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Interview with Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard

Aired November 9, 2011 - 05:30   ET



ANNA COREN, HOST (voice-over): In the cutthroat and ruthless world of Australian politics, stands a woman at its core who's taking on the boys' club. Meet Australia's first female Prime Minister, Julia Gillard.

A Welsh immigrant who went on to claim the most prestigious office in the country.

COREN: You certainly hold your own, so, I presume it's game on? Correct?

COREN (voice-over): The meteoric rise through the Labor Party ranks saw her become Kevin Rudd's deputy when he was elected prime minister in a landslide victory in 2007. But, as his polls began to slide, the party dumped him, and Julia Gillard sized power in June, 2010.

JULIA GILLARD, PRIME MINISTER OF AUSTRALIA: There will be some days I delight you. There may be some days I disappoint you. On every day, I will be working my absolute hardest for you.

COREN (voice-over): But the goodwill from voters did not last long. Two months later, she went to the polls looking for a mandate. In the closest election in 50 years, she managed to win by the skin of her teeth, forming a minority government.

This week on TALK ASIA, we sit down with Prime Minister Julia Gillard at Kirribilli House, her residence in Sydney, to discuss why she believes she's the best person to lead the country.


COREN: Well, Prime Minister, welcome to TALK ASIA.

GILLARD: Thank you very much.

COREN: By your own admission, you were a shy girl at school and here you are, Australia's first female prime minister. You don't get to that level of office unless you have ambition, drive, and inner strength that you obviously do have. Where does that come from?

GILLARD: I think most of it comes from family background. My parents are strong people. They migrated halfway around the world to give my sister and I a bit of future. We're Welsh migrants. They worked incredibly hard and they always taught both my sister and I that, if you're determined enough, you can do anything.

My sister and I have chosen very different life paths, but I think I've brought that family strength and family background with me.

COREN: You mention your family and the fact that you were born in Wales. At an early age, you were quite sick and almost died of a form of pneumonia. And doctors told your parents that, to improve your health, to move to a warmer climate. They chose Australia, and I think a really lovely quote from your father, John is that he said, "We came here with modest aspirations, to work hard and educate my daughters." That certainly paid off, didn't it?

GILLARD: It certainly did. And not in ways they could have possibly foreseen when they got on that boat in 1966. We're of that generation of U.K. migrants, where Australia was looking for more migrants.

So we are "Ten Pound Poms." You could come out here for 10 pounds on assisted passage. My parents did that. It was, in part, motivated by the fact I wasn't well as a child and the cold Welsh climate would not have been good for me. So, life could have turned out very differently. We could have grown up in Wales and had a whole different future as a result. But we came here to Australia, and it has offered us more opportunities than my parents could have ever believed was possible.

COREN: Your parents must be so proud of you.

GILLARD: They are very proud and talk, no doubt, endlessly to people about it.

COREN: You were elected to Parliament in 1998 and rose very quickly through the ranks. When Kevin Rudd came to power in 2007, you were elected his deputy. And even then, people looked at you as being a future prime minister. Was that something that you entertained?

GILLARD: Well, for me, this was about creating a Labor Government. I mean, when I first got into the Parliament in 1998, I'd say to people, "If I ever got the opportunity to serve as a minister in a Labor Government, if I ever got the opportunity to be Minister for Education or Minister for Workplace relations, that would be absolutely fantastic."

As it was, in 2007, I got the opportunity to do both of those portfolios at the same time, as well as being Deputy Prime Minister. And I wanted to be, and was, I hope, in people's analysis, a very strong contributor to the government. In the circumstances we found ourselves in, in 2010, I obviously determined that it was appropriate for me to step up to the position that we hold - I hold now, and lead the government.

COREN: Prime Minister, what was your involvement in that? Because, you know, this position was thrust upon you. The Labor Party decided that Kevin Rudd was no longer the man for them, and they dumped him. Do you have regrets about the way that that was handled?

GILLARD: I think my caucus colleagues came to a decision about who they wanted to lead the party. It was a difficult decision for them and I'm sure it weighed very heavily on caucus members at the time. But the decision was made and I moved into the position of prime minister. I fully understood then the great opportunity of this position, which is to lead a nation and to design a better future for it. And for me to bring all of my passions and strengths about opportunity for all and a focus on education and work to this position.

I also understood the real challenges and the risks in it. We were in very difficult days in 2010. We had an election to fight. So, I needed to get on with the job of doing that.

COREN: You say it was difficult for caucus, but it must have also been difficult for you.

GILLARD: Look, I don't want to sort of dwell on any of that sense of it. I mean, to become Prime Minister of this great country is a remarkable privilege. Of course, it comes with a heavy sense of responsibility and it comes with its share of challenges and troubles. But the thing I always keep my eyes focused on is the remarkable opportunities it brings to shape our nation's future.

COREN: What is your relationship with Kevin Rudd at the moment?

GILLARD: Well, we work very well together. He is Foreign Minister and me as Prime Minister. And we live in a world where we are so connected globally that all of the things we do as a nation have to be weighed in the foreign affairs context.

COREN: There was that kiss on the cheek after the Carbon Tax got through the House?

GILLARD: Well, I think a lot ends up being made of things in politics, which, ultimately in themselves, don't bear that much significance. People would expect that the Labor Party, having labored long and hard to seize a clean energy future for our nation, would want to celebrate the moment. Kevin Rudd played a big role in that. As Prime Minister, he led this country what was then a difficult debate and, obviously, I've led us through to the conclusion of that debate. So, it was colleagues just marking a moment.


COREN (voice-over): Coming up, Prime Minister Gillard talks about her tough reforms that are polarizing Australia.

GILLARD: You don't step up to the position of prime minister to run this as a constant opinion poll. Leadership is about designing what is right for the country's future.




COREN (voice-over): Border security has become a political nightmare for the Gillard government as boatloads of asylum-seekers continue to arrive on Australian shores each month. Overcrowding and rioting in immigration detention centers is also attracting unwanted headlines.

Earlier this year, the government believed it had a solution. Signing a deal with Malaysia to send 800 asylum seekers in return for 4,000 legitimate refugees.

GILLARD: This will smash that people smuggler's business model.

COREN (voice-over): But, in a shock decision, the High Court overruled and deemed it illegal, because Malaysia had not signed the U.N. Refugee Convention.


COREN: Now, the asylum-seeker issue has really been dogging your government. It's extremely divisive and controversial. Many in the international community look at Australia and think, "Why do they behave like this? A country of immigrants turning back people who want asylum." There is the view that Australia is rather intolerant and quite uncompassionate. Are you concerned about this perception?

GILLARD: That perception wouldn't be accurate. I mean, we are a nation that, over generations, has settled millions, literally, of refugees in our nation. And we continue to do so. We're one of the few nations on Earth that actually goes to the United Nation High Commissioner for Refugees and says, "We will take refugees from refugee camps around the world. Can we work with you to identify those refugees and bring them to Australia for a new life?"

But the Australian people are discomfited when they have a sense that people are arriving unauthorized by boat. That's been part of our past, I think it will continue to be part of our future. And so, to Australians, I believe we've always got to be saying that we are managing our borders. We are protecting our borders, but we are also protecting the values that we hold dear as Australians. And, as Australians, I think we do hold dear the value of compassion and extending that compassion to people most in need.

COREN: You were pushing for offshore processing as a way to stop the boats - to deter the people smugglers. You had come to an agreement with Malaysia. That was the Malaysian solution. And then the High Court intervened and deemed it to be illegal. That must have been a huge blow to you and your government.

GILLARD: Well, it was an unexpected decision from the High Court and contrary to earlier rulings of courts in Australia and contrary to conduct by earlier governments. So, up until the High Court case, we understood that the arrangement that we had made with Malaysia was one in accordance with Australian law. But I still believe the innovative arrangement that the Minister for Immigration and the government had entered into with the government of Malaysia offers a real change in how we view asylum-seeker policy. I mean, I think, for people from all perspectives, our world was very much changed when we saw those images on the shoreline of Christmas Island at the end of last year.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: An aging trawler, packed with refugees, slowly drawn on a collision course with Christmas Island's fatal shore. This was the result moments later. Dozens survived, dozens more were killed.

GILLARD: Yesterday, we saw a truly horrific event.


GILLARD: I think that made people think, "Whatever we can do to stop people risking their lives on these boats - putting themselves at such risk of drowning -- should be done. But we need to do it in a clever way. And Malaysia, I think, was a smart way of doing it. It was going to take out of the hands of people smugglers, the product that they sell - a ticket to Australia. But it would have meant we took more genuine refugees, so I remain committed to it. We've hit this parliamentary stumbling block and, of course, we will, in those circumstances, continue to properly manage asylum-seeker and refugee policy.

COREN: You were looking at a number of other regional options, with the exception of Nauru, that tiny Pacific island, which, of course, was John Howard's solution. It is the solution that the opposition propose. Members within your own party, your own cabinet, were willing to consider Nauru, but not you. Why is that?

GILLARD: I think we've got to be very clear, here. We were proposing and, indeed, continue to support the arrangement with Malaysia where, what we say to people smugglers, effectively, is this, "You no longer have a product to sell." The opposition said, "Well, we won't support Malaysia and we just support a center in Nauru." All of the advice to us is that it won't work. That's the problem with Nauru, from my point of view. It's just that simple. All of the expert advice to me is, "It won't work."


GILLARD (voice-over): As a nation, we need to put a price on carbon and create a clean energy future. And now is the time to get this done.


COREN: Well, you went to the election last year saying there would be no carbon tax, there is now a carbon tax. It certainly was a win in Parliament, but as far as your credibility goes, it's certainly taken a hit. The majority of Australians do not want a carbon tax. How do you think you will be judged?

GILLARD: Well, big changes are about the right thing for the nation's future. I mean, you don't step up to the position of prime minister to run this as a constant opinion poll, asking the Australian public what they want and just saying, "Well, whatever today's opinion poll turns up, I'll do. Even if tomorrow's opinion poll turns up something completely different." That's not what leadership is about.

Leadership is about designing what is right for the country's future. And I've always believed putting a price on carbon was the best way of us facing the challenge of climate change. And that climate change is a real risk to our country's future.

So, during the election campaign, I talked about an emissions trading scheme. In this Parliament, what we have achieved is a fixed price on carbon - effectively a tax for three years, followed by an emissions trading scheme, and I'm happy to be judged on it.

COREN: What do you say to people who believe that, "Why should Australia have to pay a price on carbon when the big polluters, India, China, and the United States, don't?"

GILLARD: Well, I think that's misunderstanding the actions that are happening around our world to cut carbon pollution including being taken by the United States, by China, and by India. I mean, we live in a nation where we generate more carbon pollution per head of population than anybody else in the developed world. And the real risk for us is that we get left behind with an old-fashioned economy that generates a lot of carbon pollution whilst the rest of the world moves on.

So, from an economic standpoint, we've got to start the transition to a cleaner energy future. From an environmental standpoint, I believe most Australians say climate change is real, we are causing it, carbon pollution is causing it, and they want to do something to address that climate change.


COREN (voice-over): Coming up, Australia's first female leader discusses the challenges of surviving in a man's world and why she believes she's the best person to run the country.

GILLARD: I think we're still getting used to that same old image of leadership. This is the first time a woman's done this job.




HARRY JENKINS, SPEAKER OF AUSTRALIA'S HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES: The house will come to order and the galleries. We've got a little way to go yet.

TONY ABBOT, AUSTRALIAN OPPOSITION LEADER: Is this Prime Minister arrogant enough to seriously believe -

JENKINS: Order. Order.

ABBOT: -- that she knows more about the business than they do?

GILLARD: Thank you very much, Mr. Speaker. And, to the Leader of the Opposition, no, of course I'm not suggesting that. How absurd.


COREN: Australian politics is certainly not for the faint hearted. And you are obviously made of tough stuff. It's a ruthless, cutthroat, male- dominated environment. But do you think that you are targeted because you are a woman?

GILLARD: I think there's a difference. I mean, a clear difference, being the first woman to do this job. There was always going to be a sense of the nation getting used to a female image of leadership. And I think we're still getting used to that female image of leadership. This is the first time a woman's done this job.

For women in politics, I think there has tended to be more interest in appearance questions and those kind of things. But, over time, I believe that will come out of the system and I can already see the change.

COREN: Prime Minister, what strikes me about you is your resilience. You have had to endure negative criticism over the years, whether it be about your voice, your appearance, your relationship with your partner, Tim Mathieson, because you're not married. The fact that you haven't had children.

Doesn't that wear you down after a while?

GILLARD: Oh, no. Not really. I mean, I don't let much of that worry me. I mean, this, you know, this life isn't one where you pick up in the newspapers in the morning and say, "Well, you know, how do I feel about myself today? Let the newspapers tell me." I'm very sure who I am. I'm very sure about my own characteristics and personality. So, you know, the newspapers and the media do whatever they do, but it doesn't worry me all that much.

COREN: You have set out the task force for Australia to map out its future in Asia. The United States is obviously still a very close ally. You have President Barack Obama coming out in the next few weeks as part of his first official trip to Australia. But how important is Asia to your country?

GILLARD: Well, we will always be a very strong ally of the United States and our defense relationship is in its 60th year. And part of President Obama's visit will be marking the 60th year of the ANZUS Alliance. So, I, you know, foundation stone for our country.

When we look at our future in this region, what we see is we're in the growing region of the world. A region that is going to offer us opportunities in the years ahead. Already it's offering us very strong opportunities with the resources boom. China, India - countries in our region want to buy the minerals that we've got to sell as they move, literally, hundreds of millions of people out of poverty and into urban environments and build huge cities. So, they need coal and they need steel and iron ore and all the rest of it. And we have that to sell.

COREN: Australia was in a great position back in 2008, when the global financial crisis hit. Australia was able to weather the storm because of the natural resources boom. Today, the global outlook is shaky. How do you think Australia will cope this time around?

GILLARD: Look, I have a great degree of confidence about the Australian economy. We're not immune from world events. Clearly we're not. But, if you look at the circumstances of our economy, I believe that the resources boom we've seen will continue. I'm very confident about the ability of our nation to continue supplying resources to China for its urbanization and growth. So, that will continue to be a strong part of our economy.

That means it's likely that our dollar will continue to be high. That puts pressure on trade-exposed sectors like manufacturing and tourism. And we are working very strongly within Australia to harness growth and opportunity for those sectors of our economy as well.



COREN: Prime Minister, recently we saw the 10-year anniversary of the war in Afghanistan. And I guess many are starting to question what really has been achieved with the resurgence of the Taliban. Australia has certainly lost a number of soldiers. And you have had to attend many of those funerals.

Is it time, do you think, for Australia to reexamine its military relationship with the United States?

GILLARD: No, it's not. And we're very determined to see the mission through in Afghanistan. I know it can be hard for people to gauge progress and to see what is being achieved. I get the opportunity to look at this through the eyes of our soldiers. So, I've been to Afghanistan myself and I've spoken to our soldiers who have served there, including some very celebrated solders. For example, Ben Roberts-Smith, who was the most recent winner of the Victoria Cross.

And what they will say to you is, having been there on five occasions - he has done a tour of duty there five times. He will say to you, it is a different place today than when he first went. And he can explain to you the signs of security and stability that have emerged in the period that he has served there.

COREN: So what happens when the Americans move out?

GILLARD: Well, we're there on a training mission, where they're training local Afghan forces so that they can step up to ensuring the security of their nation. And we are very determined to do that, because we don't want to see Afghanistan again become a safe haven for terrorists who are trained and then come and wreak terror around the world, including wreaking terror that takes Australian lives.

So, it's been an incredibly difficult journey for our nation. We have lost long Australian men - good Australian men - in Afghanistan. And that weighs heavily on people - weighs heavily on me - and weighs heavily on our nation overall. But, I am determined that we will see the mission that we have defined through.

COREN: If we listen to the polls, and I know that you don't, you would be considered one of the most unpopular prime ministers this country has ever had -- governing a government that would effectively be annihilated if there was an election held today. Luckily for you, and for the government, the next election is two years away. Do you believe that you can turn things around?

GILLARD: Well, I certainly believe that, as we work our way towards the 2013 election, people will increasingly see the achievements of the government's agenda. We've been through a period with a very, very tough reform. These things will be what people look at and judge by 2013. How Australians vote in 2013 will be a matter for them, but I'm very determined, as Prime Minister, to keep delivering the changes that make a difference, not just today, but for the long-term future of our nation.

COREN: And you will be leading this government to the 2013 election?

GILLARD: I certainly will.

COREN: Prime Minister, we wish you the very best of luck. Thank you very much.

GILLARD: Thank you.