by ANNE SUMMERS
ON 24 JUNE 2010 Julia Eileen Gillard became Australia’s first female prime minister. She had served as deputy prime minister to Kevin Rudd in the Labor government that was elected on 24 November 2007. As DPM she had enjoyed enormous popularity and although the means by which Gillard assumed the top job was controversial – and became more so over the course of time – initially her elevation was greeted with widespread enthusiasm.
There was a palpable sense of history in the media coverage, with most outlets treating Gillard’s ascension as an important event, to be taken seriously. The public seemed pretty pleased as well. Her popularity rating was high. Women and girls, especially, were thrilled at this milestone having been reached.
Most observers of Canberra today agree that the current political environment has become especially toxic. The hung parliament, and the expectation on the part of the Opposition that it is just one lost vote on the floor of the House away from government has raised the stakes to levels not previously seen in Australian politics.
As a result we are experiencing an era in politics where there is very little civility. The overall temperature of discussion and debate is torrid and people use language towards and about each other that even a few years ago would have been considered totally out of line. This, sadly, is the new norm.
But what is NOT normal is the way in which the prime minister is attacked, vilified or demeaned in ways that are specifically related to her sex (or, if you like, her gender). Calling her a “liar” might not be gender-specific, although as I have pointed out, it was not a term used against back-flipping male prime ministers.
There are countless examples, however, where the prime minister is attacked, vilified or demeaned in ways that do specifically relate to her sex and I propose to devote the rest of this lecture to describing, categorizing and exploring the implications of them.
Some of the examples are benign, in the sense that they are examples of a double-standard, of a woman being treated less seriously than a man of similar status would be.
A few weeks ago in Darwin my friend was picked up from her hotel by a cab. The taxi driver said to her, totally out of the blue: “How could you be staying at the same hotel as the lying cunt”. Apparently Julia Gillard had stayed at the same hotel the week before when she was in Darwin to welcome the Indonesian president. The taxi driver continued: “Someone should have shot her while she was here. Everyone wants to do it.”
In July in Sydney a stallholder in the flower market at Flemington apologised to a friend of mine who was buying some flowers for having to add GST “for Julia”; he then followed it by saying “we’ve got to get rid of the bitch”.
Another friend told me about an encounter his mother, whom he describes as “quietly spoken and conservative-looking”, had at the Albury offices of Medibank Private when she went to submit a form for her latest MRI. The man behind the counter said to her, unprovoked: “I’ll send it off to the red-haired bitch”.
It must be very hard being Julia Gillard and knowing this stuff is out there. But does she have any redress? What are the prime minister’s rights at work?
I think it is reasonable to ask whether the prime minister is being treated in ways that are actually unlawful or even illegal under federal legislation designed to protect the rights of workers.
But because politicians (and therefore prime ministers) do not generally speaking enjoy these rights, I want for the sake of my argument to look at the situation in a somewhat different way.
Imagine that Julia Gillard is the CEO of a very large company, Australia Pty Ltd, and imagine that all of you here today are the company’s shareholders. And let’s agree that the people seated in the front row here today constitute the company’s board of directors.
I will now take you through your responsibilities and obligations as shareholders and directors to the CEO you have employed to run your company.
There are laws passed by the Commonwealth Parliament that set the standard for conduct in the workplace as accepted by the general Australian community. They reflect the norms and expected behavior within the vast majority of workplaces.
One such law is the federal Sex Discrimination Act 1984.
Section 5 of this Act defines direct sex discrimination as “less favourable treatment” of a woman compared with a man in the same circumstances.Section 14 of the Act covers the place of employment as the area where such discrimination has occurred.
I think we can easily conclude that any discrimination against Gillard on the grounds of her sex has occurred in the course of her “employment” as CEO of Australia. What needs to be established is whether she has been subjected to any form of less favourable treatment relating to her employment because of her gender.
I believe that we can clearly make the case that she has been treated less favourably because of her sex.
Let me give three examples where she has, in the course of her employment, been subject to comments that are both offensive per se and which relate specifically only to women. In other words, these same things could not and would not have been said of a man.
First, let’s recall the comments of Liberal Senator Bill Heffernan in 2007 who said, speaking of Julia Gillard, that “anyone who chooses to deliberately remain barren … they’ve got no idea what life’s about”.
We do not describe men who do not have children as “barren”; its usage relates only to women and thus these remarks are a clear example of sex discrimination in employment.
My second example comes from former Leader of the Labor Party, Mark Latham, who said only last year: “Choice in Gillard’s case is very, very specific. Particularly because she’s on the public record saying she made a deliberate choice not to have children to further her parliamentary career”.
“I think having children is the great loving experience of any lifetime. And by definition you haven’t got as much love in your life if you make that particular choice,”he told ABC radio. “One would have thought to experience the greatest loving experience in life – having children – you wouldn’t particularly make that choice”.
I do not think that men are called upon to make choices about paternity in order to pursue careers. This is, again, a sex-specific situation and an example of a person being disadvantaged in her employment because of her sex. Can we think of any instances where a man has been asked about such choices? Both the original question to Gillard and the use put to it by a so-called commentator constitute less favourable treatment.
My third example is from the Leader of the Opposition, Tony Abbott, who in February 2011 demanded that Gillard “make an honest woman of herself” by taking the carbon tax to an election. The expression of course implies dishonesty and “make an honest woman of” refers only to women, so is inherently sexist, but more pertinently, its normal use is in relation to single women. “To make an honest woman” of someone usually entails a man marrying a woman who is pregnant. The use of this term in relation to Gillard was a non-too-subtle reminder to voters of the CEO’s single status. There could perhaps even be a case here on the grounds of marital status under the Sex Discrimination Act.
The prime minister is entitled to feel aggrieved by the way she is being treated.
And so are we.
It says something about our country and about us that we could subject our leader to such vile abuse. It is even worse that we somehow think it is OK and even funny to demean her sexually in such crude and disgusting ways. What has happened to us?
How can we account for these levels of vitriol, for this hatred?
Can it really be the case that a tax – a carbon tax – could really spur so many people to such levels of hatred? I find that impossible to believe, so I have to conclude that the persecution of Julia Gillard has to be about something else.
Is it just the simple fact that she is a woman?
There are two reasons why Australians are having difficulty liking their prime minister.
For all of our history a prime minister has been a man in a suit who has been married (to a woman) and who has children. If our first female leader also happens to be our first unmarried, childless, living with a partner, not to mention atheist, prime minister then perhaps it is not surprising that the population is having some trouble getting their heads around this new reality.
The fact that we have had ten female leaders at state or territory level apparently has not adequately prepared us for this.
But I think there is something else at work.
And that is the deliberate sabotaging of the prime minister by political enemies, who include people within her own party, and who are using an array of weapons which include personal denigration, some of it of a sexual or gendered nature, to undermine her and erode her authority.
It was not always so.
This is something that is beyond party, beyond political affiliation, beyond voting intention and beyond whether or not you like Julia Gillard. We should all be worried about this vilification of our first female prime minister. I think the same thing would happen if she were from the Liberal Party. Indeed Julie Bishop, the deputy leader of the Opposition has told me that she is constantly attacked for being childless.
So it does not matter whether you are Labor or Liberal, National Party or Green, whether you admired Julia Gillard or you despise her, whether you intend to vote for her or against her.
If enough of us push back, perhaps we can stop it. And if we can, perhaps that will help restore some dignity and respect to the holder of our highest office.
We would be a better place if we could.
You can find Anne’s full speech here.