“Politics Is Not an Easy Thing”
An interview with Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard.
Photo by Brendon Thorne/Getty Images
SYDNEY, Australia—Julia Gillard, Australia's first female prime minister, is fighting a two-front political war: The opposition party leader is ahead of her in the polls before the September election, and disgruntled members of her party are plotting to restore former prime minister Kevin Rudd—the same man she ousted two and a half years ago—to power. Gillard sat down this past week in Sydney with Lally Weymouth and discussed her opponents, her relationship with President Obama, and whether Australians or Americans are more judgmental. Excerpts:
Lally Weymouth: You face an election in September. You are trailing in the polls, as is your party. What is your view of the situation?
Julia Gillard: We've got a big fight on our hands and a lot of hard work to do. We've been in this period of hyper-partisanship, replicating some of the cycles of American politics. We [the Labor Party] emerged from the 2010 election with a minority Parliament, which is very unusual in Australia. The Republican equivalents—misleadingly called "Liberals"—deliberately embarked post the 2010 election on a sharply partisan campaign. Their aim was to force the government back to an election quickly.
Despite their best efforts, we have managed to get some very big things done, including—quite controversially—creating a carbon tax and moving to an emissions-trading scheme. We've got some very big reforms through, but the hyper-partisanship takes its toll. The community grows weary of it. But as President Obama showed in your own elections, ultimately, rationality and common sense can prevail.
L.W.: Do you feel you have some similarities to Obama?
J.G.: We are sister political parties—the Labor Party and the Democrats. Organizationally and in a values sense, we've got a lot in common. In terms of the value that we put on opportunity, education, social mobility, and building the future, I think the political pictures are quite aligned.
L.W.: What have you learned from Obama's campaign that you feel you can apply to yours?
J.G.: The organizational techniques, like our political party's social media strategy.
L.W.: Two years after he was elected as prime minister, you ousted Kevin Rudd.
J.G.: That's not quite what actually happened. The Labor government was first elected in 2007, with Kevin Rudd as prime minister and me as deputy prime minister. I served very loyally as Kevin's deputy. But in order to be prime minister, you need to enjoy the continuing support of your political party, and in 2010, he no longer enjoyed that. So, I requested of him that there be a leadership ballot. He chose not to contest it because he knew his support was so slender.
L.W.: People say he is going to try to come back now.
J.G.: They have said that continuously since 2010. Kevin put himself forward for the leadership again in February last year and was quite resoundingly defeated, and has from then on maintained that he will not challenge [me] for the leadership.
L.W.: So you are not worried?
J.G.: Not at all.
L.W.: Reportedly, many Labor members who are worried about losing their seats believe that if Rudd were heading the party, Labor might lose fewer seats. Do you believe there's any validity to that?
J.G.: You could have said that in January of last year, and we had the ballot in February. You could have said that anytime—it's been a continuing background commentary. Nothing comes of it, and nothing will.
L.W.: So you don't think the party will rise up?
J.G.: No, I don't.
L.W.: Do you think you can beat Tony Abbott?
J.G.: I certainly do. ... I think that, ultimately, what he has put before the Australian community is a strategy of continuing negativity. It's not a strategy for the nation's future. When it comes to voting day, people will have to make a decision about who has a better plan for the future and who has the better character and temperament to deliver that plan.
L.W.: You mentioned the carbon tax as an accomplishment of yours. But you promised in the 2010 campaign that you would not enact a carbon tax. Then, after the election, you did. Is the trust factor a problem for you?
J.G.: It's been a big issue in Australian politics and for me. For most of the period between 2007 and 2010, having an emissions-trading scheme was bipartisan politics. That ceased to be bipartisan politics late in 2009 when Mr. Abbott, who had personally been in favor of an emissions-trading scheme, put himself forward for the leadership of the Liberal Party on an anti-carbon-pricing platform.
In the 2010 campaign, I ruled out having a carbon tax. After the election, we ended up with a minority government. In order to get carbon pricing through the Parliament, I needed to agree that for the first three years there would be a carbon tax, and then it would go to an emissions-trading scheme.
So clearly, the opposition has campaigned on this as a breach of a promise. But by the time people are voting in the election in September, if you try to unwind this scheme the economic dislocation will be considerable. A lot of families have received more assistance out of the carbon-pricing scheme than carbon pricing cost them.
L.W.: What about the mining tax your government enacted? You didn't raise the amount of revenue you expected to raise.
J.G.: It's a profits-based tax, and so yes, we have underperformed against the revenue estimates. [But] looking at our economic circumstances, we came out of the global financial crisis quite differently than the rest of the developed world. We never had a recession. Our unemployment rate has continued to be relatively low—it is 5.4 percent now. We are continuing to see economic growth, low inflation, low interest rates.
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?
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.