Julia Gillard @ His Majesty’s Theatre
Saturday, February 20, 2021
It was nebulous that a live-streamed interview could be just as fantastical as one could be on the grand stage of His Majesty’s Theatre.
Thankfully, former Prime Minister Julia Gillard, in conversation with Meri Fatin (podcaster, ABC alumni and long-time RTRfm presenter), engrossed with chemistry and insight despite their technological divide. Their dialogue so exceeded expectations that it was easy to forget that Gillard was not actually in the room.
Seated on stage to the left of an empty chair meant to emulate Gillard’s presence, Fatin sat poised as ever – never needing to reference the notes on her lap. Behind her was a screen in which both Gillard and Fatin (on camera herself) were projected for a Q&A to discuss the contents of the book Gillard had co-authored with the Director-General of the World Trade Organisation, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala; Women and Leadership: Real Lives, Real Lessons.
Gillard’s primary thesis was as clear as her famous speech: misogyny was the uniting factor between the 10 women who shared their leadership experiences in the book (and further complicated by intersections of race, class and culture).
At one of the more light hearted points, Fatin questioned Gillard about the gendered expectations of appearance on female leaders. Gillard quipped that even when probing former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Theresa May for the book, that May herself, despite her Tory-convictions, acknowledged that there was no possibility of a female politician who dressed or groomed herself akin to Boris Johnson.
In these moments, Gillard’s natural charm was on full display. In others, such as when she was questioned by an audience member on the current sexual assault allegations in the Federal Liberal Party, the machinations of the political machine were momentarily revealed in her almost robot-perfect, clearly PR scripted answer. Similarly, her premise seemed to tread the acceptable and decidedly neoliberal narrative of what women in leadership should look like – simultaneously rejecting essentialist narratives of gender whilst positing that it is “women’s nature” that makes them so adept as leaders and change-makers.
It is hard not to want to swallow the empowerment narrative when Gillard states that women bring empathy, communication, and relationship as a unique leadership style, even though it does melt away with the slightest hint of scrutiny. How can Gillard reject sexism but still applaud the way it socialises women into behaving differently?
Regardless of these ideological inconsistencies, the affectation of her insights on the crowd was clear, as they whooped, gasped, and laughed just like she was there with us. Her sway was clear.
As such, you would expect the organisers of the Literature Weekend of the Perth Festival let out a sigh of relief that the first event of the annual weekend came off so charismatically (and without a technological hitch). With the impact of the current pandemic so keenly felt in Perth post-lockdown after such a long reprieve (especially with its impact upon Fringe World Festival), eyes from the arts community from both home and abroad would be watching and waiting to see how these events could operate amidst the challenges of COVID. This was a great example of how well events like this can be run, especially if you have guests as expert as Gillard and interviewers as experienced as Fatin.