Her face no longer fits in Australian politics. But, Rachel Hills asks, was that based on Julia Gillard’s policies – or on something more sinister?
At a political fundraiser in Brisbane in March, donors were treated to an extravagant £600 menu of crayfish, foie gras, fine wine, and a curiously named “Julia Gillard Kentucky Fried Quail” – featuring “small breasts, huge thighs, and a big red box.”
The fundraiser was for Australia’s conservative Liberal National Party, and the quail was named after the country’s then prime minister.
Written by restaurant owner Joe Richards, who described it as a “lighthearted joke,” the menu went viral after being posted on Facebook by a former employee of the restaurant. Conservative opposition leader Tony Abbott denounced it as “tacky and scatological,” while even Gillard’s Australian Labor Party arch-nemesis Kevin Rudd admonished the “snide, dirty and… sexist trick.” The menu, Gillard said later, was part of a broader “pattern of behaviour” from her opponents, who had subjected her to gender-based attacks throughout her prime ministership.
Above: Kevin Rudd reclaims victory over Gillard on 26 june 2013
During this leadership Gillard had confronted the issue, with speeches that addressed misogyny, and this incident only fuelled her passion. In June 2013, she warned of the dangers of a homogenous government of “men in blue ties”. But despite the attention this gained, Labor’s primary vote fell to 29% with some speculating that the speech only proved Gillard’s paranoia and reverse misogyny. Two weeks later Australia’s first female prime minister was gone, replaced by Kevin Rudd; the man she had succeeded three years before.
To understand what happened to Gillard, it’s crucial to first paint a picture of Australia’s political culture, which is in equal parts ruthless and irreverent, full of brutal bon mots and poll-driven leadership changes. As an Australian woman, my earliest political memory is watching the debonair Paul Keating – no stranger to the parliamentary putdown himself – celebrating his victory over long-time collaborator and political ‘frenemy’ Bob Hawke for the prime ministership in December 1991. In my home state of New South Wales, the state Labor government changed leaders twice in one term. The BBC’s Nick Bryant recently described Australia as “the coup capital of the democratic world.”
In many respects, Julia Gillard’s rise and fall from power fits this dramatic pattern well. She became leader of her party in June 2010 when opinion polls suggested that Rudd would not win again. Then, when her own popularity tanked, Rudd swooped in to replace her. But while personal attacks are part of the seamy underbelly of Australian politics, those faced by Gillard had an extra unpleasant element. One look at the way some Australians described her (“witch,” “bitch,” “menopausal maniac” and a “non-productive old cow”) and it was evident that those gunning for Gillard were homing in on more than her politics: her gender.
“If Julia Gillard had been a man, she would [still] have been slandered,” acknowledges Rowena Bianchino, a 34-year-old psychotherapist from Coffs Harbour in New South Wales. “But the attacks on her were very gender specific.”
Julia Baird, an Australian journalist and author of the book Media Tarts: Female Politicians And The Press, who has researched 85 years of media coverage of Australian female politicians, sums it up. “Misogyny did not cause Julia Gillard’s downfall, but it did accelerate and exaggerate it.”
It does seem somehow that being a woman made Gillard even more fair game in the political arena. Even Germaine Greer made a quip about the size of her bottom (“You’ve got a big arse, Julia. Just get on with it”) and Perth radio presenter Howard Sattler asked her live on air if her partner, hairdresser Tim Mathieson, was gay.
Conservative columnist Janet Albrechtsen wondered how women could connect with someone who had “never wanted children or marriage.” Opposition leader Tony Abbott punned that she should make an “honest woman” of herself politically.
In an age where we are told that we are, for all intents and purposes, equal, Gillard’s treatment raises uncomfortable questions. Not only why we still have so few female leaders, but more pertinently, where they do exist, why do we respond so emotively to them, cutting straight to the personal when the vitriol levelled at their male equivalents – Spitting Image style puppetry aside – is based on competence and policy.
Gillard is probably most famous for her 2012 targeting of opposition leader Tony Abbott’s understanding of sexism. “I will not be lectured about sexism and misogyny by this man,” she said. “If he wants to know what misogyny looks like in modern Australia, he doesn’t need a motion in the House of Representatives, he needs a mirror.”
It was exactly this kind of engaging (and often ferocious) performance in parliament that first saw Gillard elected as Labor’s deputy leader in 2006. Gender wasn’t the only way in which this election marked a departure from the types of personalities usually seen in Australian politics. Gillard was an atheist, with a working class accent, and she had never married or had children, living instead with her partner.
Compared to the bookish, bureaucratic Rudd, she was seen as dynamic, young and progressive. Most people agreed that she was his natural successor; even Rudd himself had said that she would eventually replace him. When she ascended to the prime ministership in 2010, less than three years after Labor had formed government, Gillard was considered one of the most popular figures in Australian politics. But that all changed after she got the top job.
Political journalist Annabel Crabb says: “The reason for her removal and lack of public approval was all to do with her means of accession to power.”
Crabb is referencing Gillard’s move to take over from Rudd, which was carried out in true Australian fashion: by disloyally challenging a long-term friend and colleague whose public popularity was flailing. Gillard’s ascension was viewed as aggressive, and did seemingly come from nowhere, with no rhyme or reason. As the public understood it, Rudd and Gillard were a team. There was also a belief that if Rudd were to go, the Australian people should replace him – not the internal machinations of his own party.
“Usually Australian prime ministers are put out to pasture long after they should have been, but Rudd was thrown out before his time,” Crabb explains. “And while there were reasons for it, Gillard was never really able to talk about it freely. It created a barrier between her and the people she was leading”
It is a view that is reflected by Tamara Moore, a 32-year-old retail manager from Brisbane who usually votes Labor. “I couldn’t relate to Julia,” she says. “She immediately came across as untrustworthy.”
If Gillard wasn’t able to talk about the way in which she became leader, it was partly because she was not the architect of her own leadership. Instead of publicly declaring her leadership challenge, Gillard was installed in position by a political party who thought she was their best chance of winning the next election. “It was clear from her face, the morning that it happened, that she wasn’t comfortable with the way it had happened,” observes Nareen Young, CEO of Diversity Council Australia.
But in politics, image is everything, and however innocently Gillard came to the prime ministership, the political narrative of her rise was brutal. “She was reframed as a Lady Macbeth character,” says Cheryl Kernot, 64, a former Australian Labor minister and high profile former leader of the Australian Democrats. “People have allowed history to be rewritten that she initiated it, that she lusted after the leadership, when in fact, the opposite was true.” Add that to the fact that Labor was reduced to a minority government after the 2010 Australian election – even with the new leader – and there was a sense that Gillard’s leadership was illegitimate. And where for a male politician that might be channelled into cries of stupidity and corruption, for Julia Gillard, it manifested itself as gross sexism.
Almost immediately after her ascent to leadership, journalists began to critique her for the fit and colour of her clothes. She was threatened with violence, with TV and radio talking heads suggesting she should alternately have her throat slit, or be “kicked to death”. When Gillard’s father passed away last year, shock jock Alan Jones opined that he had probably “died of shame”.
Much of the attention was focused well away from Gillard’s actual policies, despite the fact that they themselves were worthy of many column inches. When Gillard became prime minister, she did so on the assumption that she would scrap some of Labor’s less popular policies. But she was a pragmatist, and when she needed to, she would reverse her stances – for example she said she’d “rule out a carbon tax,” until she needed to win the support of the Greens and Independents to win government. Despite a lot of people viewing her as progressive, she showed a lack of support for same-sex marriage, asserting that she believed that marriage between a man and woman had “a special status.”
Though these moves were sandwiched between positives – she dramatically improved access to health care for people with disabilities through the National Disability Insurance Scheme and introduced Australia’s first parental leave scheme – it was felt that she was lacking a clear vision. Radio commentators came up with a nickname: Ju-liar.
While the political landscape of my country exacerbated what happened to Julia, the misogynist elements go far beyond Australia. And I don’t believe we are any more sexist than elsewhere.
When Hillary Clinton ran for president of the United States back in 2008, opponents produced The Hillary Nutcracker: this is the kind of thing high-profile female politicians frequently have to deal with.
But while they may be more likely to find themselves on the receiving end of this kind of venom, they are also more likely to be treated as celebrities, for better and for worse. It’s hard to imagine people throwing street parties to celebrate the passing of David Cameron in 40 years, but it’s equally difficult to imagine him as the subject of a sweeping Hollywood biopic such as The Iron Lady.
It is a binary enabled partly by the fact that female politicians are still relatively rare – the proportion of women in UK parliament is even now less than 25% – and female political leaders even more so.
“There is kind of an illusion to novelty,” observes Baird.“The media will delight in you and make you a celebrity, but then they will turn on you. Novelty is not a great pillar for authority.”
But it’s part of a bigger issue. We talk about woman politicians in terms of their hair, clothes, weight and reproductive choices, because that is still the way we talk about women as a group.
Men are attacked on personal grounds too, Baird acknowledges, pointing to former Australian prime minister John Howard, who was once described as an “unflushable turd”.
“The difference is that if you call a man a turd or fat or you comment on their eyebrows, those things aren’t used as a disqualification for political life, whereas being a mother or not being a mother, or being decorative or not being decorative, has been.”
Baird is hopeful though that Gillard’s experience will pave the way for an easier ride for Australia’s next female leader. “There is a strong historical pattern of treating women in power as curiosities, and using that curiosity to question their legitimacy. First it happened to any woman elected to parliament. Then it was the ministers, then the senior cabinet, and now we’ve inched all the way to the top. The next female leader will not be representing all women. She will just be another woman having a crack at it.” When Gillard left power, she echoed these views.
“What I am absolutely confident of is that it will be easier for the next woman and for the woman after that and the woman after that,” she said. “And I’m proud of that.”
Gillard wasn’t ousted because she was a woman. But if people disliked her because of her policies, her gender made for an easy thing to attack. And that’s what must change.