New Emissary

Gillard’s Top Ambassador

The new ‘First Man’ of Australia has a stylish past and a career in health diplomacy.

Earlier this month we ran a feature story (‘Rudd Pacific Plan Lost at Sea?’) on whether the now ex-Australian prime minister was being given the cold shoulder by Asia.

But despite the apparent regional indifference over Kevin Rudd’s plan, and the controversy at home surrounding his leadership after he dropped plans for carbon trading, many were still shocked when he announced his resignation.

There’s much fervent media speculation over what went wrong for him, but the spotlight will now quickly shift onto his successor, Julia Gillard—Australia’s first-ever female prime minister. According to a profile in the Telegraph, the ‘feisty and self-assured’ Gillard already possesses key qualities Rudd didn’t have, like being a talented communicator and appearing ‘warm and natural in front of the cameras.’ But the newspaper also asserts that it hasn’t been easy for Gillard to rise to become ‘Australia’s most powerful woman,’ and points out how the new prime minister has in the past been criticized by opponents and critics for being single and childless.

But Gillard does have a significant other—partner Tim Mathieson—who she has been with since 2006. I admit he’s not exactly somebody I’d have expected to fill the role of Australia’s ‘First Man.’

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Mathieson, in his early fifties, looks like a modern urban man, thanks to his well-coifed hair and carefully trimmed eyebrows. His high-maintenance looks likely have to do with the three decades he spent as a hairdresser and salon owner, first in his hometown of Shepparton city, Victoria—where, in his own words, he was responsible for creating a lot of ‘ripper mullets’—then later on the Gold Coast.

Interestingly enough, Mathieson gave up the hair business recently after being appointed a men’s health ambassador by the Australian government in late 2008. According to a government spokesperson at the time of his selection, Mathieson was chosen for his ‘high profile,’ which would ‘help him bring this important message to a wider community’—not because of his relationship with Gillard, who was deputy prime minister at the time.

The men’s health ambassador programme in Australia is an initiative launched in 2008 by the government to appoint leaders in communities to help engage Australian men in talking about their health. According to an official statement released at the time, life expectancy for Australian men is nearly 5 years less than Australian women, and Australian men under 75 are 3 times more likely to die from ‘coronary heart disease, stroke and vascular disease than women.’ The press release also pointed out that a major problem in the country is that men are reluctant to get medical help or talk about their health: ‘Gender is a key determinant of health in Australia, and the best way to improve health outcomes is to have policies that recognise the unique needs of men.’ Thus, the near 100 ambassadors, including Mathieson, are sent to community groups, organisations, corporations, local councils, sports clubs, universities, industries and relevant events nationwide to open up the dialogue.

Mathieson, who has stated his experience as a hairdresser has made him uniquely suited to the role of comfortably communicating with various kinds of people, has said on the issue:

'I think where most guys go wrong is that they just don't take a break. They don't have a few nights where they have vegetable soups and salads and drink plenty of water instead of drinking alcohol. It's easy to get caught in that trap of coming home and drinking beer and not exercising.’

It sounds fairly reasonable to me.