Australia’s First Female Prime Minister on the Fight of Her Life

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
March 8 2013 12:38 PM

“Politics Is Not an Easy Thing”

An interview with Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard.

(Continued from Page 1)

L.W.: Why aren't people happy if the economy is so good?

J.G.: Mining's strong, there are huge capital inflows, and we've had a 50 percent appreciation of our currency in the past few years. A strong currency has got its advantages. It means you are paying less for imports, and that feeds into your low inflation rate. But it puts a lot of pressure on your export industry. We are asking people to pay 50 percent more to buy Australian. Manufacturing is in tough times because of the very strong Australian dollar. Tourism is obviously under pressure when our currency is so strong and people can take their tourism dollars to other parts of the world.

L.W.: How do you feel about Australia's relationship with the United States? Do you like Obama's pivot to Asia?

J.G.: Yes, we are delighted with the pivot or the rebalance. The U.S. has been a continuing presence in our region—it's not like the U.S. went away and came back. But to the extent the administration has decided to rebalance additional efforts into our region, we think that is all to the good.

L.W.: Is China now your No. 1 trading partner?

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J.G.: If you are just straight doing exports, that's true.

L.W.: How do you see the Australia-China relationship as opposed to the U.S.-Australia relationship?

J.G.: We can have a continuing deep relationship with the U.S.—our ally, our friend, a hugely significant economic relationship, cultural links—whilst strengthening relations with China.

We have fought alongside America in every war. Our relationship is an incredibly strong and deep one.

L.W.: How do you feel about being the first female prime minister?

J.G.: I was born in the same year as President Obama—we're 1961 kids. I don't wander around thinking about myself continuously as the first woman to do this job. I'm conscious that I am the first woman to do it. I like it when young women and girls come up to me and say it's changed their view of politics. It's got its issues, too—an endless fascination with clothes, hair, and heels. It takes some time for people to adapt to a female leader.

L.W.: Do you think there is discrimination?

J.G.: For all the time everybody has been alive in this country, when they thought of the prime minister, they thought of a man in a suit. I'm the first woman doing it; I'm the first person not to be that man in that suit.

L.W.: You joked with Obama when he said something about the difficulties of being an African American president?

J.G.: We did have a joke about it—the first African American vs. being a single, childless, atheist woman. "You reckon you've got it hard?" But it was done in a very light-spirited way.

I think it would be inconceivable for me if I were an American to have turned up at the highest echelon of American politics being an atheist, single, and childless. It says something about Australians in the sense that people are less interested in whether their leaders are people of faith than Americans are. We have been less inquiring and interested in family circumstances.

One of our most celebrated Labor prime ministers, Bob Hawke—well-known and self-confessed man with a hard drinking, hard living, womanizing reputation—that was just accepted as "Bob."

People are interested in a gossip sense, but they are not judgmental in the "it won't change my vote" sense.

L.W.: Your parents were immigrants from Wales. How old were you when you came here?

J.G.: I was 4. My father identified that the economic opportunities would be greater here.

L.W.: Did you start dabbling in politics early on?

J.G.: I was involved in student politics at university. I moved to Melbourne and joined the Labor Party. Then in 1998, I was first elected to federal Parliament. I became deputy leader of the opposition in 2006, then deputy prime minister when we were elected in 2007, and then prime minister in 2010.

L.W.: There is no love lost between you and Kevin Rudd.

J.G.: Politics is not an easy thing, and we have not been through an easy period.

L.W.: Do you really think you can pull off the election?

J.G.: I think we can win the election.

L.W.: It looks like you were doing better in the polls in December.

J.G.: I don't comment on polls. But if you were doing a parallel to American politics, there were plenty of times in President Obama's first term when people would have said he wasn't going to make a second.

L.W.: The Australian papers are extremely critical of you.

J.G.: We are living in an age when every piece of content here, as it is in the United States, is milked for the maximum shock, horror, or fear.

L.W.: How would you like to be remembered?

J.G.: I'm not in the remembering business. You can't afford to shift your focus from now to whenever that future might be.

Lally Weymouth is a senior associate editor of the Washington Post.