What sank Julia Gillard? The truth about sexism in Australia

Julia Gillard’s downfall has been blamed on a character flaw afflicting half the population. Kathy Marks, who lives in Sydney, examines the evidence
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When Julia Gillard ousted Kevin Rudd as prime minister in 2010, there seemed to be widespread goodwill towards her. After she was deposed this week by Mr Rudd, Australians are wondering whether their country – one of the first to give women the vote – was ready for a female leader.

The role of gender in Ms Gillard’s downfall is being bitterly disputed – so bitterly that some fear her prime ministership, far from smoothing the way for other women, may have set back the cause of equality. Many Australians, meanwhile, are “looking in the mirror and seeing a fairly ugly reflection of the nation”, as one commentator put it.

Like many developed countries, Australia believed most of the big battles had been won, with women’s rights enshrined in legislation and cultural attitudes transformed. Now people are not so sure. “It’s been a real eye-opener for me,” says Norm Abjorensen, a political scientist at the Australian National University. “We’re not the liberal, progressive society that we’ve been telling ourselves we are.”

The problem with analysing why Ms Gillard was dumped by her own Labor Party is that it’s hard to disentangle the very real and undeniably misoygnistic campaign waged against her – by columnists, bloggers and opposition politicians – from her flaws and misjudgements.

The perception of many outsiders is that Australia has a “blokey”, macho culture. Certainly, the sexism – like the racism – is more overt  than in Britain, and evokes less outrage. One of the abiding images of Ms Gillard’s reign is that of the opposition Liberal Party leader, Tony Abbott, at a rally outside Parliament House alongside protesters with a banner reading, “Ditch the witch”.

Last October, Ms Gillard received plaudits from women worldwide after delivering an electrifying, 15-minute speech to parliament, in which she castigated Mr Abbott for “sexism and misogyny”.  Among the multiple examples she cited were his warning in 2010 of higher electricity prices under her government’s plans for a “carbon tax”. “What the housewives of Australia need to understand as they do the ironing is that if they get it done commercially it’s going to go up in price, and their own power bills when they switch the iron on are going to go up,” he said. On another occasion, he called on the prime minister, who lives with her partner, Tim Mathieson, to “make an honest woman of herself”. Now she is retiring from politics at the coming election, and Mr Abbott, despite Mr Rudd’s return, is still frontrunner to become prime minister.  Just as Mr Abbott’s apparent approval of the offending poster at the rally appeared to do him no political harm, Eddie McGuire, president of the Collingwood football club, wasn’t damaged by a recent “joke”  on national radio suggesting that an Aboriginal footballer, Adam Goodes, could help publicise the new King Kong musical. McGuire was simply sent for “counselling”.

Casual racism and sexism are common here, and if challenged, the counter-charge is often that you don’t “get” Australian humour. A friend observed yesterday: “It’s all seen as good fun, as part of being a good Aussie knockabout.”

Some point to colonial Australia’s origins as a frontier society settled by men grappling with a physically harsh environment. Women got the vote in 1902, yet only 29 per cent of federal politicians are women. Australia can claim in some ways to be more advanced than its former master, which granted voting parity 16 years later and where only 22 per cent of MPs are women. Yet in the gender equality stakes neither is a winner. While every state and territory apart from South Australia has had a woman at the helm, the antipathy that quickly developed towards Ms Gillard had a distinctly sexist tinge, although it was complicated by the fact that she was also unmarried, had no children, and was an atheist.

The sexism reached a head a fortnight ago when a menu for a Liberal fundraising dinner, lampooning her in crude sexual terms, came to light and she was grilled by a shock-jock about whether her partner, Tim Mathieson, was gay.

Across the Tasman Sea, former prime minister Helen Clark was subjected to tittle-tattle about her sexuality, despite New Zealand being a socially progressive society which had already had one female leader, Jenny Shipley.

“Australia’s still got that sense of the frontier country, with masculinised versions of merit and leadership.” says Eva Cox, a leading feminist and social commentator.

Melanie Fernandez, national chair of the Women’s Electoral Lobby, believes Ms Gillard’s treatment has “punctured the myth that we’re living in a post-feminist society”. But she says it has also galvanised young women, and stirred debate about inequalities such as a 17.5 per cent pay gap and the fact that women make up less than 10 per cent of directors of the top 500 companies.

One focus for the new wave of activism is a group called Destroy the Joint, inspired by a right-wing shock jock Alan Jones, who complained that Ms Gillard, Sydney’s Lord Mayor, Clover Moore, and the former Police Commissioner of Victoria, Christine Nixon, were “destroying the joint”.

As for Ms Gillard, she was a tough politician who held together a minority government and pushed through more legislation than any leader before her. She dealt with sexism with dignity and good grace.

Annabel Crabb, a respected political commentator, wrote yesterday:  “She has changed politics … The ultimate goal is for gender to be unremarkable … We’re not there yet.”