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Moving Forward in the Margins

The Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research celebrated its 20th anniversary on Jan. 15 by welcoming former Prime Minister of Australia Julia ...

Jan 25, 2014

The Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research celebrated its 20th anniversary on Jan. 15 by welcoming former Prime Minister of Australia Julia Gillard to deliver a lecture entitled “The UAE and Australia: A Roadmap to Future Cooperation.” Although some of the Australian press have touched on the event, the scant coverage provided by the Daily Telegraph and the Herald Sun is not only factually incorrect but also ignores the progress only figures like Gillard are capable of making through these lectures.
Despite being the first female leader of her party, the first deputy prime minister and first prime minister of Australia, Gillard is perhaps best known on a global scale from the popular video in which she accused then opposition leader and current Prime Minister Tony Abbott of being a misogynist. Since her departure from formal politics prior to Australia’s 2013 federal election, Gillard has worked with the University of Adelaide as an honorary visiting professor and as a fellow at The Brookings Institution focusing on education — one of Australia’s many exports to the UAE. However, it was only on her own behalf that Gillard spoke, her speech made more powerful by the lack of an official and encumbering title.
The lecture began with a summary of Australia’s relationship with the UAE to date, focusing on bilateral trade and investment agreements, shared security interests in the Gulf and the deepening friendship between the two young and sunburned countries, each determined to diversify their resource-based economies. The speech was enlightening and expertly balanced, Gillard stressed the importance of resuming the currently halted Australia-Gulf Cooperation Council Free Trade Agreement negotiations while acknowledging the recent successful partnership between Emirates and QANTAS as well as the thousand Emirati students currently studying at Australian Universities, the 350 Australian companies, the 16,000 Australians in the UAE and the valuable diplomatic dialogue between Australia and the UAE surrounding their respective influence in the uranium and petroleum markets. While I knew that the UAE had supported Australia’s successful bid for a seat on the U.N. Security Council, I was previously unaware of — and touched by — the UAE’s 30m USD donation to build shelters in cyclone-devastated Queensland in 2011. I was also moved by the future Gillard saw developing between these Australia and the UAE setting an example for diplomatic dialogue in the region. This relationship could provide a peripheral yet critical stability and counsel in negotiations on issues like intervention in Syria, nuclear development in Iran, Saudi-U.S. relations and even the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But the most powerful elements of Gillard’s speech landed during the question and answer session following her lecture.
Having already spoken about the importance of equal representation for women in Australian politics, Gillard was further pressed by NYU Abu Dhabi sophomore Megan Vincent about Gillard’s perspective on the evolving role of women in the politics in the Gulf. Gillard began her reply somewhat shakily — with a necessary nod to free thought and the importance of sovereign nations determining their own stances on these issues — as was briefly noted by the Daily Telegraph and the Herald Sun. However, this was only the first sentence of her three-minute, subtle and complex answer. The obligatory qualifiers completed, Gillard went on to note that “ultimately … [institutions] should replicate and represent the equality between men and women” saying that “merit is equally distributed between the sexes.” Further, she publicly acknowledged the cost of having so many men in power in the UAE or Australia. She said “that does mean that there are a lot of women of merit who aren’t getting to show their talents and capacities.” But perhaps most tellingly, she finished her answer, and her speech for the evening, by speaking to Vincent:
“The world you’ll live in is one where the premium for economies will be on knowledge and innovation and so people won’t be able to take their full place in that global economy unless they are relying on the skills and capacity of all of their people because all of the brainpower will be needed to hold your competitive position in that world”.
While the language may be high-flying and it may have taken two minutes to formulate, Gillard somehow found a way to acknowledge in a public space that the UAE is not making full use of all of its resources if it is not allowing women to take formal leadership positions in business or in politics. This is one brief form of a principled moral and economic argument for equality — an argument that seems to have entirely eluded the Australian press thus far. But an argument ignored or marginalised is not forgotten, nor is it made any less true. In fact, ignoring this kind of argument might ironically enable it to be more resonant with its target audience than if Gillard’s speech were front-page news.
For those in the room, Gillard’s reply sent a powerful message, a message she might not have been able to send if encumbered by the spotlight and the title of prime minister, and the formal speaking roles, rituals and relationships entailed by that position. Would Prime Minister Gillard have even been asked the question, or would it have been listed below strategically more important issues? If the press were hanging on her every word, would Gillard have dared venture to even this degree of openness? Perhaps progress that is not on the front lines is the only kind of progress available or likely to succeed for those already marginalised. In any case, it’s certainly better than the alternative.
For those who need a painfully short answer, allow me to condense my point. With the world’s eyes focused  on the formal players elsewhere, the less-formal leaders can still make progress in a personal setting, contributing to much-needed public discussion and debate. A female former prime minister on a stage in the UAE can make an argument for equality and be applauded — if there aren’t too many people listening.
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