Meeting of the minds:

Julia Gillard and Sally McManus

In November 2020, former Prime Minister Julia Gillard sat down with Australian Council of Trade Unions Secretary Sally McManus. Journalist Monica Crouch zoomed in.

“My next guest needs no introduction,” quipped ACTU Secretary Sally McManus in opening her conversation with Julia Gillard as part of ACTU’s Virtual Organising Conference on 18 November 2020.

McManus said that while we all know Julia Gillard was Australia’s 27th Prime Minister (from June 2010 to June 2013), what we may not know is what she’s doing now.

Julia Gillard is Chair of the Global Partnership for Education, an international fund dedicated to developing education in lower-income countries; she is Chair of the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership at King’s College, London; and she is a Distinguished Fellow with the Center for Universal Education at the Brookings Institution in Washington DC. She is also Chair of Australian mental health support service Beyond Blue, and co-author, with Ngozi Okongo-Iweala, of Women and Leadership: Real lives, real lessons, published in 2020.

Gillard and McManus tackled a broad theme: Where is the world up to now? In her initial remarks, Gillard broke this down into three central challenges and three opportunities.

Challenge 1: Nationalism

“There is a tendency of populations during difficult days, when the pressures of globalisation and change are so acute, to turn inwards,” Gillard said. “This had full-throated expression through the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom. It’s the kind of politics that’s driven ‘make America great again’ and the Donald Trump phenomenon, and it has also had a deep hold in many other countries around the world and led to Trump-style leaders in many places.”

Gillard says the pandemic is “turbocharging” this trend, despite the election of Joe Biden in the United States. “Many nations have turned inwards to fight the health crisis,” she said. “And they will want to continue to turn inwards even in the days beyond the health crisis. We will continue to see nationalism shaping domestic politics in many places in the world.”

McManus noted that this inward-facing, nationalist trend is not serving people well. “Those right-wing populist leaders are the most hopeless in terms of dealing with the pandemic,” she said. “If you look at Trump, at Bolsonaro in Brazil, at Boris Johnson – it’s a total disaster for those countries. They haven’t been able to use that strength or nationalism to mobilise their countries to deal with the pandemic. In fact, they’ve denied it.”

Gillard said that in contrast to these strong-man types, she really wanted to believe women were proving better leaders during the pandemic – think Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand, Angela Merkel in Germany, and Erna Solberg in Norway. However, her inner statistician initially thought the sample size was too small and focused on countries with advantages before the pandemic.

“But I’ve been very taken by a piece of UK research which has compared like countries and concluded that many women have led better,” she said. While the researchers are still drilling down to find out exactly what they did differently, she said, “one of the things appears to be that they listened to the scientists and they acted early on things like lockdowns and community restrictions”.

Stay tuned for more on science.

Challenge 2: Inequality

While economic, race and gender inequality pre-date the pandemic, “what the health crisis has done is put new stresses, strains and spotlights on the underlying fault lines”, Gillard said.

McManus said the pandemic had reinforced economic inequality, with entire workforces losing their jobs overnight and the health of many communities threatened because countless workers in insecure jobs did not have access to sick leave.

It is quite clear that around the world, casualised and insecure work has been a contributing element to this health crisis.
Julia Gillard

In the UK, Gillard said people from Black, Asian and minority ethnic communities were bearing an excessive burden during the pandemic.

“Those communities are often the staff in the lower paid jobs in healthcare,” she said. “So they’re uniquely exposed to the virus; how much of it is because they’re in casualised and insecure work and because they just have to keep going to work?”

Australia has its own version of this: think of who comprises the bulk of the cleaning, aged care and food delivery workforces.

Gillard noted that the virus disproportionately kills men but beyond this the pandemic is having “ripple effects”. The first ripple has hit the front line of the health and caring professions – predominantly women; the next is that the domestic load during lockdowns falls heavily on women, as does domestic violence; and the third ripple is that women have been disproportionately impacted by job losses.

McManus drew a lesson from the global financial crisis. Despite how many had hoped to build a better system, inequality had only worsened. “Why was that?” she asked. “In the end I wonder if it’s because the financial class, the very rich, were much better organised. They were better organised, and they just rolled ahead with what they were doing while we were struggling with unemployment and all of the consequences of it.”

Out of the health crisis, Australia’s conservative Coalition government has organised a dangerous Industrial Relations Omnibus Bill that weakens job security and wages. What they may not have expected is the strength of the push-back. As McManus says, “you don’t help the economy by hurting workers”.

Challenge 3: University education

“A wave of change was coming for education and particularly universities before the pandemic and that wave is now a tsunami,” Gillard said. The reliance on overseas student fees to cross-subsidise research means the funding model for Australian universities is “profoundly challenged”, she said.

The impact of this is not to be underestimated. “It matters for the intellectual capital of the nation and our research ability, and it matters in terms of the prospects of working Australians and their families to get a university education in a quality institution, and it also matters profoundly to our economy,” she said.

Gillard added that Australia’s top three export industries are facing huge challenges: coal and iron ore because of climate change; and university education because of the funding model.

Opportunity 1: Government

“In many ways, government is back,” Gillard said, observing that people around the world were beginning to take a greater interest in government and politics.

“Before the pandemic, I think it was possible for many people to think to themselves, ‘government doesn’t matter to me, politics doesn’t matter to me; every so often, one crowd gets replaced by another crowd, but what do I care?’”, she said.

But the pandemic has alerted people to just how much governments can really have an impact on our lives, right down to whether we live or die. “I’m hoping that this breeds a new sense of seriousness and engagement in politics,” she said.

McManus agreed. “We can’t just sit back and watch history happen – we’ve got to create it, we’ve got to be part of influencing its direction,” she said. McManus also said defending democracy and enabling trust in government and elected leaders was particularly important in the face of rising nationalism and authoritarianism.

“There’s also been a change in people’s attitude to the role of government in providing public services,” McManus said, and this is calling into question the privatisation agenda that has taken root in Australia in the past 30 years.

“Certain things are essential – and it’s essential the government does them, and they’re there for everyone, and they’re not about the profit motive,” she said. A quick glance at the privatised health system in the United States compared with public health in Australia provides a good example. Yet even within Australia, the pandemic has revealed deep cracks within privatised aged care compared with state-run aged care.

Opportunity 2: Science

Not only is government back, science is too, Gillard says. “After all of the scientific wars we’ve had around climate change, for most of 2020 we’ve been hanging off the words of experts who can tell us what is going to happen next with caseloads, what is going to happen next with vaccines, what is going to happen next with treatments,” she said.

“We’ve been listening to scientists and I think we can leverage that into a broader listening to scientists in the public policy domain, including on climate change.”

We can’t just sit back and watch history happen– we’ve got to create it, we’ve got to be part of influencing its direction.
Sally McManus

Yet she also says debate is to be expected, fearing that once inquiries into the pandemic are under way “it will be quite convenient for politicians to point the finger of blame at scientists”, she said. “But if we can come out of this strengthened around science and evidence-based public policy, I think that’s good for all of us.”

McManus agrees. “Science is sexy again,” she said. “In Australia, we’ve been so driven by it and especially for those of us in states that are having outbreaks or have had outbreaks, it’s worked. So we’re taking advice from it, and that advice has led to good outcomes. It’s about building confidence again in the integrity of science, and the depth of knowledge and expertise in our scientists.” From this too she takes heart that scientific reasoning will prevail around the challenges of climate change.

Both Gillard and McManus favour scientific and medical advice about vaccination over distorted debates on social media driven by commentators who lack lifelong research expertise. “If this virus threatens anybody anywhere in the world, then it still threatens all of us,” Gillard said. “So there needs to be a global solidarity around vaccine distribution.”

Opportunity 3: Work

McManus has been a regular media fixture during the past 18 months. She was instrumental, with former Labor Minister Greg Combet, in negotiations for the JobKeeper program which has not only been a lifeline to many during the past year, it has provided vital economic stimulus.

Then came the stark reality of how deep the seam of insecure work and casualisation runs throughout Australia. But McManus sounds a note of hope. “We’ve sensed a shift in the debate around insecure work,” she said.

“We’ve been banging on about it for decades and we only get so far. But now we’ve had this mass experience of people in insecure work just losing their jobs overnight and the whole community being threatened by the fact that people don’t have sick leave in a pandemic.” This is making people really think differently, she said.

Gillard spoke on this theme too. “There is a debate to be had about casual and insecure work,” she said. “It is quite clear that around the world, casualised and insecure work has been a contributing element to this health crisis.”

McManus has consistently said that when employers don’t provide sick leave, people are forced to choose between their health and putting food on the table. Then there are the risks posed by those who need to work two or more jobs to make ends meet.

“I am hoping that the pandemic feeds into a greater appetite for sorting out that workplace inequality,” Gillard said.

Both expressed concern that the pandemic would reinforce gender roles – that the long-term option to work from home would disproportionately be taken up by women as they are more inclined to need work-family balance to care for children and/or ailing parents, not to mention doing the lion’s share of the housework. Both were apprehensive that men would be more likely to attend workplaces, be perceived as more available in times of crisis, and have more opportunities for promotion and networking at the workplace and at after-work drinks.

“I worry that there’ll be a new ceiling,” McManus said. “Not a glass ceiling but some other ceiling, maybe just the ceiling in your house that you won’t be able to get past.”

Facing the future

If, as political scientist Benedict Andrews wrote, nations are “imagined communities”, then how does Australia imagine its communal future?

Both Gillard and McManus believe Australians are already asking themselves some tough questions. “They’re wondering, ‘In the economic rebuild, who’s going to get opportunity? How am I going to make sure my son or daughter doesn’t emerge into a world where there are just no jobs for them, and no hope?’” Gillard said.

And this, she says, opens up a conversation for the progressive side of politics. “As those debates roll out, the voice and role of the trade union movement, here and around the world, will be absolutely critical to our prospects of success,” she said.

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