People ask me: what is Julia Gillard really like? As a person, she is resilient, game, proud, yes; she has character to burn. Above all, though, Julia Gillard is funny and fun. Humour is at the core of her character and at the heart of her personal style.
When Ben Hubbard, her chief of staff when she was deputy PM, returned to her office as chief of staff in the PMO, she told quite a few of us that she was disappointed that as prime minister she didn’t go through airport security with him any more, because in the good old days he’d fairly regularly had to take his artificial leg off at X-ray machines, and it always brightened her day to see a grown man hop through a checkpoint before breakfast. He loved hearing this.
“The first thing I think about, even before her resilience, is her laughter.”
She gave people animal nicknames, like Monkey and Komodo, and joked about the “jazz hands” she used as a protective barrier in press conferences and in doorways; and in morning press conferences she kept Matthew Franklin (then with The Australian, later a Rudd press secretary) at bay by regularly inquiring after his mood and whether he’d had his coffee. She was a practised observer of the people around her and kept an eye on all of us for material to work us over with. When staff (or officials or MPs) were talking at morning meetings around Parliament House or on the road, you could see her scanning for who was tired and who was bright so she could pay them out about it; and she could always tell if one of the office units had been out late on the tiles or if a staff romance was heating up (or cooling off).
So when I think about Julia Gillard, the first thing I think about, even before her resilience, is her laughter.
I see her at the Lodge with staff for the last of her first chief of staff Amanda Lampe’s farewells early in 2011. Laughing at me for talking to US diplomats at Jimmy Watson’s, back when I was working for Per Capita, and laughing about this being news in light of Wikileaks; then laughing at the nervous legal adviser (Komodo), who said I really should stop doing that; then laughing again when Richard Maude exploded and said, “That’s just bullshit, of course he should keep talk ing to our friends!”
I see her watching Lodge cricket at the office Christmas party at the end of the same year and laughing as I dismissed Ben Hubbard with my first and last ball of the game. Laughing a few minutes later as I attempted a slog sweep, and the bat flew out of my hand and straight at Ben’s head at square leg, where he was checking his phone, heedless of impending doom; laughing again when it hit him flat on the chest and my possibly Freudian attempts to kill him and ruin Christmas failed.
Each of her laughs was inflected with the slightest of variations, like a Fred Williams series. And those are only my stories; everyone who knew her has their own.
I see her laughing at all of us the year after, at our last Lodge Christmas; we were outside drinking on the lawns when a helicopter flew overhead and we spontaneously hid our faces, as if we were rugby league players on Mad Monday being filmed by Channel 7. Or at our very first Lodge Christmas, laughing and shaking her head as Carl [Green, also a speechwriter for Gillard] sat by the pool and solemnly asked what it was like to sleep in the room next to where Curtin died.
If you don’t have a sense of the ridiculous in that job, you’ll go mad (it’s happened), and the PM had the most wonderful way of widening her eyes when people said odd things, as people do from time to time to prime ministers, or when she related the tale afterwards (“and then Sarkozy said to me, ‘After all, there were no Chinese at Villers-Bretonneux’ – right there at the table!”); either because she was listening carefully, or because she was trying not to raise her eyebrows or laugh.
God, she laughed and made us laugh, and I think most of the people who worked closely with her over the years miss that the most. At the same time I marvel at her ability to remain in command while employing that bantering style, to never betray the authority of her position in the process.
David Marr identified this with her professional background: her measured aggression, the professional poise she brings to the most brutal contest, the lacerating tongue and the disarming jokes are a style perfected years ago by woman lawyers. What seems exceptional in parliament has long been familiar in the courts.
She had a sense of humour and a sense of the ridiculous, and yet at the same time she had complete control of a room; she could put you in your place and give you a story to tell your grandkids all at once. But she’d pat you on the arm long before she’d kiss you on the cheek. Her humour wasn’t simply a tool, not quite a shield between her and others, it was genuine and a part of her – but it’s true that it did form a protective outer layer, and was part of the reserve of her nature. Maybe this is why I remember a funny boss and many people remember a dour prime minister.
You have to see reserve as part of the Gillard personality. Her reserve was a way of maintaining her strength. (It was also exaggerated by a natural if excessive reaction to Kevin Rudd’s enfeebling populism, and I am sure it contributed to the perception that she could be mechanical or wooden in her public performances. She was not always an engaging actor.) Naturally enough, she didn’t often expand upon the origins of her reserve, but she has discussed it.
In that Adelaide speech to introduce herself, in her first weeks in office in 2010, she had briefly spoken about her upbringing as “a shy child”. In a Women’s Weekly interview in her final weeks in office in 2013, the PM told Caroline Overington that whenever her prime ministership ended and however her legacy was considered, her sister Alison would still be amazed that it was Julia who rose to become PM: Julia, the “shy one”, the “one who was less forthcoming”. And on a famous occasion at the National Press Club, on 14 July 2011, the PM spoke at greater length about the connection between this aspect of her personality and the leadership she tried to give the country.
“I was the shy girl who studied and worked hard … and it took time and effort but I got from Unley High to the law and as far as here, where I am today. I’ve brought a sense of personal reserve to this, the most public of professions. And the rigours of politics have reinforced my innate style of holding a fair bit back in order to hang pretty tough. If that means people’s image of me is one of steely determination, I understand why. But I don’t forget where I come from, why I’m here, or what I’ve learned along the way.
“I don’t forget Unley High, where I saw kids who sat at the back of the room and did ‘make work’ and were left behind. I don’t forget how I felt at Slaters when I won my first case on behalf of an outworker. I got her paid what she deserved, and she just said, quietly, ‘Thanks’. I don’t forget September 2008 when the world stood on the brink of economic disaster and it took a Labor government and urgent action, decisions right in the moment, to save jobs and businesses.”
When she came to speak about Unley and the kids left behind – something she’d done often in the past – she was brought near to tears.
Gillard’s reserve was a necessary professional protection in the immediate circumstances of dealings with colleagues, opponents and reporters. Obviously her reserve had its origins in her personal essence, and was present in her own shyness as a child. But what I thought I saw that day was how her reserve was also a kind of bridge between the way she viewed her background and the way she viewed her purpose. It was intimately connected to the difficulty of the things she wanted to achieve. By that I mean that I think that day she could see how little separated her father’s life, the life of the kids in the Unley back row, and her own – and how much more separated her from the kind of people who go to see a prime minister speak at a press club lunch. She wasn’t just reserved among the people she dealt with as prime minister, because opening up was exhausting or they might judge her harshly; she was reserved among them because with many of them she had little in common, and with many of them she shared no common cause. Looking out at a room like that one, at all the established and complacent faces, didn’t just reinforce how far she’d come herself – it reinforced how far she’d left the back-row kids behind, how great her responsibility was to them, and how alone she was in the politics of getting it done.
Don Watson later wrote in The Monthly that at the press club that day, the “Oprahisation” of Australian politics was completed; that those tears were a surrender to “the maw of magazine culture and afternoon television, and taking the office with her”. There was a high price to pay for letting the visor up.
So the personal reserve and the Labor purpose were inseparable. The background brought forth the purpose, each brought forth the reserve, and in some ways the legendary resilience was just an outward expression of all three. But they had their cost.
This is an edited extract from The Gillard Project by Michael Cooney, published by Viking, RRP$32.99.