Source: Verity Firth Campaign

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By Kieran Adair

It was billed as an event focusing on education, but it was gender that topped discussions at a talk given by Julia Gillard and Verity Firth, Labor candidate for Balmain, at the University of Sydney this week.

Ms Firth, a former state Minister for Education, fondly recalled her experiences as a parliamentary staffer, and the cultural shift that occurred within the Labor party after the 1998 Federal election, which saw a group of 10 new women, including Ms Gillard, move to Canberra.

Though both women admitted there are still many barriers women face in entering politics, as evidenced by Ms Gillard’s treatment as Prime Minister, they believed progress was being made. According to Ms Gillard, her “trial by fire” has at least ensured “we are having all the right conversations” about gender in politics.

“One of the reasons I wanted to write [My Story] as quickly as I did is that I was concerned that there would be women that looked at my experience as Prime Minister and said “it’s not for me”… but with all of that the upside is far far more than the downside, so if you’ve got a political interest as a young women then my advice is to go for it.” Ms Gillard said.

“I want to be an old lady going to Labor party trivia and to be asked the question “how many female Prime Ministers has Australia had?’ and for no one to know the answer, because there have been so many.”

This comes amid media speculation a challenge for the Prime Ministership by Foreign Minister Julie Bishop could occur. She has dismissed rumours, telling Cabinet: “I am not campaigning for the job of prime minister, I am not ringing the backbench asking for support. I am not counting any numbers, I will not challenge the leader.”

Education Officer for the University of Sydney Postgraduate Association Brigitte Garozzo said the Liberal government’s lack of female front-benchers and recent closing of women’s refuges in NSW proves the party is ‘detrimental’ to gender equality.

“I think in terms of the real, actual, material effects on women’s lives I think it’s more important that the Liberals are in government that it is positive that she [Julie Bishop] is female,” she said.

“I think women face different challenges. I was watching the way they describe the new Queensland Premier [Annastacia Palaszczuk], as a mother of three, not about her past portfolio…which is how they would have described a man.”

Ms Gillard and Ms Firth also talked about the need for education reform, returning again to the findings of the Gonski report and it’s support for needs based funding. They also spoke of the need to better retain good teachers, through better pay, job security and opportunities for career progression.

Ms Gillard was visiting Sydney en route to Rwanda, where she will be travelling as part of her work for the Global Partnership for Education.