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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
New Articles
tvDownton Abbey Christmas special
Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)
tvOur review of the Doctor Who Christmas Special
peopleIt seems you can't silence Katie Hopkins, even on Christmas Day...
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: Stanley Tucci, Sophie Grabol and Christopher Eccleston in ‘Fortitude’
tvSo Sky Atlantic arrived in Iceland to film their new and supposedly snow-bound series 'Fortitude'...
Arts and Entertainment
Jenna Coleman as Clara Oswald in the Doctor Who Christmas special
tvForget the rumours that Clara Oswald would be quitting the Tardis
Arts and Entertainment
Japanese artist Megumi Igarashi showing a small mascot shaped like a vagina
The Queen delivers her Christmas message
newsTwitter reacts to Her Majesty's Christmas Message
Arts and Entertainment
Life and Style
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketing Controller (Financial Services)

£70000 - £75000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketi...

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager

£20000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This full service social media ...

Recruitment Genius: Data Analyst - Online Marketing

£24000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We are 'Changemakers in retail'...

Austen Lloyd: Senior Residential Conveyancer

Very Competitive: Austen Lloyd: Senior Conveyancer - South West We are see...

Day In a Page

A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all