For Australia’s first female prime minister, the decision not to have children was a political one. Julia Gillard, also the first unmarried leader of the world’s smallest continent, recently cited Baroness Margaret Thatcher’s son Mark—once convicted of taking part in an attempted coup in Equatorial Guinea—when she argued that children can detract from a life in politics, and may even become a political liability. But now this decision to be childless, and Gillard’s gender, are becoming themes in the run-up to the country’s Aug. 21 election, which Gillard called after only three weeks in office.
The campaign is pitting the 48-year-old Gillard and her Labour government against the Conservative leader of the opposition, Tony Abbott, 52. So far, Abbott, who needs to win only an extra nine seats to form a government, has attempted to use his wife and three daughters to differentiate himself from Gillard, and improve his ratings with female voters. When asked whether he is playing the family card to win the election, he said: “I think families are important, I take them seriously.”
There have been other personal attacks on the Welsh-born Gillard in what some have called a political race that’s short on policy. Discourse has focused on Gillard’s physical features (including her ever-changing red hair and “pendulous earlobes”), her nasal voice, her fashion sense (or lack thereof), and, of course, her live-in boyfriend Tim Mathieson, a real estate agent and former hairdresser who did not accompany her on the campaign trail.
But Gillard is unlikely to be deterred. Though she swept into office in a coup against former PM Kevin Rudd, who had been faced with plunging approval ratings, her road to political office was a rough one. After studying law and the arts at the University of Melbourne, and working as a lawyer, she mounted three bids for pre-selection for Labour seats during the 1990s, but was rejected. Her determination finally paid off in 1998, when she became the Labour member for the Melbourne-area seat of Lalor. In 2007, when selected to be deputy prime minister for Rudd, she was known as the “minister for everything,” having efficiently managed multiple portfolios including employment, workplace relations and education. (She says she gets her work ethic from her parents—a cook and a nurse—who migrated in 1966 from Britain to Australia with thousands of others under an assisted-passage scheme.)
In her first weeks as leader, she already proposed a plan to stop and process asylum-seekers who arrive in Australia by boat, promised action against climate change, and presented a deal to end a contentious mining-tax row. Now, if Gillard is victorious on Aug. 21, it will be a landmark in a country where married men have always ruled. Though she admits to being “wistful” about not having children, she sees the practical benefits. After all, “if a woman had presented as prime minister with a large number of children,” she says, “people would have then said, ‘How on earth is she going to give the job the focus it’s going to need?’ ”