There's nowt so queer as political folk

Any excuse for joy ... former prime minister Bob Hawke with Julia Gillard in a Q&A.
Any excuse for joy ... former prime minister Bob Hawke with Julia Gillard in a Q&A.

THE political party in Australia begins at Woodford, literally. The Woodford Folk Festival on Queensland's Sunshine Coast has long been known as an eclectic blend of 500-odd acts from blues, to funk, to jazz, comedy and street theatre. And now politics.

This year 15,000 festival-goers are camping on site and gate numbers are up 15 per cent, with 115,000 expected to attend over the six days. But the festival is being increasingly taken over by politicians keen to be heard by ''the people''.

On Sunday, Julia Gillard, returning from her Christmas break, became the first prime minister in office to attend the festival. Days ago, the Liberal frontbencher Malcolm Turnbull also took to the festival stage, invited by local MP, Wyatt Roy, to deliver a withering criticism of politics and the media that garnered headlines nationwide.

Ms Gillard was invited by the former prime minister Bob Hawke, a five-time attendee who was introduced to Woodford by his wife, Blanche. They stay in the festival director Bill Hauritz's bunker in the artist campsite.

Mr Hawke said the rough ride Ms Gillard had had since becoming prime minister was unparalleled in Australian political history.

''There's absolutely no question anybody has faced such difficulty as my dear friend Julia has,'' he said.

He said there was no doubt she had had a tougher time because she was a woman and he had never been criticised for his fashion choices.

Called on by an audience member to sing, Ms Gillard refused politely: ''We are a Welsh family, so we should be able to sing. But the Gillards are the only non-singing Welsh people on the planet. So no, I won't be singing a song.''

But she did say that implementing the national disability insurance scheme and continuing education reforms were her New Year's resolutions.

The headline musician John Butler, who warmed up the crowd before Ms Gillard's appearance, welcomed politicians to Woodford. "Politics today is lacking vision," he said backstage. "It is the same old boring banter of sensationalist economic issues, and people want to move forward. Bill Hauritz has a 500-year vision for this festival and it would be great if our leaders and the government also had a 500-year vision."

Rumours of the Prime Minister's visit began on Boxing Day. An advance security crew was spotted the day before her arrival.

By the time she took to the stage with Mr Hawke for a 40-minute Q&A with Hauritz, the crowd had filled the marquee, the grass hill and spilt onto the streets.

What followed was in effect a Hawke-Gillard ''love in'', dotted with the occasional activist heckler demanding answers on asylum seekers and coal seam gas mining.

"We expect hecklers but Woodford is about joy and I love any excuse for joy," said Hauritz. Ms Gillard did her best to express ''joy'', remaining calm in front of the vocal crowd.

She spoke of climate change and the need to accept big problems and not pretend they would go away. The crowd cheered when reference was made to her misogynist speech in Parliament. She referred to a ''contest of ideas'' for next year.

The public relations campaign continued as Ms Gillard embarked on a walk through of the children's precinct.

Woodford is traditionally a minority voting audience, led by environmentalists and activists who mingle with middle-class day trippers and those who relish live music in a bush setting.

When asked about potential security issues at such an open festival she said: "It would be a little bit hard to get the president of the USA to wander round something like this. But we live in a safe place which makes it easier."

Ms Gillard was well prepared for the bush terrain - wearing boots instead of her usual heeled shoes. But she did concede she was clumsy and, if she could find a way to, she would fall over.

with Natalie Bochenski

This story There's nowt so queer as political folk first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.