I am disappointed.
It has been, I believe, a disappointing few days for Australia among a lot of other disappointing days over the last 3 years.
I was born in 1968. I have been fortunate enough to follow a long line of women who have been pioneers for the rights and roles of women. I have been so fortunate that until recently I believed that sexism and the treatment of women as second class citizens was so much a thing of the past that I regarded it as almost totally irrelevant to my life. I have always known that this wasn’t the case in a lot of other countries and I am almost ashamed to say that knowledge of this made me almost more complacent about the situation in Australia.
In Australia, I thought, in my adult life time, gender is never an issue.
I was wrong. On Wednesday night we saw one of the clearest indications that gender is very much an issue in Australia and that we are capable of extraordinary social and political immaturity when it comes to accepting a woman as the leader of our nation.
Many people will say that it isn’t a gender issue and that Julia Gillard made critical errors in judgement that brought about the events of Wednesday. I don’t disagree that she made a number of significant errors. Tying herself to a surplus that no-one thought would ever be achievable as well as not admitting that she had indeed changed her mind on a carbon tax because she now had to balance the interests of her partners in a minority government, are two such mistakes. I also don’t believe for one minute that she doesn’t believe in marriage equality. She painted herself into a corner on the issue and never effectively found a way out. At the same time, however, I don’t believe that Kevin Rudd had a sudden epiphany and turned around on the issue. His recent announcement is the most obvious kind of political opportunism but like most people, that aside, I hope he puts his words on this issue into long overdue legislative action.
There were mistakes. No question. However, I would ask what term of office has not had its share of mistakes? Terrible mistakes. Worse than mistakes. Children overboard, apparently non existent weapons of mass destruction, home insulation schemes. Aren’t all of those mistakes at best and in some cases, much worse?
This was not only about mistakes or analysis of policy. It was about a climate of the worst kind of bullying, disrespectful,intolerant and invective-ridden commentary that I can remember. The comments about what the Prime Minister wore and her hair were bad enough but it was the complete lack of any respect for both her and her office that reflects most disgrace on the media and us as a supposedly sophisticated society. I cannot remember Fraser, Hawke, Keating, Howard or Rudd ever being subjected to the tone of questioning, commentary or speculation that was a daily event for Julia Gillard.
It was a theme for her whole time in office but it became most overt last September when a right wing Sydney broadcaster thought nothing of using the death of her father to make personally devastating comments criticising her. He was condemned in some quarters but is still on air today which says much about our tolerance for mistakes of older white male Australian media personalities. Prior to that he had felt free to address her as “Juliar” and again, it was and has been repeatedly tolerated.
More recently another commentator questioned her about her partner’s sexuality. What is so appalling about this line of questioning is not only the obvious double standard , bigotry and narrow mindedness associated with even asking it, it is once again that her integrity was being questioned but this time in regard to her private life. The inference was that her relationship is a sham. She is a political liar so couldn’t she be lying about other things? Why shouldn’t we be able to ask incredibly irrelevant and invasive questions about the most private aspects of her personal life?
When was the last time that a male politician who has made mistakes, changed policy or misled a colleague, was asked about the nature of their relationship with their female partner? That a commentator felt that he could casually canvass such a rumour with Gillard demonstrates a level of disrespect that is not only completely shameful but fairly indicative of the level of discourse that has punctuated this entire period. How genuinely remorseful was the media in both of the high profile vilification cases? I would argue not at all. Both commentators might have provided perfunctory apologies but even the loss of a job for one of them has only served to firm him as a martyr in his and a percentage of the general public’s mind.
The fact that much of way, for this environment, was paved by the current Prime Minister is one of the worst elements of this whole tale. It is particularly galling to hear Kevin Rudd now praise Julia Gillard’s legislative achievements as well as his plea for a kinder, gentler political environment. Yes, he was prematurely and brutally removed from office in 2010 but it is an office determined by a party and not a right. Like it or not, in this country we vote for a party not a person. Rudd has spent the last 3 years devoting himself almost exclusively to restoring his place in the office of Prime Minister at the expense of the Labor party. He has consistently demonstrated many of the qualities and the hubris that supposedly motivated his demotion from the leadership in the first place. He and the media have had a 3 year unspoken conspiratorial love-in that has depicted him as the people’s Prime Minister and Gillard as some kind of soap opera style Lady Macbeth. It is no surprise that he polls better than Gillard, he has been aided and abetted by a media who clearly didn’t think Gillard paid them the homage they deserved. The public and media hero worship of Rudd appears to be based on little of anything substantial in the way of past legislative achievement.
Ultimately Julia Gillard was in no way a perfect Prime Minister. She made many mistakes and didn’t take a step backward at times when she clearly should have. She was, however, incredibly hardworking, legislatively reformative in a minority government, brave and negotiated changes to the policy around disability and education that hopefully will last long into the future. Without her undoubted ability to broker deals, it is likely we would now in the midst of a Coalition led minority government which is something that the most ferverent Rudd supporters seem almost oblivious to.
In the end, however the saddest outcome of the events of Wednesday is that the Australian Parliament has lost someone of enormous capacity and talent who, at only 51, had so much more to contribute.
The message of what has occurred over the last 3 years is that it is acceptable, even expected. for a male politician to make significant errors of judgement, equivocate, be aggressive and participate in the darker machinations of political life. It is clear, however, that if you are a woman and do exactly the same things, the political context becomes a justifiable free-for-all and no aspect of your life is off limits. You should and can expect to be openly disrespected, denigrated and vilified.