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ROSEMARIE MILSOM: Gillard’s inspiring gift

Former prime minister Julia Gillard on stage with Rosemarie Milsom at Newcastle City Hall on Monday.IT IS the question I have answered countless times this week after hosting two sold-out events with former prime minister Julia Gillard at Newcastle City Hall: ‘‘Is she as nice as she appeared on stage?’’
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My reply has been a resounding ‘‘yes’’.

Gillard arrived in Newcastle via Adelaide and Sydney on Monday, a couple of days after returning from yet another trip to the United States where she serves as the chair of The Global Partnership for Education, an initiative made up of nearly 60 developing countries, donor governments, international organisations, the private sector and community groups.

As head of the partnership, she is in charge of fund-raising efforts to help educate more than 50million children worldwide who are without education. She is also a senior fellow with the Washington-based Brookings Institution’s Centre for Universal Education.

And then there is her role as honorary visiting professor at the University of Adelaide’s school of history and politics.

It would be fair to say that Gillard has not put her feet up since losing the prime ministership in June, 2013. In the privacy of the green room where she shared her lipstick and loaned me her watch – my lippy was in my handbag with a friend in the audience and my watch battery was flat – she mentioned she had completed more overseas travel this year than in any one of her three years as prime minister.

She seemed tired but was the consummate professional, engaging special guests with questions, posing for photographs and signing books for an hour.

I have no doubt she would have preferred to be home in Adelaide with her family, but it showed only in her quiet reserve off stage.

The large-scale speaking tour for her autobiography, My Story, has included a demanding schedule of domestic travel.

The events have been filling theatres and public halls from Geelong to Townsville and she told me that by the end of the book tour she will have spoken in front of 20,000 people, an impressive result for a first-time author and and even more so given she is a former politician.

But it does not surprise me – neither did the cheers and claps she received on Wednesday when she walked into Sydney Town Hall for Gough Whitlam’s memorial service.

After losing the prime ministership, Gillard made the decision to disappear from public view so as not to be a distraction during Kevin Rudd’s election campaign. She writes in My Story that she lived like a fugitive and on Tuesday morning she described how she became very familiar with fire exits and stairwells.

Her dignified but sudden disappearance from public view meant that many people were left with a longing to hear her side of the story. Supporters felt there was unfinished business – namely an opportunity to acknowledge her ambitious reforms and express their regret at the way she was treated throughout her leadership.

A couple of months after her demise, I attended a session at the Byron Bay Writers Festival featuring Anne Summers, one of the few commentators who had been prepared to examine the sexism levelled at Gillard, who refers to it as ‘‘gendered claptrap’’ in her book.

A year earlier, Summers had delivered a speech at the University of Newcastle titled Her Rights at Work: The Political Persecution of Australia’s First Female Prime Minister and the book she was discussing at the festival, The Misogyny Factor, was extension of this speech and a more in-depth analysis of the status of women in Australia. No matter how hard the host tried to focus on the broader context, the 700-strong crowd brought the discussion back to Gillard. There was anger and frustration about how she had been treated and Summers found herself at the centre of a debriefing.

I sat there amazed at the depth of emotion on display from both men and women. I hoped Gillard was aware of it and would in time return to public life. (She was and she has.)

I respect any woman who throws her hat in to the political ring, but I have the highest regard for Julia Gillard. She took on the top job and being the first demanded courage, tenacity, and strength of character.

Here’s hoping a new generation of women will be inspired to follow in her significant footsteps. That may well become her greatest achievement.

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