The unmaking of a female PM

Sushil Seth  / 

Tue, Jul 16, 2013 - Page 8

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.

She had to do all of this while suffering the slings and arrows only a female prime minister had to suffer.

Some of the invectives, slander and insults hurled at her were never experienced by any male prime minister.

For instance, at a Liberal party (opposition) dinner in a Brisbane restaurant, the menu contained “Julia Gillard Kentucky Fried Quail: Small Breasts and Huge Thighs, and A Big Red Box.” It was revolting, but was explained away as a private joke between the owner and his son.

Politically ensnared on all sides, she was constantly experimenting with all sorts of messages as she searched for a breakthrough, which only compounded her image of being shifty and incompetent.

Toward the end, she tried to rally female voters around her.

At a women’s forum, she dwelt on the spectacle, time and again, of a revolving door of Australian politics where men in blue ties continue to replace each other.

However, it backfired, with a 7 percent fall in support among men, and a negligible increase among women.

Increasingly, one opinion poll after the other was suggesting a virtual wipe-out of her Labor party in the elections a few months away.

She was simply failing to connect with the voters as they appeared to have switched off in favor of the opposition led by Abbot. Even as she looked as if she would lead her party into virtual oblivion, her party nemesis, Rudd, appeared to be the only one with the necessary popular appeal to salvage the situation and save the party from a political catastrophe.

In a short, graceful speech following the loss of her leadership, she did not over-emphasize her gender as a factor in her political demise.

She said that being a woman did not explain all her political problems, although her gender did explain something about her situation.

In other words, it certainly contributed to her political demise, although analysts will debate its role in time to come.

In the meantime, Rudd’s return as prime minister has electrified the political scene, with his personal approval rating up by 22 points over Abbot. A recent opinion poll shows the two political parties now at 50 percent each.

If this upward trend continues, it would not be surprising if the Labor Party were to romp into power once again, as it did in 2007 also under Rudd.

What is it that makes Rudd into a game changer?

To put it simply, he has a charisma that exudes optimism in an otherwise relentless atmosphere of political negativity, and people relate to it, because they are sick and tired of being fed negativity.

His problems will start after the elections if he is elected prime minister because, as happened not long after his 2007 win, while he is good at communicating messages, he is not so good at translating them into action.

He is a one-man show, not good at delegating. He is also overbearing, as many of his Cabinet colleagues testified after he was axed in 2010.

Rudd is promising to be a changed man, but that remains to be seen.

Sushil Seth is a commentator in Australia.