On Friday I interviewed Julia Gillard for Mamamia and Fairfax newspapers. I was also meant to be interviewing Tony Abbott but he declined. Here, I’ve publish a full behind-the-scenes account of how my Julia interview almost didn’t happen, what her private plane is like and all those details I’d want to ask me if I were you. There will even be a short behind-the-scenes video. But today, here is the unedited piece I filed for the Sunday Age and Sun-Herald…….
Julia Gillard hasn’t had a day off since she became Prime Minister on June 24th. Not even half a day.
Given this, she’s remarkably chipper when I interview her on the Prime Ministerial jet at 7:30am on Friday morning. And while those around her are fighting off assorted winter bugs, she insists she’s in rude health. “I’ve had a little scratchiness in my throat, but it’s probably over-usage more than anything else” she laughs, sucking on a throat lozenge.
She averages about six hours sleep a night (double that of Kevin Rudd when he was PM) and grabs small snatches of time to decompress while campaigning. “It’s really the little moments, when you get back to wherever we’re staying that night and have a bath or just a relax for fifteen minutes,” she says. “I do get sleep and that helps. It’s not like I’m lying awake at night anxious; if I’m in bed, I’m asleep.”
Gillard is smaller than you expect, folded into her roomy airline seat in early her off-duty look of black jeans, jumper and patent leather flats. She had the rare treat of sleeping in her own bed last night so the Prime Ministerial hair was blow-dried at home by First Bloke, Tim Mathieson before dawn. She looks a little tired but only in the way we all do first thing. Her face is scrubbed clean without a scrap of make-up and for a woman of any age (she’s 48) I note that she has great skin.
“Because I get sunburnt in about 10 seconds flat, I’ve been a good sun screen user and I think it’s no more complicated than that” she laughs.
“There’s some speculation you’ve had Botox”, I tell her. “Did you know that?”
“No, I didn’t know about that,” she exclaims, raising her eyebrows. “The answer is no. The whole thing about needles in your skin…..” She shudders. “Having blood tests and that sort of stuff is necessary but choosing to stick an extra needle into your body, that’s not for me.”
Before disembarking, she’ll change into a simple black pants suit and later on, her make-up will be professionally applied before she faces the media. She doesn’t particularly relish the fluffing part of her job but accepts it, comparing it to “getting kitted up in a uniform”.
Right now though, it’s Julia unplugged. Real even.
It’s no wonder she and Tony Abbott used to have such great chemistry before they had to take their gloves off. They share a similar temperament. She ribs her staff and they rib her right back. She’s cheeky and flirty with everyone. She likes a joke and makes many at her own expense.
Today, she can afford to be upbeat because it’s been a good week for Labor. Finally. The first half of the campaign was a car crash for the government with Gillard struggling to find any clear air above the distracting maelstrom of Rudd, Latham and the perplexing arrival ‘Real Julia’. While most seem to agree that the decision of throw off the straight-jacket was the right one, it was widely seen as a mistake to announce it first.
This campaign has been a lot like speed dating. With two new leaders who less than a year ago would never have dared imagine doing these jobs in 2010, we’ve had to get to know them both fast before choosing one to run the country.
During the early weeks of the campaign, neither leader particularly shone. Gillard was bogged down by the distraction of leakers, gall bladders and unhinged former leaders inhaling her media oxygen. Meanwhile, Abbott surprised many by keeping his feet out of his mouth which was a perverse indication of worryingly low expectations.
Still, Gillard’s position has been the more challenging one. Since June 24, she’s been in the middle of a Kevin/Tony sandwich, forced to present herself as a more attractive leader than either of them. With Rudd as shadow Prime Minister and no real incumbent, it’s effectively a choice between two opposition leaders. And publicly, they are very different.
When put on the spot, Gillard’s default can be dull policy rhetoric which doesn’t show her at her animated best and was one of the reasons voters fell so dramatically out of love with Rudd. Tony Abbott is the opposite. His spontaneous reaction to stress is often candid. This may be politically dangerous for him but it’s infinitely more entertaining to watch and can be effective when he pulls it off. The images of him running and jumping with school kids have been among the most memorable and dynamic of the campaign.
However as the pressure builds in the final fortnight, Julia’s unflappable nature is set to work to her advantage.
Does anything flap her?
“I am pretty unflappable.”
Has she always been that way?
When I ask how people treat her differently now she’s Prime Minister, she says she works hard to dismantle the intimidation factor. ”You need to do even more to make people feel comfortable” she explains, acknowledging the danger of being surrounded by sycophants. “It does make me worry that people aren’t being as frank or as clear with you as they would in other circumstances. So you’ve got to push a little to make sure people aren’t putting a gloss on something because of that sense of hierarchy.”
She’s cautious of playing the gender card when I bring up Tony Abbott’s attitudes to women and how some have described them as “scary”. Is that an accurate assessment?
“I think in assessing who people want as a national leader, they’ll obviously look at people’s track record, look at their attitudes and predispositions but my attitude with Mr Abbott isn’t about questions of conscience that are resolved in the parliament through conscience votes, it’s about questions of policy and outlook and capacity for the future.”
Behind the rhetoric, she can be hard to read. I’m not sure if she’s referring to the conscience vote that saw women on both sides of parliament overturn Tony Abbott’s attempt to ban abortion drug RU486, or whether she genuinely doesn’t want to there. Reproductive choice has been an issue strangely absent from this campaign and you get the feeling both parties are happy to keep it that way.
What would a Tony Abbott government mean for women?
“I think he represents a set of policies that are bad for men and women” she deflects and goes on to list them.
Would she describe herself as a feminist? “I would. All my life I’ve believed that men and women have equal capacities and talents. That means there are as many smart women as there are smart men and it means there are as many dumb women as there are dumb men. So we’re equal and consequentially there should be equality in life’s chances.”
There’s been much talk about vision in this campaign, namely that neither leader seems to have any. It’s certainly been a very muted, small picture election devoid of ambitious ideas. In a skittish post-GFC climate, both leaders seem so determined to keep their heads down, vision has be relegated to the ‘risky indulgence’ basket.
This is a shame because sometimes, vision is symbolic. Yes, it’s easier to be visionary when you are opposing an incumbent government who has been in power for 12 years but still, Rudd made some significant symbolic gestures which spoke to his vision. Like signing Kyoto. And apologising to the Stolen Generation.
Admittedly, neither of these things came with an economic cost or a measurable downside and both occurred within weeks of Kevin07 coming to power (along with the vision-on-Viagra but ultimately impotent 2020 summit), riding on the tide of electoral euphoria. But to many, they suggested something bigger about Australia’s future.
For a large number of Australians, climate change is the symbolic issue of this election. Even among those who don’t understand the science in detail, there are many who want to see our leaders do something beyond merely acknowledging it exists. Which is why Labor’s proposal for a citizens assembly has been so uniformly panned by voters, media and industry. Does Gillard understand why that idea was met with such vitriol?
“Look, a lot of attention was put on the citizens assembly,” she concedes “but we announced a big suite of policies which I think build on what we’ve done so far.” She then goes on to list a raft of blink-and-you’ll-miss-them initiatives that plainly lack the visionary cut-through of any one big idea.
Wait, going backwards for a moment: why the citizens’ assembly again?
“I know it’s become a bit fashionable to scoff at the sense that the community’s got anything to offer to this process but I simply don’t share that. I think the engagement process with the community is necessary.”
Ok then, does this mean we can expect a citizens assembly on gay marriage some time soon?
Early on during this campaign, a man proposed to his girlfriend on bended knee in front of the PM as she walked past at an event. She stopped and warmly congratulated them as the media watched. What would have happened if a gay couple had done the same thing? Julia laughs nervously and exchanges a quick glance with her press secretary which I interpret as: “Note to self: must prepare for that awkward scenario. Stat.”
Those who are in favour of gay marriage have expressed disbelief that Julia can personally oppose it, given she’s not influenced by any religious or traditional views on the subject. She disputes the suggestion that she’s simply towing the party line, stating firmly, “I’m comfortable and supportive of the party’s position….I think attitudes in our society are changing but I don’t think the degree of change is as widespread as it looks on the surface, I think that people have pretty traditional attitudes about marriage in that sense.”
But you don’t, I point out. “I don’t in the sense of making my own choices, but I do in the sense of thinking for our society given our history our predispositions where we are… I think it’s right to keep the marriage act the way it is.”
This doesn’t ring true so I ask again: “How often do you have to bench your personal views in order to represent the party?”
She answers with a straight bat. “Being in the Labor party, I never felt that I was asked to vote for or do anything that really jarred against my values and beliefs.”
So what are these beliefs? What is Julia’s vision?
She methodically begins to detail a practical list of familiar Gillard values including “firm beliefs about work and the dignity of work” and “a passion about education and the transformation that’s been in my own life” and just when I’m losing concentration, she says, “I think there’s a lot of negative aspects to our national conversations, a sense of anything that can go wrong, probably will go wrong. I’m not that kind of person. I’m an optimist.”
She mentions Barack Obama’s Yes We Can campaign and suggests the coalition is more about No, We Can’t, noting
that looking backwards in a nostalgic way is risky because your view is so often obscured by rose coloured glasses. “The best days of this country are in front of it” she insists.
Years ago, when she was deputy opposition leader, I attended a private dinner with Julia and a number of senior female journalists. At one point, the youngest journalist at the table innocently piped up, “So Julia, do you think you’ll have kids?” Everyone at the table winced except Julia who answered with good grace just as she has done a thousand times since. Having repeatedly expressed a willingness to discuss this aspect of her life, I wade in: would she say she’s childless by choice or circumstance?
She pauses for a moment, wanting to get her words right, something she rarely needs to do.
“Look I actually think the truth is somewhere in between. There have been moments where I made different choices but I made them knowingly so I don’t try to suggest that I’ve been buffeted by circumstances. You make a set of choices, which accumulate to the fact that you’ve made one big choice.”
Are there misconceptions about women who don’t have children? Another pause.
“In our age, I forget what the statistics are now; I think it’s a quarter of women who’ll never have kids or something like that. I think there are some caricatures out there that are used in the media and television shows, but person-to-person, human-to-human I’ve never felt that.”
What about getting older, is she confronted by ageing?
“No, I wouldn’t say I feel confronted by it. Maybe that will come! In this position so much of how you look becomes public property, you can’t afford to be too psychologically hooked up about it. Every day I have people barrel up to me and say, ‘Oh, you’re so much prettier than you look on TV’ somehow thinking that might be a compliment! I always say thank you, but you are never going to meet as many people in real life as you see on TV so maybe that’s not such good news!”
Gillard’s hand gestures have become a much commented on aspect of her presentation and without thinking, I grab her hand to take a closer look.
“You know I declared 2010 the year of nice nails,” she tells me, explaining some process that involves buffing and filling. How high maintenance is it being the PM? “Oh, I don’t have any make up on now, but I’ll end up with TV makeup by the time I’m exposed to TV cameras today. In a different life I would be far less concerned about those things than I have to be.”
You don’t get the sense she’s complaining though. Gillard is not interested in looking back and she has no time for negativity. She shrugs off a question about what aspects of her ‘old’ life she might miss with slight irritation as though it’s never occurred to her.
And she refuses even to countenance what she’ll do if Labor doesn’t win. “Oh I’m not spending any time thinking about that, you can’t.”
So she’s not looking forward to a holiday?
“That’s right. I’m hoping there’s no day off in the future, perversely.”
How do you think Julia is going so far….?