War On Gillard Proves We Still Have A Long Way To Go

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.

14 thoughts on “War On Gillard Proves We Still Have A Long Way To Go

  1. A brilliant piece Rob, and one with which I have only one point of dissent; yes Gillard has made some mistakes, but I believe that she will go down in history as one of the great Prime Ministers.

  2. What concerns us about sexism is that it is endemic across most of society, often in a subtle way. It’s so common that, usually, people don’t stop to even respond to it. These recent events, including the atrocious behaviour of some of the members of our military are being treated with appropriate outrage. Unless we respond with such gravitas every time we hear of sexism, it will continue for yet another generation.

  3. Totally agree Katie and Martin! At least the Gillard Prime Ministership has started a national conversation around some of these issues – one that is long overdue in my view!

  4. You have said the criticisms of her are far more personal than political which is quite wrong. Lets have a look at the menu incident you referred to. What exactly was that a criticism of..? Nothing, really. It was a joke, printed on a menu that I’d wager was never meant to leave the room. Because the audience who read that joke would probably laugh at it (because of their feelings for Gillard, not women as a whole). Now you could say “They aren’t allowed to make that joke” to which I would respond I’ll not have your fascism ruin humor for people, even though I didn’t personally find the joke very funny. You could say “As politicians they should know better” to which I would respond they’re humans first, politicians second. They have a right to insert a little comedy in to an otherwise completely mundane and boring existence. Ever laugh at a racist, sexist, or otherwise edgy joke? I bet you have so hop on down off the high horse and spend some time with the plebs here on the ground. I’m glad I addressed that concern for you.

    Now – you mention Abbots comment about the faceless men, and I’ll quote you here “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.”
    Of particular note, you mention it’s a familiar theme and you’re certainly right. It is something that is quite often trotted out – I’m rather unimpressed as when you say that it’s got something to do with Gillard being a woman it reeks of an intentional falsehood just to boost your word count. Gillard is not the first political leader to ever be called a puppet and you can be damned sure she won’t be the last.

    That said, the rest of the piece is accurate enough that I won’t contend with it.

    1. Hi Kreiger, thanks for your comments. I never said that the idea of ‘faceless men’ was peculiar to Gillard, in fact I conceded that it’s an old theme in our politics. My point is however that is has continued to be applied to Gillard in a range of scenarios that demonstrate there is something else at work… For instance, here in South Australia Mike Rann ran a minority government for many years – yet he was never depicted as ‘a puppet.’ Similarly, when Kevin Rudd used the factions to topple Beazley he was never depicted in this way. I agree the hung parliament has added a dimension to it, but I think gender is another potential explanation.

    2. It is, in retrospect, mildly hilarious that Abbott rabbitted on about faceless men, when we now have the ultimate puppet government ruled by the Murdoch press and the filthy rich.

  5. Krieger, the menu was certainly critical of Gillard, but not on a professional level. The comments criticized her sexual appearance for humor, which is total horrendous. It betrays a fundamentally sexist culture in the Liberal party. It is wholly unimaginable that a menu would ever have been printed with a reference to, for example, Kevin Rudd’s “sausage”.

    1. Joe, I appreciate that YOU don’t like the joke, but that doesn’t make it horrendous. This is a free country and just because we don’t agree with their sense of humor gives us no right to impeach them for it. You mention that it’s criticizing her physical appearance for humor. I take it then, that you are equally outraged at cartoonists who draw politicians (historically a rather male group) with exaggerated features? Because believe it or not, this kind of thing is again, not unique to Gillard. Not even to women. For whatever my word is worth, I’ll point out that I don’t even like Abbot or his group. I just don’t like people trying to defend Gillard on the basis that people are mean to her because she’s a woman. It’s not because of the woman she is. It’s because of the person she is.

      Sure, that menu went personal, but it occurred in a personal context. It’s not like someone stood up and cited it as reasons for opposing her policy and until someone does, stop throwing around the buzzword sexist. You’re cheapening the term which detracts from its application to an actual problem in Australia.

  6. As a woman who cares deeply about our world I am enraged that Gillard has made herself the poster child against misogyny. The only female she cares about is herself. Her craven sucking up to the mining magnates and the Israeli lobby group to oust Rudd and get the job for herself is an insult to strong principled women everywhere. She is too weak to stand up against the powerful to help those with little or no power. Just ask single parents ( mostly female) and refugee mothers with their children how much Gillard cares about women- and the rest of humanity. Any politician in hock to the Israeli lobby group has not an ounce of courage or principle. Gillard has shown herself to be firmly in that category. So please, stop insulting strong principled women by putting such a weak specimen as Gillard on a pedestal.

  7. Oh, and Lee Rhiannon is constantly vilified and personally attacked because of her brave stand against Israeli war crimes; she never uses the old misogyny ploy to hide behind.

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