Sunday, 3 May 2015

Sydney Writers Festival - Julia Gillard

The Sydney Writers' Festival has begun!  I have a lot of exciting presentations to see over the course of the Festival with some of my favourite authors speaking about their work.

First up is Julia Gillard, author of My Story (2014), her memoir of her time as the first woman to hold the office of Prime Minister in Australia. Ms Gillard spoke on 1 May 2015 at the City Recital Hall and I had the privilege of attending to hear her speak in conversation with Jamila Rizvi.

The event was sold out in 48 hours and the standing room crowd was definitely filled with Gillard admirers. The love in the room was evident from the moment she stepped on the stage to wild applause, the cheers throughout her presentation and the standing ovation she received at the end. All of this praise was well deserved, as the evening was as insightful as it was entertaining.

What struck me the most was how her personality strongly shone through in a way that I had not seen it before. Here she was just Julia - smart, savvy, witty, strong, natural and profoundly human. She has been through a tremendously difficult professional period, and has come through stronger and more passionate than ever before. While I certainly admired her before this evening, I have an even greater respect for her now.

Waiting for Julia
Unfortunately, the Sydney Writers Festival did not allow the audience to take photographs, but the conversation has been recorded by SWF for a podcast (link will be added once podcast is available).  What follows are some of the key topics, themes and moments that resonated with me from the night.

On Pop Culture
The conversation started lightly with the topic of television. A few weeks ago, Gillard wrote a review of the first few episodes of this season's Game of Thrones for The Guardian. So Rizvi started by asking whether she had illegally downloaded the program, as so many Australians do. She assured us she had not, but rather had been given a preview copy for review purposes. She was then asked whether Canberra resembled House of Cards, The West Wing or The Hollowmen. Gillard responded that it was most like the romantic idealism of The West Wing, but without all the impossibility good looking people. Her recall of specific characters, episodes and quotes from these shows was quite humorous and revealed her to be a pop-culture junkie.

On Resilience
Constantly under attack as PM, Gillard was asked about her deep well of resilience. She said "resilience is a muscle. You can work it and make it stronger. I wasn't in politics for the applause from the crowd... I had a sense of purpose." She also indicated the toll on family and friends and said that it was probably harder for them as her "lioness instinct" tried to shield them from the worst of it.

One of the things I greatly admire about Gillard was her ability to put on a brave face, day after day, while under the most ridiculous personal pressure. She spoke about the need to not show emotion to protect herself and the women that come after her. She said if she had shown emotion "no one would have said 'Gee she's an interesting, rounded character', but rather 'she can't handle it'." Gillard said she was determined not to break down during her farewell speech as she didn't want the narrative to be that as a woman she couldn't cut it. "No one could say I was too fragile to take it!" she said to resounding applause.

She recounted the day she became Prime Minister, and said she can only "remember the days in disconnected fragments" as she had only had two hours sleep and there was no time to take it all in.

She also spoke about the resilience needed to get into politics. She said "it took me ten years to get into federal parliament. I lost preselection against Lindsay Tanner...  two attempts at the Senate... before finally being preselected for Lawlor." These repeated attempts gave her time to consider and it "got clearer and clearer about why I wanted it", but of course at the time it was devastating.

On the Real Julia
During the election campaign in 2010 she came under fire for the "Real Julia" announcement in response to two conflicting media narratives. On the one hand the media were saying that her campaign was tightly controlled spin, and on the other that it was out of control and messy. Announcing the Real Julia moment was her attempt at reset.

She wanted her policies to speak for themselves and have the campaign be about policy not personality. She said "I am not completely naive. I knew that one could not turn up a senior political figure without expressing a bit about yourself. But I also brought an inherent sense of personal reserve. I feel uncomfortable with the intensity of it."

In response to an audience question, she said that women can have families and enter Parliament, and referred to Tanya Plibersek and Nicola Roxon as role models.

On Loyalty
Rizvi then asked Gillard to explain the contradictory views in which she was portrayed as loyal to a fault, but also as a treacherous back-stabber. Gillard remarked "I consider myself to be loyal. I'd rather the fault be too much loyalty than a lot of what else you see in the political world".

Referring to Kevin Rudd, she spoke positively about his 2007 campaign and how he "masterfully aught the mood for change". She said that they had a strong friendship that had "frayed regrettably" and that she bears him no ill will. She said "I am not going to live my life grinding my guts going grrrr Kevin" and that if she ran into him she believes they would have a friendly conversation.

On the Carbon Tax
Asked about the Carbon Tax, Rizvi pointed out that most politicians and journalists only remember a part of what Gillard had said. The full quote was:

"There will be no Carbon Tax under a government I lead, but let's be very clear, I am determined to put a price on carbon."

Of course Tony Abbott and the media only recited the first part and labelled her a liar for bringing in the carbon price. Gillard spoke of the frustration she and her team felt that the second part had been forgotten. She said the Canberra press gallery didn't care about context and took on the whole "liar" idea as it sold papers.

On Gender
The discussion then turned to the portrayal of Gillard as treacherous. Gillard referred to Anne Summers' book Damned Whores and God's Police (1975) and the ways in which women are stereotyped and segmented. She said she was portrayed as a villainous Lady Macbeth, which was an easy stereotype for the media to go to.

Conversation turned to her references to gender in her farewell speech where Gillard said:

"It doesn't explain everything, it doesn't explain nothing, it explains some things, and it is for the nation to think in a sophisticated way about those shades of grey. What I am absolutely confident of is it will be easier for the next woman and the woman after that and the woman after that and I'm proud of that." 

Rivzi asked Gillard what are the 'some things' that could be explained by gender. Gillard said that "for all of us there is a whisper in the back of our head that tells us women nurture and empathise" and these traits are seen as inconsistent with leadership. She said that "leadership and likability correlate for men, but not for women". Speaking of Hillary Clinton she said that she has had a masterful start to her campaign, but that most of it has had to do with making her seem more likeable as gender feeds this notion that she is not likeable, which is certainly not true.

On the misogyny speech, Gillard said that it came from a place of cool anger. She recounted her day, first the Peter Slipper texts, then word that a no-confidence motion was going to put forward, and she was frustrated as all this was detracting from getting on and governing. So when she got into the Parliament, her cool anger welled up and she gave that speech. I watched the speech again and was deeply impressed by her oratory skills, her clarity and her passion. It is as compelling today as it was when she gave it a few years ago. That Tony Abbott is now Prime Minister, and still of the same view about women, is a terribly sad indictment on our nation.

When asked about the role of social media, Gillard said that often people hide anonymously behind social media to say abhorrent things they would never dream of saying in person. She said that "the issue here is how we conduct ourselves on social media" and the need to "install a sense of self so we are not hostage to what is said on social media".

Gillard was passionate in her feminism and resolute in her belief that women should be given a 'fair-go'. She was clear that women should have 50% of leadership roles in parliament, boardrooms and businesses. She said "the prison of gender roles imprisons men too. Feminism is about the best interests of men and women. It enables everyone the full set of options."

On the Media
Gillard spoke about digital disruptions and the death throws of the traditional media. During her time as PM two new 24-hour news stations (Sky and ABC) started and there was a constant need to feed the beast. She acknowledged that "segments of the media here are more comfortable with conservative governments. I think the current government has an easier run that the government I led or the government Kevin led."

On Australian Politics 
Gillard was repeatedly asked by the audience about various government policies from gay marriage to Palestine. Gillard said that she thought Bill Shorten, Tanya Plibersek and the team are doing a great job, but would not be drawn on the issues. She said she needs to exit the domestic political space and let the new team have their time to govern. She said that she is "Labor through and through" and that "I see much I disagree with but I understand the obligation of my status" as a former leader and the need to "clear the space".

She spoke positively about Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott and how they "put national interest ahead of their own political interest".

She frequently joked about Tony Abbott and his onion-eating came up more than a few times to great laughter. It is clear that there is no love lost in her relationship with Abbott.

One of the things she did talk about was voting. She said "I am concerned about young people not enrolling to vote. What a precious thing it is to vote. People around the the world fight and die for the right to vote."

On Education
The topic she is most passionate about is education and its ability "to share opportunity and transform lives". To this end, she is happy in her post-political life as a fellow of the Brookings Institute, and the Chair of the Global Partnership for Education, as well as serving on the Board of Beyond Blue. She doesn't know where she will be in 10-20 years but she acknowledged she is living a different kind of life now, forever committed to service for the greater good.

I look forward to seeing what she gets up to next!  My review of My Story (2014) is also available on this blog.