My Date With Julia Gillard

PM Julia Gillard at the Australian Multicultural Council 2011: pic by Sen Kate Lundy

PM Julia Gillard at the Australian Multicultural Council 2011: pic by Sen Kate Lundy

Last night I had a date with Julia Gillard. Actually it was a date with the Community Cabinet at Norwood Secondary College in Ringwood.

At the start it looked quite intimidating. Policemen hemming in a mass of protestors. A squad of SES  in orange fluoro jumpsuits directing traffic on the oval. Tall men in suits with earpieces looking around like hawks on the hunt. Tight security, I thought.

Security check-in was just like an airport. Empty your pockets, put them in this tray, walk through this arch. Can you manage without your cane for a second sir? (I was carrying a collapsible walking stick, because a few weeks back I sprained my ankle and fell heavily on one knee, and it’s taking a long time to heal.)

Pockets empty, cane handed over, I hobbled through the arch, which promptly hooted an alarm and lit up like a Christmas tree. Oh lor, I thought, does this mean I’ll have to be strip searched? And if so, can I have, er, THAT policeman, please?

Instead, he just smiled at me, handed my my valuables and cane, and said cheerily, “Don’t worry sir, it’s probably just your hip.”

I don’t have an artificial hip. I don’t have an artificial anything.

On to the registration desk. Show photo ID. “Thank you sir, if you wouldn’t mind wearing this in a visible position at all times while you’re here,” said a charming cheery woman. She handed me a small metal badge reading 2013, with Community Cabinet in smaller letters round the edge. Really? No name tags?

With almost an hour to showtime, and the evening getting chilly, I followed the signs to the hall. I found to my surprise that it was already open. People were drifting in and taking seats. So, with a slightly nervous glance at the large policeman by the door, in I went. Was that a Taser in his holster?

Sheets of A4 reading “WHEELCHAIR SPACE” were taped to the floor at the ends of some rows. Adjacent chairs bore another reading “CARER”. Some of the chairs in the front row facing the stage had chairs reversed in front of them, with their backs to it. I wondered about that.

Suddenly I’m back in school. It’s a combined gymnasium / assembly hall, with rings and ropes looped out of the way overhead, and a stage at one end. But the chairs have been arranged facing one of the long walls instead, with a long dais erected along the whole length

I chat with the people around me until members of the Cabinet began drifting in and taking their places. Some of them, of course, I’ve met before. Or at least, spoken to on the phone. Tanya Plibersek gives a fluttery little finger wave – but then, she’s giving little waves to everyone. Wandering around working the crowd, pausing for photos. Michael Danby glares at me from his outpost at one end of the platform, about as far from the PM as you can get: the new boy spot. Why is he glaring? He must be unhappy about the interview I did with his Liberal challenger Kevin Ekendahl. Don’t know who that bloke is: ah, local MP, says my neighbor. And that’s the headmaster. And those are two Victorian Senators.

Now who’s that silvery android right down the other end? Good lord, it’s Stephen Smith, looking curiously unreal. There’s Stephen Conroy – the only one to take off his jacket and roll his sleeves up – Bill Shorten, Bob Carr, Mark Dreyfus, Wayne Swan, and my local MP, Jenny Macklin. I think they’re all here. Apologies if I’ve forgotten anyone. Seeing them all lined up at this very long table, I’m irresistibly reminded of The Last Supper. But with Kevin gone, who will play Judas Iscariot now?

From the seating arrangement, it would have to be Conroy. Interesting.

Ah, here we go. People are cheering and clapping, and from the back of the hall a small bespectacled woman with dull uniform red hair processes slowly through the crowd, stopping at an occasional wheelchair to bestow a gracious hand and a beaming smile. Those big blokes with earpieces surround her.

Shorter than I expected, and looking more like her cartoons than I expected, too. That haircut, that nose and – look, I’m sorry to mention this but it can’t be avoided – that arse. All an absolute gift to cartoonists.

The clapping and cheering go on, and on. They must have bussed in a cheer squad. Surely there’s more than 300 people in here?

Finally she makes the platform, and then the event goes into a coma for a bit. The MC kicks us off. Then there’s the welcome to country. The local MP tells us how wonderful he, and by extension the government is. The headmaster does his bit, ending up by introducing the choir. Individually. By name.  They sing the first verse of the national anthem. Applause.

Finally the PM stands up. More cheering and applause. I sneak a look at my watch. Well, there’s fifteen minutes of the hour gone. She asks everyone on the platform to introduce themselves in ten words. One by one, they do – in about ten paragraphs each. About what a lovely day they’ve had in this amazing constituency: at a legal aid centre, a local factory, with local deaf-blind people (aha, that explains the backwards-facing chairs in the front row – the deaf-blind sit with their backs to the action, facing their interpreters, who communicate by tapping and stroking their hands and faces). The PM does a little speech. Thirty minutes gone. Now we get to it. She calls for questions.

I shoot my hand up. She goes to the opposite side of the floor. Long Dorothy Dixer from lawyer from aforementioned Legal Aid Centre – more money. Then a bloke with a heavy East European accent talking about how bad WorkChoices was (applause), and how he’s still fighting for his entitlement. I put my right hand down, and raise my left.

Bloke in a wheelchair with a speech impediment: something about his hopes for the National Disability Scheme and how important it is for the government and . . . whoah! What happened there? Suddenly he’s asking why she won’t support gay marriage – especially as New Zealand has just passed it, and how can she let the Kiwis get ahead of us? Laughter and applause.

“Well my party has had a vote on this and my party has taken a view blah blah blah,” she comes out with the usual script, but then adds something like, “although in relation to the Kiwis getting ahead of us, you may have found a compelling new argument there. We’ll have to see how that plays around the Cabinet table.” Applause.It’s the first flash of humour – of character – I’ve seen.

Left hand down, right hand up. She switches to my side of the hall. I smile. Hard.

The questions keep coming. The headmaster asks about Gonski. She says she’ll make sure the state government won’t get their hands on the money. Applause. The deaf-blind ask about an Auslan course cruelly defunded by the Napthine government. The PM says advisors will talk to her after to see what can be done. Applause. A woman asks why the government are such rotten communicators, getting applause and a rather short and testy response from the PM. More disability stuff.

Right hand down, left hand up again. Gillard switches back to the other side of the hall. It’s ten to seven. She’s not going to pick me. Should I put both hands up at once? This is like being back at school. We’re in the assembly hall, the staff up on stage, the headmistress addressing us, and here I am, waving my hand in the air like a schoolboy, wishing, “Miss, Miss, pick me, Miss Gillard! Pick me!”

Back to this side of the hall. A young person starts a mini-speech about global warming. God, my arm is aching. Three minutes to seven.

The PM looks around the hall – straight at me – smiles and nods. She gives her climate change answer, and then points at me.

“I think we’ll take this gentleman over here next.”

Suddenly my heart is hammering. A minion brings a mike. Oh lor, please don’t let me fluff this. It’s too bloody important. I’m talking to the Prime Minister and the whole frikkin cabinet! Help! I struggle to my feet.

Now I can’t guarantee exactly what I said, but it went something like this (in a voice shaky with nerves):

“My name is Doug Pollard, and I’m a 63 year old gay man. Prime Minister, you referred earlier to the overhaul of aged care, and that’s very welcome. But you’ve left something out. You’re going to amend the Sex Discrimination Act, but you’re still going to let religious age-care businesses discriminate against people like me. Now I’ve already asked your Attorney-General this, and he can’t give me an answer, so I’m asking you, will your government commit to fixing this before the election to protect people like me from discrimination?”

To my astonishment, there’s a modest round of applause. Maybe the tremor in my voice got their sympathy! Naturally, she handballs the question off to the Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus.

I’ll have to paraphrase from memory again, but in essence Dreyfus said ‘the bit about religious exemptions’ belonged with the broader anti-discrimination consolidation, which they are ‘continuing to work on.’ The ‘very important reform’ of the Sex Discrimination Act reform to include GBLTI was the only part of the larger package of discrimination law overhaul that they have saved ‘for now’.

The question of religious exemptions will be dealt with as ‘part of that wider package’ (which we all know won’t get touched this side of the election).

Tanya Plibersek added that LGBTI awareness training that Mark Butler would be funding as part of the aged care reforms would ensure we weren’t discriminated against anyway. Really? Ya think? And then it was someone else’s turn.

I bailed Dreyfus up privately afterwards and got the same response. He was really sorry that he could not give me the categorical assurance I was seeking, they were ‘trying their best’, but can’t promise the religious exemptions in respect of aged care will be removed before the election.

He pointed out that there was very little opposition to their removal: most aged care providers don’t discriminate anyway and don’t want the clause. I agreed, but pointed out there are large tracts of the country where the ONLY providers are religious-owned, and what about people living there? He just sighed and shook his head and said, believe me Doug, I know, I know, I really am entirely with you on this, but . . . . .blah blah blah.

So it looks like it’s been decided that to tinker with religious exemptions is too much of a hot potato this close to the election, and it’s all up to Mark Butler to somehow sneak it in by the back door somewhere in his aged care package.

Don’t hold your breath.

As we all milled about in the aftermath, I wondered if I had done any good. I guess you never know – it might spark something. I did get that smatter of applause – which the PM and others certainly noted.

Plenty of people told me “Good question, mate!” Even some of the noisy cheer squad, with whom I had a lively conversation on the footy oval, walking back to my car.

A stunning young man from the ABC radio interviewed me. “Can you start with your name and a bit about yourself?”

“My name is Doug Pollard, I’m a 63 year old gay man, and I present a news and current affairs show The Rainbow Report on community radio station Joy 94.9”

“I thought your voice sounded familiar. Were you satisfied with the answer you got?” “No,” I said, and I probably should have left it at that. Instead I explained why at length.

Shut up Douglas. Go home. You’ve done your bit. Then I get back and find the broadcast on ABC News 24 was cut short by Thatcher’s funeral, and my question didn’t make it to air.

That’s twice in my life that woman has shafted me . . . . . .

Oh, and if anyone one knows who that lovely young man from the ABC was . . . I forgot to ask for his number . Well, I couldn’t very well ask someone else for their number when I was on the date with the PM, could I?

If you’d like to see NZ marriages recognised in Oz, The Greens have a Bill – and a petition – for that. Please sign!

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About the author

Veteran gay writer and speaker, Doug was one of the founders of the UKs pioneering GLBTI newspaper Gay News (1972) , and of the second, Gay Week, and is a former Features Editor of Him International. He presented news and current affairs on JOY 94.9 FM Melbourne for more than ten years. "Doug is revered, feared and reviled in equal quantities, at times dividing people with his journalistic wrath. Yet there is no doubt this grandpa-esque bear keeps everyone abreast of anything and everything LGBT across the globe." (Daniel Witthaus, "Beyond Priscilla", Clouds of Magellan, Melbourne, 2014)