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Julia Gillard – meet Australia’s first female PM

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Published on: Thursday, June 24, 2010

Julia Gillard, former deputy prime minister, has stepped up to hold the title of first female Australian Prime Minister following Kevin Rudd’s refusal to contest the leadership ballot.

Her rise to power may seem meteoric, but Gillard’s political background hasn’t been sugar and spice and all things nice. Many say, though, that Gillard is the damsel who saved the Labor Party from the distress of political oblivion.  

Political ranks

Gillard became a household name after securing the position of deputy prime minister to the Labor Party, alongside Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in 2007. She was the first female and foreign-born (she hails from Wales) politician to hold the title.

However, Gillard’s ambitions began long before her rise to political ‘fame’.

At high school, Gillard was notorious for being outspoken and fearless. At her Adelaide school, she reportedly accused her physics teacher of favouritism towards the boys of the class and threatened to take it up with the principal unless change was seen – something to which he acquiesced.

First introduced to the world of politics during her years studying arts and law at the University of Adelaide before moving onto the University of Melbourne, Gillard rose to the ranks of President of the Australian Union on Students. After university, she worked in the law firm Slater & Gordon, specialising in industrial law, and at age 29, became one of the first female partners in the firm.

From 1996 to 1998, Gillard worked for former Victorian opposition leader, John Brumby, as chief of staff, before being elected to the House of Representatives for Lalor, Victoria

“To be elected as the first woman ever chosen by the Victorian branch of the Labor Party to stand for an historically safe seat is more than a personal honour; it is a Labor landmark, as is the record number of Labor women sitting in this House. It is a cause for celebration and will inspire us to ensure that many more women follow us into this parliament,” she said, during her first speech to Parliament, following her election victory.

From 2001 to her Party’s victory in 2007, Gillard was an Opposition Shadow Minister.

Beliefs and policies

Like former prime minister Paul Keating, Gillard says politicians are in the “change business”.

So what are the changes Gillard would like to see and implement?

Since her inauguration as Deputy Prime Minister, Gillard has worked within three distinct portfolios – education, employment and workplace relations and social inclusion.

A passion for education

Gillard has long been passionate for the issue of education.

“I genuinely believe it is tougher for a kid from a working-class family to go through state schooling now and come out with the access to opportunity I had when I was a girl,” she says.

“It is fundamental to Labor’s vision, to our compact with this and the next generation, that Australia not only offers the opportunities I enjoyed but offers the opportunity to train, to retain, to excel, throughout life.”

These beliefs in fair education opportunities led Gillard to enact the controversial MySchool website scheme, earlier this year – the site publishes performance information on almost 10,000 Australian schools.

A fair work ethic

Gillard’s immigrant background has also tempered her interest in workplace relations, having seen her parents struggle during her early childhood.

“I had a window from my family into how important it is for people to be treated fairly at work,” she says. “Mum and Dad were working hard to pay off the house. That required predictability.”

In accepting the Employment & Industrial Relations portfolio during her initial inauguration as deputy leader in 2007, Gillard said the aim was in “getting decent laws for working people” and to provide equal opportunities for all Australians. She introduced the Fair Work Bill 2008 to accomplish these goals.

The strength of the economy is only as strong as its people

Gillard believes creating a harmonious society will impact upon the strength of the economy, not vice versa.

“A strong economy and a strong society are not contradictory goals. Indeed, you can only achieve a sustainably strong economy by creating a strong society,” she says. “A country is strengthened by individual security and national inclusiveness.”

A woman’s touch

As the first woman in Australia to reach such political heights, the hope is that Gillard will enact policies to stagnate the social disparity between the sexes.

“We need to be talking about the pressures for women, not just for politicians, but for women right across the nation, who live the juggle of trying to put work and family together,” she says.

Gillard is empathetic with the difficulties of working mothers.

“It’s unbelievably tough to work in a highly pressurised workplace and deal with family issues at the same time,” she says.

To the future

During her first address in Parliament in 1998, Gillard noted that Australia’s political arena was one failing to unite the Australian people.

“For far too long public debate in Australia has failed to nourish or inspire us. For far too long it has been limited to the day-to-day monitoring of the health of our economy, rather than the morals and goals of our society. The end result of this political cycle is a weary people who no longer believe what politicians say and who think the politicians saying it do not even believe it themselves,” she said.

“We stand for the right of ordinary Australians—those who have neither wealth nor power—to a fair go, to be treated with dignity and respect in the workplace, to be recognised and valued as citizens and to have a say in their nation's future.”

With Gillard sworn in as the first female Prime Minister of Australia at 12:30pm today, the fervour of a new future, one of equality for all, beats in the hearts of the nation.

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