Tue, Jul 16, 2013 - Page 8 News List

The unmaking of a female PM

Sushil Seth

When then-Australian prime minister Julia Gillard made a speech in the parliament last year accusing opposition leader Tony Abbot of misogyny, it went viral over the Internet, making Gillard the poster-girl of the feminist world.

It resonated with many women all over the world who have been patronized and put down by men in different situations.

Gillard finally lost patience with Abbot over all the invectives he had used against her as the country’s first female prime minister.

The last straw probably was when he said in the parliament that it was “another day of shame for a government [led by Gillard] that has already died of shame;” seemingly endorsing a jibe by a shock jock radio host given to outrageous comments about Gillard, including that her father had died of shame because of her daughter’s lies.

Abbot had also appeared in public with his supporters carrying placards with signs saying: “Ditch the bitch.”

Another shock jock, sympathetic to the opposition party, had asked her point blank if her male partner, living with her, was gay. His argument was that since her partner was once a hairdresser, he must be gay because they generally are. She was taken aback, and just dismissed the question as absurd.

Australia is a sexist society, and the country could not handle the fact that they, for the first time in the country’s history, had a female prime minister.

Her problems started when she became prime minister in a Labor party coup that removed Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd as the party leader and hence prime minister.

Rudd had brought his party out of the political wilderness after 11 years of conservative rule under former Australian prime minister John Howard, with the latter even losing his parliamentary seat.

Rudd’s axing by the Labor party and replacement by Gillard came as a shock to many people, especially as the coup was led by a woman. Gillard never really recovered from it.

She became, in some ways, the Lady Macbeth of Australian politics.

It did not help much when the elections held in 2010, which might have legitimized her, returned a hung parliament, with Gillard ruling only with the help of a few independents and Greens, making her position precarious.

She was seen as shifting her position out of political exigency (and not principles), and increasingly appeared untrustworthy, further reinforcing the Rudd-betrayal narrative.

Even though the legislative achievements of her government have been impressive, her political image never recovered. Indeed, it got worse in opinion polls.

Why did that happen?

First, because of the divisions in the Labor Party. Rudd refused to take his axing lying down, continuing to haunt Gillard by challenging her leadership.

Even after losing an early leadership challenge, he kept up the flag of revolt, finally wearing her down and winning the leadership by a convincing margin; returning as prime minister to prepare for the new elections in a few months.

Gillard constantly had to fight off not only Rudd and his supporters within the party, but also the opposition, which was constantly hammering the message that she was untrustworthy and incompetent.

At the same time, she was managing a minority government, responsive to a handful of independents and Green members of parliament pushing their own political agenda.

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