Allegations that Australia spied on the Indonesian president’s phone are a “big issue” for the two countries’ relationship, former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour in an exclusive interview conducted Tuesday and aired Thursday.
It was her first news interview since being forced from power by her own party earlier this year.
As fallout from NSA leaker Edward Snowden’s revelations landed in Australia, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono froze military and intelligence gathering with his Australian ally.
Gillard’s successor, Prime Minister Tony Abbott, has refused to apologize for the alleged spying, but has expressed regret for the embarrassment that media reports have caused to Indonesia.
Though Gillard said it was “not appropriate” for her to comment on “intelligence questions,” she praised U.S. President Barack Obama’s reaction to similar allegations that the U.S. spied on German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
“If he had been aware he wouldn’t have authorized it, and he could certainly say for the future that it wouldn’t happen again,” Gillard told Amanpour. “And I think that that’s an appropriate response from Australia to Indonesia at this very difficult time.”
Intelligence gathering is a difficult to balance with privacy, she said, especially when the public sees attacks like the Boston Marathon bombings.
“Do governments get it right all of the time? Well, obviously not. Governments are made of human beings and so errors will be made. But you need a system with sufficient checks and balances and oversight.”
A female prime minister turns YouTube star
Gillard is perhaps most famous – certainly among her legions of female fans – for a fiery speech she gave in parliament last year that went viral.
Australian politics were in the midst of a scandal over sexist texts sent by the Speaker of the House and taunts of misogyny by the opposition leader – none other than the future prime minister himself, Tony Abbott.
“I will not be lectured about sexism and misogyny by this man, I will not!” Gillard said, pointing at Abbott reclining thoughtfully on the front benches. The shouts of MPs suppressed by shouts of “Order, order!” from the speaker of the house.
“And the government will not be lectured about sexism and misogyny by this man. Not now, not ever.”
“I hope the leader of the opposition has got a piece of paper and he is writing out is resignation,” she said, “because if he wants to know what misogyny looks like in modern in Australia, he doesn’t need a motion in the House of Representatives, he needs a mirror. That’s what he needs.”
The speech has been viewed by millions on YouTube and made Gillard an instant hero worldwide.
“I felt within the parliamentary chamber,” she told Amanpour, “that it was a powerful speech, because you actually see the opposition sort of drop their heads, and so they went from yelling at me and very engaged in the debate to suddenly completely entranced by their mobile phones.”
But she had no idea how much the speech would resonate around the world.
“To this day I still get a little bit startled when a woman will come up to me, wherever I am in the world, and say, ‘I saw that speech and it really meant something for me,’ or ‘I watched it with my daughter and, you know, we cried while we watched it.'”
That sexism – Abbott once held to a rally next to a sign that read, “Ditch the Witch” – was the dark side of being the first female prime minister, Gillard said. But there were also aspects that were “hugely warm and embracing.”
“I’d have men come up to me and say can you sign this for my daughter? Some of them would say I didn’t vote for you or I’m not going to vote for you, but still I think it’s a really good thing that our nation has got its first female prime minister.”
Nonetheless, she does not believe there will be another female prime minister in Australia “any time soon.”
“But I’m very confident that, you know, I’ll live to see the next female prime minister and probably more than one,” she said. “And I’m also very confident that it will be easier for the next woman who comes along, because, you know, some of the things that happened I don’t think that the nation will want to go through twice.”
To marry or not to marry?
Gillard was not only Australia’s first prime minister, she did so as an unmarried woman – “controversially,” as she herself described it.
“For me, for my personal life, for my life with Tim, we’ve structured that the way that makes sense to us and has meaning to us,” she said, “and it just seems to me that they’re our set of choices and they’re not really up for negotiation or debate or people’s approval or disapproval.”
She came under further scrutiny because her partner is a hairdresser, which people took to mean he ‘must’ be gay.
“We did have ridiculous and painful, shocking things, said about our relationship,” Gillard said.
“There’s a set of issues here that it’s hard for women to get the answer right.”
If you don’t have children – like Gillard – you are not in touch with “everyday experiences.” If you do have children, “then how can you possibly have the time to be in politics?”
“So all of this is still representing some of the double standards that are around women and leadership.”
Gillard nonetheless did not, and does not, support same-sex marriage.
“I’ve made up my mind about my own personal position,” she said, admitting that when she was in office that became a political position as well.
“I recognize that I had perhaps a, you know, an eccentric view, in some ways; I’d reasoned my way to my position through my own life experiences,” she said. “I think this will end up, ultimately, being a conscience vote across the parliament. And it’s only in those circumstances that there’s any real prospect for change.”
The new guard
If the ocean of political space between Gillard, of the Labour Party and her Liberal Party successor, it came into clear focus when Tony Abbott gave an interview to the Washington Post last month.
“I thought it was the most incompetent and untrustworthy government in modern Australian history,” Abbott said of Gillard’s leadership.
“Well, it’s not full of compliments, is it?” Gillard asked with a chuckle.
Abbott has vowed to dismantle the carbon taxing scheme that Gillard’s government implemented to battle climate change – Australia is the most-polluting country per person in the developed world.
“For me, for Australia, I think that for our economy – which is so emissions intensive – that we have the most rational mechanism for change, and the most rational mechanism is putting a price on carbon.”
She may have may a political mistake, she admitted, by using, “or allowing to the used” the term “carbon tax.”
“I wanted to get on to the substance of the policy,” she said. “But it did all end up being a semantic game and that, I think, cost me politically.”
At the center of the pivot
Australia, as the largest English-speaking country in the Asia-Pacific region, is uniquely placed for President Obama’s much-touted “pivot to Asia.”
The American president was forced to cancel a trip to Southeast Asia in October because of the U.S. government shutdown and default crisis; the Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak told Amanpour that that was a “missed opportunity.”
“I do, too, think it was a missed opportunity,” Gillard said.
“I absolutely understand why President Obama had to stay here in Washington,” she said. “I think what is to be regretted is that he ever had to face that choice, that politics in Washington hasn’t found a way of managing these issues.”
Asia will be the “growth region” of the 21st Century.
“They’ve heard that America is pivoting toward the region; now they want to see that followed by the capability of engagement. And that does mean having your president there when key meetings are on.”
Unlike America, Australia was able to enact significant gun control reform after a massacre, in its case at Port Arthur in 1996.
“I would wish that we could see better laws in the United States,” Gillard said. “I would pay tribute to Prime Minister John Howard’s leadership at the time. He’s not a member of my political party, but he showed extraordinary leadership at that point.”
The change was also able to come, she said, because of Australia’s rare system of mandatory voting.
“It’s not compulsory to actually mark your ballot paper in a valid way, but it is compulsory to go to a polling station on polling day and get your ballot paper,” she said. “You can write a rude word on it if you like and put it in the ballot box.”
“That means, inevitably, our politics is about the mainstream. And the mainstream wants practical sensible things like gun controls that work and keep people safe.”
A future in politics?
Gillard says that her forced ouster from her own party was a “horrible thing to happen.”
“It’s a sense of personal loss because you are leaving a position that you very much enjoyed doing,” she said. “Some sense of regret about it all, but also a sense of achievement.”
She has said that she is done with politics. Is it true?
“Really,” she said, “I’ve quit forever.”
This article was first published on CNN and Christiane Amanpour’s interview with Julia Gillard will screen again on Friday November 22 at 10pm AEDT on CNN.