The Women and Politics Conference held in Canberra in September 1975 was a groundbreaking event for women across the political spectrum. Excoriated in the media at the time as an exorbitant waste of taxpayers’ money and worse, it’s safe to say it’s more than proved its worth. Less than forty years later we’ve seen women politicians of all political persuasions at every level of government. We’ve had women as premiers, ministers and governors. We’ve had a woman for prime minister and one for governor-general. A woman succeeding in politics is nothing like the novelty it was and gender issues are no longer shoved onto lifestyle pages. Whether on air, the net, or paper, they are front page concerns.
A couple of months ago, occasioned by her death, the media was filled with dutiful if qualified praise for Margaret Thatcher’s leadership. For myself, Thatcher represented everything that is odious about economic rationalism, market or neoliberal economics, or whatever you want to call it, and the woman who stood out for me during the House of Commons tribute wasn’t the ghost of the Iron Lady but the woman who was willing to speak against her. Glenda Jackson, actor turned backbench Labour politician, whose brave words about Thatcherism ushering in an ‘aspirational society’ in which there was ‘a price for everything’ spoke to my heart.
But there’s no mistaking the guts it took for Thatcher to win the prime ministership and tighten the hold she had for eleven sorry years over her Tory minions, not to mention the country.
It took a while after her election in 1979 as Britain’s first female prime minister for women here in Australia to be treated with any comparable seriousness. Yet it’s possible to argue that Thatcher’s coming to power was largely contextual (the Tories’ electorability pre-Thatcher was dire) and set the pattern, in the English-speaking world at least, for parties to countenance female leaders only when there’s trouble ahead. With few exceptions women have been promoted to premierships here when the governments they were part of stared ignominious defeat in the face. (I’m speaking about Labor - the Coalition hasn’t come near positioning themselves for the practice.) We had Carmen Lawrence carrying the can in Western Australia, Joan Kirner in Victoria, Kristina Keneally in New South Wales, Anna Bligh in Queensland and, lastly, Julia Gillard.
The problems associated with Gillard’s prime ministership are proving intractable. For what they’re worth, here are my reasons why. I’m in no doubt that the circumstance of her ascendancy doomed her from the start. No matter how difficult Rudd was to work with, whether or not he deserved the treatment he got, the electorate has never forgiven Gillard for the part she played in replacing him, how and, most importantly, when. The oft-vaunted boost in the polls she received after his deposing was most likely the boost that any new leader gets, and even if Rudd was responsible for the leaks that changed that, wiser souls would have taken such a reaction into their calculations. I’ve recently heard a friend report that a friend of his told him that Gillard is ‘the nicest person she’s ever met’, and I’m willing to believe it, but that didn’t change their voting intentions. She may have thought she challenged Rudd for the sake of both the party and the government, but that isn’t how voters saw it, and the compromises she was forced to make in cobbling together a minority government only served to reinforce the negative views of her as dished up by the disgruntled Abbott.
Had she been wiser – and yes, I know, it’s all very well for me to argue this in hindsight, and from my distance – she would have refused the poisoned chalice. She would have done more to confront Rudd with his deficiencies. She would have seen that the NSW musical-chairs game of replacing short-term sitting premiers was having disastrous results in that state. She would have distrusted the scheming of Bitar and Arbib, who concocted it (and themselves sought shelter in the arms of Packer after it started going pear-shaped for Gillard). Above all, she would have waited - either for Labor’s second term or its defeat, when her undeniable suitability for the leadership would be universally welcomed. But feminist ambition perhaps, trumped political wisdom.
For all our feminist successes, maybe even because of them, sexism lurked in the background, ramped up to a horrific degree for Gillard. And whether we agree with her policies, or style of delivery, we have to applaud her resilience. As Katharine Murphy put it, she’s ‘the toughest cookie we’ve possibly ever seen in the Lodge’. She has endured a lot. In speeches last year and the recently published The Misogyny Factor elaborating on them, Anne Summers has outlined and graphically displayed the hideously misogynistic material posted about Gillard on the net, mainly in chain emails and from the unreconstructedly foul Larry Pickering. YouTube audiences around the world were electrified by Gillard’s own passionate rejoinder to Tony Abbott for his alleged role in encouraging the scurrilous language with which she’s been routinely depicted. ‘Ditch the Bitch’ and ‘Juliar’ being the least of it.
But if the content of the attacks against Gillard are indisputably misogynist – has any male politician ever yet been drawn with female breasts or a penis the size of a clitoris? – men who enter public life have rarely been spared the calumnies, disparagement and ridicule of our political discourse. We’ve only to glance at the caricatures, or read the many traducements of their character, probity, and, yes, physical appearance, to acknowledge that fact. If we want to participate equally in politics we either have to accept some pretty spiteful portrayals of us or do something truly drastic about lifting the tone of political debate. This is one reason why, I feel, that relentless personal attacks on Abbott tend to be self-defeating.
And the situation is knottier. Over the past three decades, at the very time when opportunities for individual women in politics have grown so remarkably, inequality in wealth, income and educational opportunity in this country has increased alarmingly. Feminists can hardly be blamed for this (ignoring the frequent attempts to do so) but in focussing so hard on female advancement, not only in politics but in business and academia, we may have lost sight of the egalitarianism that once informed the movement - and, indeed, the politics of Labor.
Granted, it’s arguable that few of our objectives for a more equal, humane society could be achieved without greater numbers of women in powerful positions, and it would be churlish to dismiss the gains. But we do have to ask what a federal Labor party with a woman at its head has been prepared to do, or will be prepared to do if miraculously re-elected, about our massively inequitable tax and retirement arrangements, our inhumanly punitive asylum seeker policy, our mingy welfare provisions, our shrinking manufacturing, retail and agricultural sectors, a woefully under-resourced hospital system, ongoing Indigenous disadvantage, and an economy that persists on relying on the destructive, mostly multinational mining industry. Yes, they’ve tripled the tax-free threshold, introduced Gonski and the National Disability Insurance Scheme and the National Broadband Network, most of which will take years to come into being, and now we’re forced to think of the alternative: a Coalition government pledged to undo what we’ve got.
It’s far too late now to replace Gillard with Rudd. Whatever the polls say, there’s no guarantee this would translate into significant results come election time, especially when the terrible things said about Rudd by colleagues during the three years of looming challenge and the destabilisation he’s accused of are taken into account. The whole scenario has the makings of a Shakespearean tragedy, and the tragedy won’t be Gillard’s alone.