Julia Gillard has been out of power for more than a year, but she is still dear to the hearts of Labor Party faithful. The former PM received a standing ovation, together with a rousing rendition of Happy Birthday, last night at Sydney’s Seymour Centre to discuss her book, My Story, with writer Julie McCrossin.

It was a packed house, and Gleebooks, which co-sponsored the event, said tickets had sold out within a few hours. The audience was not disappointed — Gillard was warm, funny and insightful, expertly drawn out by McCrossin. She asked the former PM, “If an 18-year-old aspiring politician read My Story, what were the key messages?” Gillard replied that the most important message was that you had to work out exactly why you wanted to be in politics because you needed a sustaining passion for public life. Another lesson was not to be deterred by tough times, pointing out that it took her 10 years and three failed attempts to finally gain preselection for a Labor seat. Would-be pollies should also nurture relationships in their lives with people who would “be there in the days that are beyond politics,” she said.

Gillard’s own family history is a “typical migrant story”. Her father had had to leave school at 14, despite gaining a scholarship to continue, because his Welsh coal mining family needed his wage. Gillard’s parents moved to Australia when Julia and her sister were toddlers, determined to make a better life for their girls. Both of Gillard’s parents found good jobs and brought the girls up with a love of hard work.

Our only female PM told some good stories about visiting political leaders. When US secretary of state Hillary Clinton was in town, Gillard decided the two of them should take a walk along the Yarra River, followed by lunch at a local restaurant. Gillard’s “advance team”, consisting of one of her staffers and a federal police officer, walked the route and checked for problems. But Clinton’s 43-strong advance team was far more thorough, and ultimately their walk was accompanied by an army of Secret Service personnel, police boats on the river and armed helicopters whirring overhead. Once inside the restaurant, officers constantly checked the sight lines for snipers. This made her grateful that she lived in a country where residents didn’t shoot their politicians, Gillard said.

“When asked about the carbon tax, Gillard spoke assuredly. ‘As a question of science, this drives me absolutely nuts … and I find it hard to work out how we got here.'”

McCrossin, who recently married her female partner in New York, said she supported Gillard’s de facto married status and asked her why she didn’t support gay marriage. Gillard’s answer was confusing, and even McCrossin said at one stage, “what do you mean by that?” The former politician denied McCrossin’s suggestion that it was due to the concerted opposition of Catholic right-wing union leaders like Joe de Bruyn, who used their numbers to vote down the issue at Labor conferences. Gillard kept repeating her age — 53 — and saying that she was of a generation that was “looking for a different way of recognising relationships that had solemnity for them but did not need to come under this rubric of marriage.” Did that really answer the question? No, but McCrossin smoothly moved on.

When asked about the carbon tax, Gillard spoke assuredly. “As a question of science, this drives me absolutely nuts … and I find it hard to work out how we got here.” When she was a teenager, everyone (except the fair-skinned redhead) lay in the sun slathered in coconut oil in order to get a tan, she said. “Then along came the scientists and said that sun exposure can lead to cancer. We have the worst melanoma rates in the world and so [in this country] people’s attitudes to the sun have completely changed.” She pointed out that building workers now wore long-sleeved shirts for protection and children went to school in hats. “This indicates that we are capable of hearing something from scientists and saying, ‘I am going to respond to that’.” She said the carbon tax would return, but the case for it would have to be better presented: “We will get there.”

On the Gonski education funding scheme, Gillard said that one of its most important elements was that it changed the familiar public-versus-private-schooling debate to one of allocating funding where it was needed. Although disadvantage is found overwhelmingly in public schools, it also exists in Catholic schools and inexpensive fee-paying Christian schools. And it wasn’t until the My School website was up and running, identifying schools with specific needs, that state and federal governments could move towards a more equitable funding model, she said. Although certain elements of the Gonski reforms have been watered down (and the legislation has not yet been fully passed), “we are never going back to the unfair funding system that we had before”.

Finally, after 90 minutes, it was time for Gillard to leave the podium and start signing some books. As I left, the queue to have your book signed stretched right around the theatre, suggesting that her birthday dinner might be a late one. Not a Kevin Rudd supporter in sight.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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