Learning from the legacy of former PM in an age of anxiety

Australia’s first female Prime Minister Julia Gillard delivering the 20th Annual Hawke Lecture at the Adelaide Town Hall. COMMUNITY
Australia’s first female Prime Minister Julia Gillard delivering the 20th Annual Hawke Lecture at the Adelaide Town Hall.

Mental health reform is a national emergency “that needs many hands on deck”, according to Australia’s first female Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, who delivered the 2017 Annual Hawke Lecture.

UniSA Vice Chancellor Professor David Lloyd awarding Julia Gillard an Honorary Doctorate following her delivery of the Hawke Lecture.UniSA Vice Chancellor Professor David Lloyd awarding Julia Gillard an Honorary Doctorate following her delivery of the Hawke Lecture.

Gillard presented the 20th Annual Hawke Lecture, with a central theme of anxiety. In the address, presented by The Bob Hawke Prime Ministerial Centre, she referred to Brexit, Donald Trump’s presidency and “fake news” as collective responses to a wider sense of community anxiety.

The more personalised accounts of anxiety that Gillard related in her speech touched directly upon the issue of mental health and the impetus for reform in this area, given the prevalence of mental health conditions in society, which directly and indirectly now cost Australia $40 billion a year.

Gillard said that in any year one million Australian adults will have depression; that last year (2016) 2866 Australians took their own lives; and that one in four of those attending that evening’s lecture will experience extreme chronic anxiety in their life – a condition not to be confused with the more regular “ups and downs” most experience in daily life.

Reflecting on her own family’s experience of mental health care, Gillard spoke movingly of her father working at Glenside hospital as a psychiatric nurse, using that experience as a barometer to measure society’s evolving approach to the care and treatment of those with mental health conditions.

“The attitude that mental illness was best never spoken of, that people should be shut away was alive and well while my father worked at Glenside,” Gillard said.

“As a woman of 56, I’ve been witness to the contemporary history in which our nation has decided that we no longer believe in isolating the mentally ill behind high fences and we need to have the conversation in our homes and workplace and community about what mental health is really all about.”

Highlighting courage and consensus as key values in her presentation, delivered at Adelaide Town Hall, Gillard’s oration flagged the influence of former Prime Minister Bob Hawke’s leadership on her own career and his political impact on Australia.

Gillard spoke of depression as something which doesn’t discriminate, delicately invoking Bob Hawke’s own battle with the condition during his time as Prime Minister.

“Bob has written about how the struggles of his daughter triggered his own depression. If depression can strike one of our most successful and loved PMs, it can strike anyone,” Gillard said.

Describing mental health reform as a national emergency “that needs many hands on deck” Gillard’s championing of a collective, communal response was one she related back to Bob Hawke’s inaugural Hawke speech.

“He spoke of the confidence Australia could and should have in the future but confessed a sense of foreboding. This was in 1998, the interregnum between the fall of the Iron Curtain and the destruction of the World Trade Centre,” Gillard said.

Describing the following 19 years (1998-2017) as a time when “geopolitical and economic upheavals had converged with a triumvirate of social, environmental and technological changes”, Gillard looked back on Hawke’s tenure as Prime Minister as “a masterclass in leadership in times of great change”.

“I am admiring not just of his political skills but of his values. Through all that change Bob demonstrated an unwavering belief in one certainty – that our nation needs to stand together and we need to look out for each other… you could call it ‘the fair go’.”

In response, Bob Hawke described Gillard’s speech, within the lexicon of Hawke lectures: “There has been none more compassionate and directed to the real problems of Australian people than the one delivered tonight.

“If we are going to optimise our chances of having a decent country in which everyone will have a fair go then we have to look at our fellow Australians and say we are not only fellow Australians but we depend upon one another, we have to cooperate with another.”

Following her presentation, Gillard was awarded an Honorary Doctorate from UniSA, in recognition of her political leadership and passionate advocacy of education and mental health care reform.

A full transcript for Julia Gillard’s speech is available on the beyondblue website.

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