged by the global financial crisis and make it a difficult era in which to govern.” Adequately responding to those many people who feel cut off and left out of the political loop won’t be easy, but Gillard says it is an urgent imperative.
“This is exactly the sentiment which needs to be addressed and it is understandable,” she says. “I turned 55 recently and if you think of someone my age who may have left school quite young, who thought he would be a manufacturing worker for his career – which would have been seen as a secure and good job – and you think of how the world has changed. Manufacturing has been hollowed out, skill levels have risen and risen, the gender revolution has taken place, and his community has been reshaped by immigration. This is a lot to cope with, so no wonder people feel left out and left behind.”
So, what’s the solution? Unfortunately, Gillard has not – as yet – come up with the answer. But she doesn’t believe that it’s a lost cause. “If I had the formula for fixing this, I would have written the global bestseller to change everything – but I don’t,” she admits.
“I think aspects of the formula are social support and educational opportunities, and in Australia we have tried to reinforce and buttress these kinds of things. But I also think there is a narrative that will need to speak to identity politics and fears about diversity and change, a narrative that no-one has yet quite found. These fears have fed into Brexit; in the US they have given rise to Donald Trump; in Australia they have helped people who are anti-globalisation and anti-immigration to be elected to the Senate; and they are fuelling both the hard left and the hard right. No nation is immune to this.”
Partly, this is down to what she describes as a “fragmentation” of the media and where people get their facts from. “This has been on display in some of the big democratic debates, like Brexit for example,” she says. “There is a danger that people can end up in self-reinforcing bubbles that never get anywhere near the facts. We’ve seen this in the US and the startling percentages of people who still believe President Obama was born in Kenya and is a Muslim.”
Reversing these trends won’t come easy, but few would doubt that Gillard will continue to stand tall in the arena, leading the charge for inclusive governance, stronger education systems and a world free of gender discrimination in the months and years to come.
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