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Gillard and Clinton: The pull of an old friendship

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COMMENTS

28 October 2016 14:00

It got off to a rocky start, but the relationship between Hillary Clinton and former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard has become a warm and respectful one that is likely to grow in importance if Clinton becomes President of the United States.

A Clinton victory may see Gillard take on new responsibilities in plans by the new US president to use her presidency to help improve the lives of women and girls, especially in the developing world. But beyond what formal work she may do for these Clinton causes, Gillard could also become an informal confidante to the new US President on wider issues, including the challenges in the Asia Pacific region that will face the new administration.

Clinton and Gillard are firm friends, a friendship which developed despite initial coolness on the part of Clinton after Kevin Rudd was deposed as prime minister in June, 2010. Insiders say Clinton had a high regard for Rudd and was astounded both by the fact that he was removed and by the way he was removed.

Like German Chancellor Angela Merkel – who also had a high regard for Rudd – Clinton took a dim view of the means that Gillard used to become Australia’s first female leader. It was part of the heavy price Gillard paid for her decision to grab the leadership rather than to wait, that it damaged her standing with the West’s two most powerful female political figures.

Interestingly, Rudd also retains good connections with Clinton and with the Democrats. Sources close to Rudd, in fact, suggest that the Clinton camp was positive towards his ambition to become the next UN Secretary General because of the regard in which they held his foreign policy knowledge and post-politics international activism. Had Rudd secured the Turnbull government’s endorsement to nominate for the position, there was a strong chance he would have got US backing.

Well informed senior Australian officials say it is not widely understood in Australia that Rudd had had a very good chance of getting the UN job before the Australian Government’s snub. And, of course, had he done so, he would have been a key figure in the international diplomatic network with which the first female president of the United States and her Secretary of State would have had to work – an irony given the relationship that now exists between Clinton and Gillard.

People with knowledge of the way the Clinton-Gillard relationship evolved say that in the early days of the Gillard prime ministership, when Clinton was US Secretary of State, there was little interaction between them. But as their contacts with each other increased after the visit to Australia by President Obama for his historic 'Pivot to Asia' address to the Australian Parliament in November, 2011, the relationship warmed.

However, the issue that brought the two women together and is now the basis of their friendship had nothing to do with foreign, defence or strategic policy. It was as a result of Clinton’s sympathy for Gillard and her treatment as Australia’s first female prime minister.

'It was clear to me that Hillary saw in Julia’s treatment the prospects of what she would face in her campaign to become the first female President of the United States,' a former high ranking Gillard office source said.

'Of course, she didn’t foresee that she would be facing the misogynist of all misogynists in Donald Trump. But I think there is no doubt that she saw Julia as a great example of strength and grace in the face of rampant sexism'.

The misogyny speech that travelled far

After Gillard’s famous 'misogyny speech' to Federal Parliament in October, 2012, Clinton publicly praised Gillard. Saying that Gillard had faced 'outrageous sexism', Clinton described Gillard’s speech as 'an important political and public statement by a female leader making clear that sexism should not be tolerated'.

Insiders say Clinton and Gillard became confidantes in the aftermath of that speech, a relationship which has continued since Gillard lost the prime ministership.

Among the causes she has taken on since she resigned from Federal Parliament and returned to private life, Gillard linked up with the Clinton Foundation and became actively involved in the joint Clinton Foundation-Brookings Institution 'No Ceilings' program for female advancement as well as the Clinton Global Initiative 'Girls Charge' program which aims to lift female education rates in developing countries, especially Africa.

After a visit to the US last year and a meeting with Clinton, Gillard featured in an online video made by the Clinton campaign team advocating for Clinton to become America’s first female president. And in July this year, coinciding with the confirmation of Clinton as the Democrat candidate for President, Gillard wrote an article for the New York Times titled 'First Woman to First Woman'.

Gillard also took part in a forum at the Democrat National Convention on women and leadership.

A source connected to the Clinton team told The Interpreter that, while there had not been any discussion of a formal role for Gillard in the event of a Clinton victory, he expected that there would be regular conversations between Clinton and Gillard. 'Hillary will be deeply aware of Julia’s experience as she takes on the challenges of being the first female president,' the source said.

A trusted ally

As a trusted friend in Australia, Gillard may well also be someone with whom Clinton will have informal contact as she comes to deal with issues in the region.

Clinton is said to have been impressed, in the time that Gillard was Australian Prime Minister, with her toughness on policy issues. Gillard’s address to the US Congress in March 2009 and her willingness to back increased US military presence in Northern Australia as part of the Obama 'Pivot' had marked her as a strong friend of America.

Insiders in both the US and Australian defence and foreign policy establishments expect a Clinton Administration to move early and decisively to reinforce the Obama Administration’s pivot to Asia. 

Australia will be asked to actively reinforce US efforts to reassert its interests in the region that are under intense pressure because of the tensions with China in the South China Sea, the behaviour of North Korea and new challenges such as those posed by of the President of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte.

Clinton is expected to be a 'hawkish' president when it comes to asserting US power to defend its interests in the region.

Of course, the way Australia responds to any demands that this makes of its commitment to the alliance will be entirely matter for the Coalition government. But Clinton is likely to have been reassured by the forceful positions that Gillard took, and which the current Labor Opposition continues to embrace, that there will be firm Australian bipartisanship in support of US interests and the actions her Administration takes to defend them.

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images 

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