IN what she described as ‘‘the very final moments’’ of her three years and three days as Australia’s 27th prime minister, Julia Gillard drafted a letter to Newcastle Herald journalist Joanne McCarthy.
The letter, published with Ms Gillard’s approval, was in response to a letter Ms McCarthy had sent to Ms Gillard in May, after learning about her tears in parliament over the DisabilityCare legislation.
Ms Gillard describes Ms McCarthy as ‘‘a truly remarkable person’’, a description that all of us at the Herald – and all of the people she has helped over the years – would endorse.
Read Julia Gillard's letter near the bottom of this page
‘‘Thanks in large measure to your persistence and courage, the NSW Special Commission of Inquiry and the federal Royal Commission will bring truth and healing to the victims of horrendous abuse and betrayal,’’ Ms Gillard wrote.
Ms Gillard announced the Royal Commission in November last year, days after Premier Barry O’Farrell announced a more limited inquiry into events in the Maitland-Newcastle Diocese of the Catholic Church.
After weeks of hearings in Newcastle and Sydney, the state inquiry is due to report by the end of February next year.
The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse held its first hearing in Melbourne on April 3, and its Sydney hearings start on Monday.
Six commissioners were appointed for three years, and their interim inquiry is due by June 30 next year. A final report is timed, provisionally, for the end of 2015.
Less than three months later, the events of Wednesday, June 26, seem like ancient political history, given the intervening election campaign and change of government.
In her concession speech Ms Gillard said she was very proud of having ordered the Royal Commission, which she believed would ‘‘change the nation’’.
‘‘It will change individual lives as people get to come forward and tell their story.
‘‘It will change the nation because we will learn how to better protect our children for the future.’’
That Ms Gillard wrote such a heartfelt note on her final night as Australia’s leader is a measure both of the impact of Ms McCarthy’s reporting and the motivations of Australia’s first female prime minister.
A LETTER FROM THE PRIME MINISTER - BY JOANNE McCARTHY
JULIA Gillard’s letter arrived at my home on Monday, July 1, five days after she lost the prime minister’s job to Kevin Rudd.
It wasn’t expected.
It was one of three or four letters I opened without benefit of glasses, in the semi-dark, after a long day at the NSW Special Commission of Inquiry in Newcastle, and while my dog Lloyd barked and pranced about because he wanted a walk.
I thought it was a bill.
I opened it and saw the date – June 26, 2013.
I read the first line, ‘‘I am sending you this letter in the very final moments of my last evening as Prime Minister. I do so with tremendous pride’’, stopped reading, grabbed my glasses, turned on a decent light and told Lloyd to shut up for a minute.
Then I read the letter in full and didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, so I did a bit of both before putting it down and walking out into the dark with the dog. When I returned I read the letter again, and then I cried.
I’ve never met Julia Gillard, but the thought of her taking the time to write such a gracious and extraordinary letter on that night, of all nights, and under those circumstances, was quite overwhelming.
It has had the same impact on everyone who has read it. Most – both men and women – have become tearful at the grace, compassion and regard for someone other than herself it displayed.
It is the same grace which distinguished her from Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott last Saturday night after the federal election.
While Rudd’s speech was astonishing for its self-congratulatory tone, and Abbott’s teetered on triumphalism, Gillard’s written messages were warm and inclusive. She congratulated Abbott and wished his team well, and acknowledged the ‘‘spirited fight’’ by Labor.
‘‘My thoughts are with you all,’’ she said via Twitter, after two months of dignified silence following her June 26 defeat.
The letter from Gillard to me was in response to a personal letter from me to her.
On May 15 Gillard cried during a speech at the passing of the DisabilityCare bill, given in front of near-empty Opposition benches, and when the toll from three years of negotiating a formidable list of legislative reforms through a hung parliament was on distressing display.
On May 15 I sat in the NSW Special Commission of Inquiry in Newcastle and cried from exhaustion, when the emotions of an inquiry into child sex abuse and events over the previous 18 months became too much.
I wrote a handwritten letter to Gillard the next day after reading about her emotional speech and seeing a beautiful photo of Gillard taken by a child, Sophie Deane, 12, who has Down syndrome.
I quoted the aunt of Belmont North man John Pirona, whose suicide last year was the driving force behind the Newcastle Herald’s Shine the Light campaign for a royal commission.
His aunt, Angela Barry, wrote that she had never really understood the saying ‘‘If a tree falls in the forest and no one’s there to listen, does it make a sound?’’, until her nephew’s suicide.
His death, from ‘‘too much pain’’ related to being sexually abused by paedophile priest John Denham in the 1970s, would have remained a tragic event for his family, like so many tragic but secret events experienced by other families of the sexually abused, but the Herald’s reporting had made John Pirona the face of a national tragedy, Ms Barry wrote.
One man’s death made a sound that was heard around the world when Australia’s first female prime minister announced a Royal Commission into child sexual abuse in institutions on November 12 last year.
I don’t have a copy of my letter to Gillard, but I remember writing that she would never, ever know how many people she had helped by steering the DisabilityCare bill through, and establishing the Royal Commission.
And I hope I wrote that that should be enough for a prime minister – to know that her time as leader of Australia actually meant something to countless people, many of whom have been silenced, marginalised and vulnerable their whole lives.
I asked retired Newcastle MP Sharon Grierson if she could deliver the letter to Gillard personally, and I thank her for doing that.
Julia Gillard’s letter to me was written on June 26, 2013, my mother’s 75th birthday. It will be framed, but not just yet. The history nut in me still likes to feel its weight in my hands.
TRANSCRIPT OF JULIA GILLARD'S LETTER
I am sending you this letter in the very final moments of my last evening as Prime Minister. I do so with enormous pride.
Joanne, you are a truly remarkable person.
Thanks in very large measure to your persistence and courage, the NSW Special Commission of Inquiry and the federal Royal Commission will bring truth and healing to the victims of horrendous abuse and betrayal.
Please know that in your remarkable struggle to tell the story about this shameful chapter in our nation’s history, you are not alone. Thousands of Australians share your passion for justice – I’m one of them.
So thank you for your humbling and inspiring letter – your integrity shines through in every sentence.
As I leave office, many piles of correspondence and briefings will go back to the Department for filing, but your letter will stay with me always.
With admiration and best wishes,