Julia Gillard saw herself as equal to men years before becoming the first woman to lead Australia. As a teenager she forced her high school to abandon the practice of putting more girls than boys at work cleaning the school and demanded the job be shared equitably.
“It was biased toward the boys, she saw the principal about it and it was later changed to be more equal,” her father, John Gillard, recalled in a telephone interview.
Gillard’s rise to prime minister June 24 marks a move toward greater gender equality in Australia, a country of manly men whose most popular leader, Bob Hawke, won a Guinness Book of World Records award in 1954 for drinking a so-called yard of beer (2.5 pints) in 11 seconds. The ruling Labor Party is betting that her working-class roots and ability to compel change will make her the country’s first female leader to be voted in when elections are held later this year.
“This is a cultural shift in Australia, where a female can win over the hard men of the Labor Party,” said Andrew Hughes, who specializes in political marketing at Canberra-based Australian National University. At a book launch July 13, former Labor Prime Minister Hawke embraced Gillard and told her, “anything you want me to do, I’ll be there with bells on.”
That Gillard, 48, would be the first woman to gain national political backing comes as no surprise to those who have known her since childhood. The high school incident was an early indication of her tenacity and willingness to take on difficult issues. She won her job after defeating her one-time political partner, Kevin Rudd, in a leadership challenge after he shelved climate-change laws and proposed a mining tax that saw party support plummet to an election-losing level.
The earliest a vote could be held is Aug. 7, according to the Australian Electoral Commission.
She has her detractors. She dodged an egg thrown at her during a July 9 visit to Perth, a mining stronghold, and East Timor has rejected her plan to house a refugee center there for asylum seekers. A July 12 Nielsen opinion survey showed the Labor Party’s support fell three percentage points to 52 percent since she took office. The opposition Liberal-National coalition’s popularity rose three percentage points to 48.
“The fall in opinion is a bit of the gloss coming off Gillard as a leader,” said Rick Kuhn, a political scientist at Australian National University.
Gillard’s political philosophy is pure Labor. She has pushed change in the country’s health care and education systems and has backed union efforts to increase their power with employers.
“She’s part of the Labor culture and understands it,” said her biographer Jacqueline Kent. “It’s her tribe, having been involved in Labor politics since her student days. I reckon she’ll be a very good prime minister, she has a first rate political mind, she is calm and logical and accepts responsibility for her decisions.”
Born in the Welsh town of Barry, where her father worked as a policeman, Gillard suffered from bronchial pneumonia as a child. The family emigrated to Australia when she was four and her sister Alison seven on the advice of doctors who urged them to move to a warmer climate.
She grew up in a two-bedroom house in suburban Adelaide and attended the local primary and high schools, her father said. She was a great debater, leading her team to record wins, according to her high school principal Susan Cameron. “Learning was a labor of love for Julia,” she said.
Gillard enrolled at the University of Adelaide in 1979 and was active in the Australian Union of Students, a body which advocated for student rights, then transferred to Melbourne University in 1982.
“She was funny and quick witted and argued with a great deal of persuasion,” said Ken McAlpine, a fellow politics student in Adelaide. “I remember her speaking at rallies and she was extremely persuasive -- that is why she went so far.” She became president of the student body in 1983.
After graduating in 1987 with a law degree, she joined the office of Slater & Gordon in Melbourne, formed in 1935 to represent labor unions and their members. She became partner in 1990, according to her biography on the Australian parliament’s website. The firm has a room named after her in its Melbourne office.
All along she had her eye on entering politics. It took her four tries to gain a Labor Party endorsement. She got it in 1998 and won the suburban Melbourne seat of Lalor. Her constituency includes working-class suburbs as well as small farms and ranches.
In her first speech before parliament that year she said she stood for “ordinary Australians, those who have neither wealth or power.”
As the Labor Party’s spokeswoman on health issues from 2003 to 2006, she often sparred with her opponent in the upcoming election, Tony Abbott, 52, who leads the opposition coalition.
In one exchange, she referred to Abbott as a “sniveling grub.” Asked to apologize, she was suspended for 24-hours for responding: “If I have offended grubs, I withdraw unconditionally.” The next day she was thrown out again for calling Abbott an “idiot.”
She’s used to battling stereotypes. In a May 2006 interview with the Sydney Morning Herald, Senator Bill Heffernan, who like Abbott is a member of the Liberal party, said he preferred Rudd to the childless Gillard and called her unfit to lead because she is “deliberately barren.”
‘Bucket of Nappies’
People such as Gillard have “no idea what life’s about,” Heffernan told the newspaper. “The most difficult job in the world is the priesthood and the most important job in the world is parenthood. Rudd’s got three kids. He knows what having a bucket of nappies is all about.”
Heffernan, Gillard said in a subsequent radio interview, is “a man in the past, with very old-fashioned values.” Her male partner, Tim Mathieson, was a hair stylist when they met and he now works with Ubertas Property in Melbourne as a real estate agent. He congratulated Gillard with a hug and a kiss as she was sworn in at Government House on June 24.
Gillard has already succeeded where Rudd had failed. On July 2 she scaled back a proposed 40 percent tax on mining companies’ profits and won their backing, undermining what had become a rallying cry for Abbott. Rudd’s plan had prompted companies such as BHP Billiton Ltd. and Rio Tinto Group to run ads charging the policy would hinder the economy.
As Rudd’s deputy, she was responsible for the education component of the government’s 2009 A$42 billion ($37.1 billion) economic stimulus package and critics say she squandered the money, paying up to 10 times more for libraries, halls and classrooms than what a standard construction firm would charge.
A report published in April by the Public Schools Principals Forum, an independent group based in Sydney, said that 112 of 220 government primary schools surveyed said they “definitely weren’t getting value for their money.” Another 57 schools were “unsure” whether they had.
Gillard has defended her record and set up a taskforce led by former UBS Australia Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Brad Orgill to examine claims of waste. The taskforce’s report is due to go to the government after Aug. 3, said a spokesman who declined to be named.
She has also announced a new policy on asylum seekers, saying July 6 that she has discussed setting up a regional processing center with officials in New Zealand, East Timor and Indonesia. East Timor rejected the plan. Gillard said during a July 13 press conference she would work to build consensus on climate change and put a price on carbon after the Kyoto Protocol expires at the end of 2012.
Gillard defeated Rudd after members of the Labor Party’s more conservative faction gave her their support and the country’s unions extended their traditional Rudd backing to her. Under Rudd’s leadership “a good government had lost its way,” she said.
“What drives me in politics is my passionate belief about delivering change in this nation,” Gillard told reporters in Canberra after taking office. “Change in education because education made me, change in our health care system, making sure people have got the benefits of dignity and work.”
Her political hero is Aneurin “Nye” Bevan, the son of a Welsh coal miner, who served as a U.K. Cabinet minister for the Labour Party after World War II. He was a member of parliament from 1929 and backed measures that benefited the working class, including the establishment of the National Health Service, with the government taking responsibility for medical services and offering free diagnosis and treatment.
Her working-class roots have not prevented her from taking on the unions when she believes they are wrong. “She’s tough,” said Tony Maher, president of the Sydney division of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union. “She came to the triennial congress of the unions in Australia in the middle of last year and stared us down over building industry laws. She didn’t back off.”
The dispute centered on union calls to do away with the Australian Building and Construction Commission, which has the power to jail workers found to violate codes, on grounds that it discriminates against laborers. With union members chanting “shame” during her speech, the Age newspaper reported at the time, Gillard explained that pressure and lobbying efforts wouldn’t force the federal government to change laws.
Gillard has broad appeal in a culture that can seem male-dominated, said Kathleen Swinbourne, coordinator of the Australian Womens Electoral Lobby. “Her appeal is remarkably broad -- she’ll win an election hands down,” Swinbourne said.
Before becoming prime minister, Gillard had joked that she had a better chance of playing for the Western Bulldogs, the male Australian Football League team she supports. The day she won office she received a text message from Bulldogs’ player Jason Akermanis asking if she would join the team. AFL, a working-class game and the country’s most popular sport, combines elements of rugby and soccer.
“I’m aware I’m the first woman to sit in this role but I didn’t set out to crash my head against any glass ceilings,” Gillard said on June 24. “I set out to keep my feet on the floor and be there walking the streets, talking to Australians about what’s the right thing to do for this nation.”