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Australia’s long race begins: Julia Gillard plans run-in to elections on 14 September

The election is more than six months away, but both leaders are already trying to look female friendly as they chase critical votes

Julia Gillard transformed herself into a feminist icon and YouTube star last year when she delivered a coruscating speech accusing Australia’s opposition leader, Tony Abbott, of misogyny. Now, with an election date set, the battle is on for the votes of the nation’s women and both sides are determined to prove their female-friendly credentials, despite sleaze and sexism scandals.

Australia’s first female prime minister announced on Wednesday that the election will be held on 14 September. But while the nation faces a record period of electioneering, the major parties have been in mock-campaign mode ever since Ms Gillard scraped back into power in August 2010 with the help of a clutch of Greens and independents.

Forced to perform the balancing act of running a minority government, Ms Gillard has also suffered low popularity ratings, partly because of the brutal way she deposed her predecessor, Kevin Rudd. Her Australian Labor Party spent most of 2012 languishing behind Mr Abbott’s Liberal-National Party Coalition in the opinion polls.

However, her personal standing improved following her fiery speech to parliament in October, and a poll last month put Labor only two points behind the conservative coalition. The party still has much ground to make up, though, and Ms Gillard will be doing her best to bolster perceptions that Mr Abbott – a social conservative and staunch Roman Catholic – is a “man’s man” unable to connect with women and take them seriously.

The opposition leader, for his part, is determined to recast himself as female-friendly. Last month, his chief of staff, Peta Credlin, gave interviews in which she described her agonising attempts to conceive via IVF – and praised her boss, who gave her pep talks and even stored her fertility drugs in his parliamentary fridge, she said.

Moving though Ms Credlin’s story was, her decision to relate it to a mass audience was clearly aimed at counterbalancing some of Mr Abbott’s past remarks, which have included describing Australia’s abortion rate as “a legacy of unutterable shame” and dismissing protests about plans to limit IVF cycles for older women as emanating from “the ‘I’m over 40 and I need my baby’ brigade”.

Before September, Australians can expect to see a lot of Mr Abbott’s wife, Margie, and their three adult daughters – and perhaps his sister, Christine Forster, who has spoken about the backing he gave when she left her marriage for her new partner, Virginia Edwards.

Meanwhile, Ms Gillard has been appealing directly to women voters, inviting influential female bloggers to drinks parties and vowing to rid Australia of the practice of female genital mutilation. Last week, she personally selected an Olympic gold medallist, Nova Peris, as Labor’s candidate for a safe seat in the Senate (upper house), putting her on course to become the first female Aboriginal politician in the federal parliament.

Thus the stage is set for what Michelle Grattan, political editor of The Age, predicts will be “the first serious gender election in our history”.

Such issues, though, can also work against Labor. The day after Ms Gillard announced the election date, one of her former MPs, Craig Thomson, was arrested on 150 charges of fraud relating to his alleged procurement of prostitutes while a trade union leader.

The Thomson scandal has reinforced the impression of a government intermittently tainted by sleaze. Even Ms Gillard’s now famous piece of oratory – in which she attacked Mr Abbott for, among numerous other sins, characterising Australian women as “housewives … [who] do the ironing” – was triggered by his condemnation of her for defending the then parliamentary Speaker, Peter Slipper, who had been caught sending misogynistic texts.

There is no doubt, though, that she has been subjected to a relentless campaign of personal denigration since becoming prime minister.

A leading feminist, author and journalist Anne Summers, delivered a scathing lecture last August in which she outlined, in forensic detail, how Ms Gillard has been “attacked, vilified and demeaned in ways that are specifically related to her… gender” by opposition politicians, commentators, cartoonists and bloggers.

John Wanna, a politics professor at the Australian National University, agrees that many Australians “are having difficulty with the notion of a women in charge”. But he believes that other elements, including the fact Ms Gillard is unmarried, has no children and is an atheist, “make her a very challenging person” in voters’ eyes.

While her “misogyny speech” stirred debate about lingering inequalities in Australian society, such as a 17.5 per cent pay gap between men and women, Ms Gillard’s critics say she has done little to help women. Single mothers recently had their state benefits cut.

Mr Abbott has made much of the fact that Ms Gillard pledged, before the last election, not to introduce a carbon tax and then became the latest in a long line of politicians to break an election promise. He branded her “a liar”, a term that has stuck.

Antony Green, election analyst for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, believes female politicians are judged far more harshly than their male counterparts, because “people expect male politicians to lie and bend the truth” but assume women will behave better.

He doubts gender issues will be electorally significant. “Maybe I’m old fashioned, but I still think that attitudes to the economy decide elections,” he says.