Julia Gillard may not be the best Prime Minister Australia has had, but she’s certainly the most resilient. During a gruelling 3 years she has endured a campaign of vitriol and vilification unrivalled in our politics.
While Keating, Howard and Rudd were all subject to scathing criticism, a special contempt has been reserved for Gillard. The reason for this is worthy of further examination and reveals much about attitudes towards gender in Australia.
I offer this analysis with an important caveat. Like many Australians I disagree with a number of the Prime Minister’s policies. Gillard has perused an immoral and ineffective immigration policy, negotiated a weak mining tax, stripped funding from universities and single mothers and shown a frustrating recalcitrance on the issue of gay marriage. All of these things are worthy of public criticism and debate. All too often however, criticism of Gillard has been more personal than political.
From the moment Gillard assumed the Prime Ministership she was depicted as a puppet of the so called ‘faceless men’ of her party. Here Tony Abbott’s language drew on a familiar theme associated with Labor politics; the idea that forces outside of the parliament control the party and its agenda.
The suggestion however that Gillard is captive to the agenda of others has persisted long after the ‘coup’ that precipitated her ascension to the Prime Ministership. This is more than just a reflection on how the Prime Minister secured office; after all she is not the first Labor leader to rely on factions for her job. Rather, the framing of Gillard as a ‘puppet’ is consistent with the casting of women as supporting actors, rather than leaders in public life.
It is telling to note that when Bob Brown was leader of the Greens he was often characterised by the Liberal Party as the one really calling the shots. The suggestion that Gillard was a proxy for Brown was reinforced by the shocking spectre of the leader of the opposition standing before a sexist placard referring to the Prime Minister as “Bob Brown’s Bitch.”
While the hung parliament is an unusual scenario in modern politics, Gillard is not the first Prime Minister to rely on other parties to implement her agenda. For instance, Democrats’ Leaders Meg Lees and Stott Despoja secured concessions in the senate from Prime Minister Howard, yet he was never depicted as their ‘puppet.’ Nor has the dynamic between Brown’s successor Christine Milne and Gillard been described in the same way.
There can be no doubt that the decision to replace Kevin Rudd during his first term and the hung parliament that followed, has undermined Gillard’s authority. But it is also a fact that she has been denied the basic respect traditionally afforded to the office of Prime Minister.
There have been the constant questions about Gillard’s marital status, her wardrobe and her voice. The analysis of presentational issues and her emotional state – ‘is she too weak or too wooden?’ The appalling attacks on the Prime Minister’s body (witness the disgusting menu affair) and the contempt and brazen disrespect from radio broadcasters.
For instance, Alan Jones has argued the Prime Minister should be “tossed out to sea in a chaff bag” and joked that her late father “died of shame”, while Howard Sattler thought it appropriate to confront Gillard with rumours about her partner’s sexuality. The suggestion that Matheson is gay simply because he is a hairdresser is equally as ludicrous as suggesting that Tony Abbott’s wife is a lesbian because she has short hair. Yet for some reason, a radio broadcaster thought this absurd stereotype was a worthy line on inquiry.
On her own side, Gillard’s Prime Ministership has been stymied by brazen acts of disloyally and defiance. Despite the support she has enjoyed in 3 caucus ballots, the idea that she is not deserving of basic loyalty or respect remains.
As the nation’s first female Prime Minister Gillard has redefined leadership in Australia, challenging traditional gender roles and power structures. As a result she has been forced to confront the sexist values that underpin these and those who defend them.
The contempt for Gillard has similar dimensions to the campaign waged against Barack Obama in the United States. Despite winning two emphatic victories, the lunar right still seek to cast a cloud over his legitimacy – “he is a socialist, he is a Muslim, he is not American.”
Like Gillard, by virtue of his identity, the first black President has redefined leadership in his country and as result faced a campaign of hate and vilification from those who believe that their traditional ‘right’ to rule is being challenged.
The election of Julia Gillard as our first female Prime Minister was hailed as a triumph for the feminist project. Three years on, however, it is clear that the Gillard Prime Ministership is the beginning and not the end of a long campaign for gender equality in Australia.