On December 23rd I joined about 750 other people who queued for several hours on a warm and sunny Canberra morning, to have a few words and get a book signed by our former Prime Minister. I wasn’t surprised there were so many people; we are living in the Republic of the ACT after all. We are a fairly staunch Labor town and most of us are educated and aware enough to know that Julia Gillard was treated appallingly during her three years and three days as Australia’s first woman Prime Minister.
All that bleating about “pulling the gender card” was absolute bullshit, wasn’t it? That speech. That speech about misogyny and sexism that went viral and has been viewed about three million times on YouTube was absolutely riveting, unforgettable and inspired. And Mr Rabbit and his blue-tie cronies bleated on about the gender card. What a load of crap. They were the ones pulling the gender card with their sly, sleazy statements about Julia’s dad “dying of shame”, and calling her a “witch”, and commenting on the size of her bum, her hips, her nose, her clothes, the redness of her hair, the Australian-ness of her accent. Oh and snide remarks about her childlessness, her atheism, and after all she was an unmarried woman living in a shock horror, long-term defacto relationship. And all those commentators telling us that the criticism wasn’t about her appearance or her dress, that it was about her policies and her behaviour. Well, tell me Andrew Bolt and all your other ridiculous “shock jock” buddies how many times did you comment on the Shadow Ministry’s creased nondescript suits and crumpled shirts and fat beer guts and bad grooming, and lack of women in the shadow cabinet? Um, let me see…mmm, how ‘bout never?
And how many times did you question Tony Abbott about his wife’s sexuality? Or her job, or lack of one, or how dumb she looked trailing behind her husband, smiling, waving, trotting out the obligatory offspring, and not speaking? Let’s see, once again – never.
Plenty of people have written far more eloquently than I about this period in Australia’s political history and many more will probably do so. Why did I want to meet Julia Gillard? Well, for one, I was so proud that Australia finally had a woman Prime Minister, when countries not always known for their record of equality had elected female PMs decades before us (think Indonesia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Turkey: all those nasty Muslims! Fancy them having women in leadership! Shock, horror!), and despite there being a number of smart and eligible women in politics it seemed that conservative Australia just wasn’t ready for a woman leader. I was proud that the Labor party had the guts to back Julia Gillard and depose that odious, bad-tempered micro manager K-Rudd; a pretty hard task when most of the electorate had no idea how destabilising Kevin 07 was. How did I know? Well, I do live in Canberra. And I was also privy to conversations with a whole lot of very distressed senior public servants, people of integrity who were so stressed and distressed that they weren’t eating, sleeping or seeing their families because of the onerous workload that Kevin kept piling up on top of them. Mostly because he couldn’t, or wouldn’t make a decision.
I wanted to know how Julia Gillard kept getting up day after day to face her enormous workload and the ever-increasing sexist criticism, the bloody-minded rudeness that was flung at her every day. I could only conclude that she was one very resilient woman, focussed on doing her job. I wondered what support she had, and hoped that she and her partner had good people around them to counter the bigots and misogynists.
The night before the book signing I thought hard about what I wanted to say to her. I dearly wanted her to write “to Julia, from Julia” on the inside cover of my book, but apart from that I couldn’t think of anything witty and eloquent to say. The day of the signing I was held up at work and I desperately texted a couple of family members who were holding my place in the queue to ask if I’d still be able to make it. The signing was due to start at 11am, and I was worried because I wouldn’t make it to the city until 11.30am. They reassured me that the line was long; it stretched from the entry to the Canberra Centre back to the Carousel; I’d be ok, I wouldn’t miss her. The crowd was friendly and excited; shopping centre staff gave out free water and we were delighted to finally be inside the air-conditioned centre and we could see her. The line moved fairly quickly and before I knew it I was standing in front of her. She was smaller and more diminutive than she seemed on TV; she looked relaxed and her skin was glowing. She has great posture too. Her assistant took my book and handed it to her.
“Hi Julia, I’m Julia”, I gushed. OMG. She looked at me and said “Well, that deserves an underline”. And she underlined her name and then signed my book. She had the good grace not to look at me as if I was a very special kind of idiot. There was a pause, and I knew I was expected to move on. But I didn’t. Instead I said very quickly: “I’m so sorry for everything that happened to you while you were the Prime Minister. I think you were a fantastic Prime Minister – you did a great job, I don’t know how you did it day after day. Thank you so much”. Then it was over, she smiled and said thank you and she touched my hand, ever so briefly, but genuinely. I was smitten, and I walked away clutching my book to my chest and joined my family where we waited to take photos of each other with Julia in the background, still signing, still smiling.