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Julia Gillard – beneath the media’s mask

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Julia Gillard has been portrayed as many things over the last week – from political warrior usurping the prime ministerial throne through to poster child for women’s rights.

How will Australia perceive the new PM? If the political cartoons are anything to go by, for over a decade, we had a wombat-looking prime minister, then one who could have easily passed for a koala.

Now with a fire-haired, uncompromising woman in the top job, we don’t know how to act. Nor what marsupial the caricatures will resemble.

So who is the woman behind the Party, behind the hair and behind the ‘first-woman’ title? Jacqueline Kent, award-winning author and biographer, studied Gillard, dug into her past and penned her first biography, The Making of Julia Gillard. What can Kent reveal about the woman she studied for years?

First impressions

Kent recognised the potential of her subject back in 2003, when Gillard was an Opposition Shadow Minister.

“She seemed to be one of those political figures who was suddenly everywhere and nobody knew very much about her,” she says. “There wasn’t very much background about her; what there was was very sketchy.”

When initial research began on the book, Gillard was hesitant to participate.

“She didn’t want this book,” explains Kent. “She said it was far too soon and she wasn’t ready to be written about. When she found out I was going ahead anyway, she decided it was more sensible to be onboard.”

Given her very public persona, Kent was surprised that, with Gillard, what you see is what you get.

“The Julia Gillard I’d been watching and learning about was basically the person I recognised. She’s the person we know, the person we’ve seen,” says Kent.

Gillard’s genuineness and down-to-earth personality is part of her appeal, says Kent.

If true, a what-you-see-is-what-you-get approach may prove a refreshing change for the political office. Take calm, God-fearing Kevin Rudd, for example. His public image was dashed on numerous occasions including last year when he launched a verbal tirade against Senator David Feeney allegedly saying ‘Don’t you f---ing understand?’

Kent insists that a distinctly Australian self-deprecating humour threads through her other qualities.

“She’s very good at using humour and that sounds as if it’s calculated but it’s not,” she says.

In her book, Kent refers to a particular anecdote to demonstrate Gillard’s down-to-earth appeal. During a ‘meet and greet’ in Hoppers Crossing in Victoria, a gentleman approached Gillard, while she was standing next to a large pull-up photograph of herself.

“This old guy comes out of the supermarket, looks at me, looks at the photo, looks at me, looks at the photo, the turns back to me and says, ‘Taken on a good day, wasn’t it love?’… I said ‘And you’d be bloody Robert Redford, would you, mate?’” recalls Gillard. Proving her charm, after the encounter, the gentleman said he would vote for her.

 “She’s obviously formidably bright but she’s not pretending to be superior to anybody,” she says. “She can correct people who get something wrong, without making them feel stupid. That’s quite an art actually.”

However, there is more than meets the public’s eye, says Kent. Behind her outspoken persona, there is a side quite private and restrained.

“She’s reserved… there’s a level beyond, which is a locked door,” says Kent. “She’s not a blurter – she certainly doesn’t give away her secrets and she keeps her friends very close.”

Throughout Kent’s interviews with Gillard, her answers were very much like a lawyer’s. “She sort of answers the question but … you have to keep pushing.” 

I am woman

When it comes to Gillard, public opinion is divided. In a poll conducted last week, almost half of South Australian responses preferred Gillard to Liberal Party leader Tony Abbott, while in Queensland, she only mustered a 30 per cent preference. So what is it that elicits such extreme responses?

Kent believes it’s her “determined Australianism” which divides the public, a characteristic contrasting with Australia’s ‘tall-poppy’ culture.

“You can usually tell people who won’t ever vote for her because they always mention two things – the hair and the voice,” notes Kent. “Then there’s a certain number of people who think she’s a careerist and has just gone a long way on not all that much.”

And the fact that she’s a woman? According to Kent, this could be a contributing factor to those who dislike her.

“I think a lot of people don’t like women who are decisive and strong,” she says. “The fact that she doesn’t appear to care too much what people think of her – which I think is an admirable quality – turns off a lot of people because women are supposed to care… She’s not being feminine in any way. She’s not making any of the usual compromises.”

“I didn’t set out to crash my head on any glass ceilings,” said Gillard, when accepting the Office of Parliament last Thursday. While she has certainly ascended further than any female in Australian politics, Kent believes her ambition doesn’t stem from a need to prove her gender.

“She thinks her gender is an incidental fact of biology rather than anything else,” says Kent. “She did not look at herself in any way as an example, as a woman who wanted to get ahead in a male environment. It’s just that what she wanted to do was a bloke’s club.

“She was not trying to be a representative of womanhood having a go. She just wanted to show, as a human being, she could do as well as anybody else could.”

Though Gillard’s rise to the top is a victory for women everywhere, we should follow by her example – achievements should be celebrated in the context of the individual, outside of the context of gender.

As Gillard told Kent, “Five or ten years ago, people would have had the view, if only there were more women in politics somehow it would be a less adversarial, more caring and sharing environment. I have always thought that was bloody nonsense.

“One of the things I have always wanted to show is that it doesn't matter whether you are a man or a woman, you can thrive in an adversarial environment.”

Important information:This content has been prepared without taking account of the objectives, financial situation or needs of any particular individual. It does not constitute formal advice. For this reason, any individual should, before acting, consider the appropriateness of the information, having regard to the individual’s objectives, financial situation and needs and, if necessary, seek appropriate professional advice.

Published on: Thursday, July 01, 2010

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