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Gender, bias or nasty politics?

June 30, 2013

By Barry Tucker

Much has been written about Australia’s former Labor Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, being the subject of a gender war. In this blog I will make the case that the opposition to Ms Gillard was personal and not due to her gender.

I believe Ms Gillard, our first female Prime Minister, came under attack for one reason only: the method by which she came to power. Following months of declining opinion polls and chaotic administration by her predecessor, Kevin Rudd, Ms Gillard told him, during the evening of June 23, 2010, that she would challenge him for leadership in a caucus spill the following morning.

The initiative was not Ms Gillard’s. It was forced upon her by the Right-wing faction of her party and their political masters in the trade unions, fearful of losing control of the government in the next election.

It is ironic that three years and two days later Mr Rudd ousted Ms Gillard in another caucus spill for the same reason: poor performance in the opinion polls. It is also ironic that the same union-inspired forces that removed Mr Rudd last time reinstated him this time, for the same reason they removed him last time.

Much more was going on behind the scenes then, since and even now. So much intrigue that books have been written about it, one more will be published this week and no doubt more will follow.

Mr Rudd’s revenge followed swiftly, but resulted in a drawn-out affair over the past three years. That is the subject of a book to be released on Tuesday: The stalking of Julia Gillard, by one-time political journalist Kerry-Anne Walsh.

In political parlance, the replacing of one unpopular or risky political leader with another by way of a party room ballot is known as a leadership spill. It also goes by the name of a knifing, which brings to mind memories of the demise of Julius Caesar, literally knifed to death in cold blood, in broad daylight, on his way to the Senate, by a mob of Senators who included his mate, Brutus. “Et tu, Brut?” or, commonly, “You too, Brutus?”

Looked at in that light, it is a brutal affair, especially when a complete understanding of the background is not widely understood, or even made available by way of explanation. And then there is the potential for political capital to be made of it by your opponents. It is these rocks upon which Ms Gillard eventually foundered and sank.

Once the deed was done, Ms Gillard came under attack from within and without. Supporters of Mr Rudd went to work to undermine Ms Gillard’s government. They recruited some of the country’s most senior political journalists to assist them and the radio shock jocks were only too happy to oblige. Ms Gillard’s opponents in Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition conducted the most sustained, vitriolic, unjustified and personal attack on any elected politician that I have ever witnessed. I stress that the attack was against the person, not the person’s gender.

It is unfortunate that the arrival of our first female Prime Minister roughly coincided with the appearance of Tony Abbott as federal Leader of the Opposition — a man who has throughout his past been the subject of complaints (in one case, a legal complaint) about his treatment and views of women.

It is at this point that we have to decide if Mr Abbott’s objections to Ms Gillard were political, because she was a woman in a leadership position, a position that he covets, or personal. My position is that Mr Abbott was attacking the person who had the job he wanted, not the woman who had the job he wanted.

Signs? What signs?

Signs? What signs?

Mr Abbott’s attacks on Ms Gillard, which included the long-running allegations of illegality in her involvement, as a solicitor, in the AWU slush fund affair (in which funds were misappropriated), and which so far have not been proven in a court room, were a political smear campaign — an attack on Ms Gillard’s professional integrity, not her gender. It was a personal attack designed to unsettle and unseat her government.

Likewise, the principle weapon in Mr Abbott’s attack campaign: the carbon tax. Mr Abbott claims Ms Gillard lied when she said, during the 2010 election campaign: “There will be no carbon tax under the government I lead.” She did say that and most of the videos of the Channel 10 newscast on YouTube have been edited to make it look as though that’s all she said. She also said this:

‘I will be building the green energy future, the infrastructure and leading the national debate to reach a consensus about putting a cap on carbon pollution’. Watch from the 2.12 mark.

That was a few days before the election. Ms Gillard’s thinking at that time was that there would be a debate before carbon pricing was introduced. Things moved quickly, and her thoughts were expressed more specifically on the eve of the 2010 election, in an interview with The Australian newspaper.

“I don’t rule out the possibility of legislating a Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, a market-based mechanism,” she said of the next parliament. “I rule out a carbon tax.”

You can read that story here.

In an interview on ABC’s Insiders on the day carbon pricing took effect, July 1, 2012, Ms Gillard said the carbon pricing mechanism was “a kind of a tax. You could call it a tax”. (watch the video replay or read the transcript)

The “kind of a tax” the PM was referring to is known as a Pigovian tax, after the French economist Arthur Pigou, who developed the idea. It’s a tax to compensate for market irregularities. Cf: Wikkipedia article.

In spite of all the evidence to the contrary, Mr Abbott and his crew insist that Ms Gillard lied about the introduction of a carbon tax. Note that he does NOT say Ms Gillard lied because she is a woman, it is because of her gender. He says Ms Gillard lied (and in so doing makes a liar of himself) not because she is a woman but because she is his political enemy. Any male who made the same statement Ms Gillard made would have copped the same treatment, for the same reason: Mr Abbott seeks to destabilise the government, to undermine it in the eyes of the electorate.

2GB radio shock jock Alan Jones, among others, has maintained a campaign of rage against Ms Gillard — personally. It has included language unbecoming of a decent human being. It included the suggestion that Ms Gillard should be put in a chaff bag, taken out to sea and left to swim back (not drowned, as some have claimed). A few days after the death of Ms Gillard’s adoring father, Alan Jones made the incredible suggestion, on air, that her father “must have died of shame”. That is a personal attack, made for political reasons, and has nothing to do with Ms Gillard’s gender. The outrage that followed almost put Mr Jones off the air permanently.

For the purpose of comparison I will state that Mr Jones should be off the air permanently because his program adds nothing of value to the quality of Australian life. That is a personal attack, not an attack on his gender. It can’t be an attack on his gender because I am not sure that he has one — he is certainly not a man that I can respect. And that last comment is an attack on his gender. I trust I have not made myself obscure.

Mr Jones’ disgusting remark was followed up, and fairly quickly, with Mr Abbott saying, in the Parliament, that Ms Gillard’s government was so shambolic that “it should have already died of shame”. Again, a political comment, and an extremely low one given the use of the word “shame” by Mr Jones and the outrage that it caused. It is ludicrous to think Mr Abbott might have used the word “shame” accidentally. It was a calculated, deliberate insult designed to wound and cause political damage. Mr Abbott might have expected some reaction from Ms Gillard, but I don’t imagine he expected what happened next, as this video shows:

Ms Gillard described Mr Abbott as “a misogynist”, someone who hates women. Clearly, that is not the case. He got one pregnant, but abandoned her in favour of a Rhodes Scholarship (singles only need apply) and because he had plans to become a Catholic priest. But then he married another and they now have three daughters. Many of his personal staff are women, as are some of his frontline troops in the House of Representatives and in the Senate.

I don’t think Mr Abbott is a misogynist. I think he’s a brainwashed Catholic who is stuck with the church’s ideas about a woman’s role in the world, her fertility and her right to decide if she should have an abortion or a baby.

I cannot recall Mr Abbott ever saying that Ms Gillard was unfit to lead the country because she is a woman. If he did make that outright statement he would be finished in politics — the women in his own Liberal party would give him a hiding he would never forget because he would be saying they are not fit for high office either.

All of Mr Abbott’s attacks on Ms Gillard have to be seen as political warfare, not gender warfare. Ms Gillard was under attack because she was the Prime Minister. Any man in that role would have come under fire too. If you think back over the past 100 years or so, you will agree with me.

Attacks on Ms Gillard have been wide ranging. They have covered everything from her choice of lifestyle to her clothing, her hair, her wardrobe, things too personal to mention here, even her voice and her manner of delivery of speeches or replies to questions in Parliament. Nothing, absolutely nothing, has been off the agenda. Some of these references have been sexual, for sure, but I believe you have to see this as part of an horrendous campaign to bring down the Prime Minister, because she is the Prime Minister and not because she is a woman.

The abuse and criticisms of Mr Abbott, and his nasty crew, had to stop once the election date was announced, months ahead of the usual short notice. Mr Abbott suddenly and magically transformed into Nice Mr Abbott once the date was released. From that point his fluro and lycra photo opportunity stunts had to stop too. But his attempts to bring down the government had failed. Others continued the personal attacks against Ms Gillard. Not gender attacks, political attacks, designed to denigrate and destabilise.

Any attempt by Ms Gillard and her misguided and pathetic media crew to present her to the public as a woman, a pioneering woman setting an example for younger women to aspire to, were howled down as being inappropriate for the office of Prime Minister. As such they were political attacks, not attacks on her gender.

I saw nothing wrong with Ms Gillard’s warning, when addressing the Women for Gillard movement, that the business of government and of abortion especially, could be taken over once again by “men in blue ties” — a reference to the election mode attire of the Liberal party. This was said to be irrelevant and unwarranted, that Ms Gillard had “pulled the gender card again” (the first time being the misogyny speech). A Senate committee was conducting a hearing on an abortion funding Bill on the same day, but that was not considered relevant.

Gender card

Cartoon by Cathy Wilcox

In the end it did not matter what Ms Gillard did; she came under personal attack for everything she did and the way she did it — even knitting a kangaroo, a present for the Royal baby about to be born. The kind of thing a woman would do — even some men, for that matter. So, again, not a gender thing but a personal thing.

I recall that former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam drew fire for his peculiarities, as did Bill McMahon, John Howard and some of his male Ministers, Bob Hawke (the Silver Bodgie) for his wavy coiffure, Paul Keating for his elegant suits, sharp wit and devastating tongue lashings. Some of this may be seen as criticism of their particular brand of maleness. But this is not essentially an attack on their gender, it is part of the same old derision of the political enemy, regardless of gender.

There is one simple reason why gender attacks are a no-no in modern politics: you immediately alienate roughly 50 percent of the voting population, and only a fool would do that.

Update, 1 July, 2013: Following the posting of my blog there was some discussion of my premise on Twitter. Some men and women agreed with me, some men and women disagreed.

Amanda Jones (‏@AmandaARJones) disagrees with me and has written a response, I am Julia Gillard, on her blog site.

Here is another point of view, by Jane Gilmore, editor of The King’s Tribune.


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