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Driven by indignation at injustice

By Julia Gillard - posted Monday, 5 October 2009

My family are Welsh. My parents migrated to Australia when I was four. They did so because I had bronchial pneumonia and they were told a warm climate would be better for me, but also because they saw new economic opportunity in Australia.

My dad grew up in a small coal mining village, one of seven children. He was very good at school, passed very high in the Eleven Plus exams, and was offered a scholarship. But his family's circumstances meant that he couldn't take up that opportunity.

We settled in Adelaide, South Australia. My father worked in a variety of blue-collar jobs before training as a psychiatric nurse. My mother worked as a domestic in an aged care institution. Between them they have contributed greatly to Australia as workers and as citizens. As well as their hard work, my parents always modelled a commitment to ideas and education that my sister and I absorbed as we grew up.


I went to state schools. There is no way in the world that mum and dad could have afforded private school education. We didn't come from a family where it was natural to go to university, but my parents were always very keen to get us to be the best that we could. It became possible for me because of the excellent state school funded by a Labor state government and because Gough Whitlam, Labor prime minister, removed upfront university fees.

Even when I was at school, when I was a teenager, I had a sense of what I thought was right and wrong in a values sense. Instinctively at home, Labor was our team. Even more importantly than the events, we'd talk about the values behind what was happening in the news. A sense of indignation has always burned in me about what happened to my father. That someone who had the capacity to go on to higher education, to even more schooling, and who won a scholarship to do so, could still have that opportunity ripped from their hands by economic circumstance.

In the last century, Australia has been a place of opportunity for people who came here. But I think many would recognise that, in Australia today, it would be harder for someone to make the journey that I made from a working-class background through state education to university and a career in national politics.

What makes my beliefs left rather than right-wing is that, while I believe individual effort and personal responsibility are fundamentally important, I also believe that collective responsibility and democratic action are necessary to ensure people can develop themselves and excel in all kinds of ways.

As society changes, so do the actions needed. Today, for example, many children from less advantaged backgrounds attend non-government schools. The questions are: whether all children in every community are getting the quality of teaching they deserve; whether their schooling leads to an expansion of opportunity; and whether their parents are getting help in their efforts to support their children's development.

Without the capacity to act through government, through communities and through democratic as well as personal choice, we would be left with a society in which individuals felt increasingly insecure and powerless to control their lives. In the face of rapid economic and social change, that would be a tragedy. Too many parents believe their teenagers are facing a tougher world than they themselves faced.


I do not believe that Australians would accept such a scenario with indifference or fatalism. The Australian sense of fairness is grounded in the value of giving everyone a fair go. That is why it angers me when talent is wasted and power or privilege are misused.

Globalisation is creating opportunities unimaginable a generation ago, and risks that are bewildering to millions of people. Our responsibility in politics is to pursue change that enables those people to be confident about their aspirations and to share the responsibility for building and rebuilding a decent society.

This is a modern, reforming social democracy, confident about the benefits of open markets and determined to ensure that all Australians are in a position to benefit from them.

For me, there is no more powerful way to achieve that goal than to fashion an education system in which economic and family circumstances do not dictate whether a child has the opportunity to excel and to shape their own life course. Unfortunately, that is still a radical aim, but it is also an intensely practical one. In pursuing it I am inspired by my Welsh forebear, Nye Bevan, who never gave up either his determination to improve the plight of working people or his pragmatism about how to achieve that goal.

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First published on the Demos Open Left website on September 14 and in The Australian on September 21, 2009.

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About the Author

Julia Gillard is Prime Minister of Australia.

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