By JONATHAN GREEN
Our first female prime minister.
That was clearly a game-changing moment, and in the obvious respects it had to be a change for the better: hard to argue that this was not a measure of gender equality well beyond due. And did Gillard’s rise change the tenor of our politics for the better?
Well, that’s not a question whose answer need necessarily come as a consequence of gender. Being a woman in the top job is a fine thing in isolation. Performing well in that job—well, that’s another thing altogether; gender may have had something to do with that, but not everything to do with it.
It’s easy to argue that our politics has rarely been as spiteful and angry as it has been between the election of 2010 and the return of Rudd in June 2013, and this has rarely been an anger built on profound differences of ideology or opinion. Those three years have not seen a contest between market forces and a yearning for a modified command economy, or between an instinct for war and a preference for peace, or some other crucial divide on the fundamental role of the state.
In all the bedrock of our politics, our parties are in broad agreement while simultaneously cultivating an air of bitter division. In Australian politics, as elsewhere, heartfelt views that test the status quo are out of favour in a mannered modern politics that is an often loud contest for whatever unique but slender toeholds might be found in the narrows of the middle ground.
Sad to say, but so much of the heat and fury of the Gillard years grew from prejudice, tainting our politics with bitter spite coloured by chauvinism and something that oscillated between casual sexism and ingrained misogyny.
The fact that our elected leader was a woman gave Gillard’s detractors the added, and for many instinctive, purchase of gender-based loathing — a deep sense that the simple fact of Gillard’s sex disqualified her from high office.
In a contest that dwelt increasingly on notions of legitimacy, the PM’s gender became a key issue for that body of voters who felt uneasy not just with Labor in charge, not just with the marginal authority of a minority government, but also with the thought of a woman in power.
Forget the difficult, imperfect reality she confronted.
The gender-loaded assumption-making begins here: Why should we expect a female prime minister to make a difference to the very craft of politics? Couldn’t she just do the job, with no inherent presumption that through her gender she would somehow transform the nature and carriage of that office and the performance of its duties? Did we wonder this with the election of Bob Hawke—that he would change the fundamental tenor of the game? Billy McMahon? John Howard?
The truth with the Gillard prime ministership is that it was probably as burdened by those presumptions—that a woman would, of gendered necessity, change things—as it was undermined by the months and years of sexist slagging. Gillard was always supposed to bring home the deal. She was the negotiator, the healer, the bringer together of the apparently irreconcilable. All arguably feminine traits, and all pretty lofty standards to live up to.
And on the other side of the ledger, her gender undermined her authority, providing an avenue of vicious attack for some who were simply prejudiced against her because of it. Would Howard ever have had the dismissive ‘some of us are busy’ ticking-off from Alan Jones after arriving ten minutes late for an interview? Would he have tolerated the compressed, angry scorn of ‘Juliar’?
It seems so long now since that page one photo of Gillard’s swearing-in, the female PM reciting the oath of her new office, led by the female Governor-General, Quentin Bryce, vivid in canary yellow. Do you remember the sense of that moment: that something quite special had been achieved, that we were witness to A Day? Gillard’s was a rise made possible not just by a ruthless expression of backroom politics, but also by the slow inevitability of simple social justice and inexorable change, a pressing feminine tide that finally saw a woman lead her party and her country.
There was a moment there, before the calculated savagery of politics reached up to reclaim Gillard, before the full force of sexism teamed with ideological distaste, fate and her own struggle for political competence to grind her down.
She stumbled and fluffed. Was it a nervous sense of illegitimacy that took her to a quick poll at the end of 2010—the need to have the country confirm what Shorten and the other plotters had merely arranged?
Probably, and that execution of an elected first-term prime minister was never fully explained; she never had the nerve, or perhaps the nastiness, to tell the world how ratty Rudd’s government had been, how paralysed by its own set of anxieties. But the effect was to leave Rudd like Banquo’s ghost, a lingering, accusing presence that foretold Gillard’s own savage end.
It’s all duality with Gillard: the deftness of the negotiation that brought the independents to her cause and gave her power, against the anxious late campaign stumble—‘there will be no carbon tax under a government I lead’—that injected her prime ministership with a fatal dose of poison at birth.
The carbon tax pledge was great political folly: Why be so absolute? Why not hedge with a commitment to simply move towards the pricing of carbon? She seemed caught in the late campaign headlights and panicked.
Perhaps, though, we saw the true Gillard here, the woman who, as deputy prime minister, had counselled Rudd to stall his own push for a Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme.
A blanket rejection of a carbon tax may well have been in full accord with Gillard’s personal politics, but a shrewder operator would have seen the wisdom of avoiding a specific rejection.
Hers was a strange and contradictory combination, a lack of political skill and a self-conscious, anxious timidity, the both of them masked by an overweening sense of self-confidence.
Would we have had to endure the bitterly adversarial madhouse of the Gillard prime ministership if the contest in that term had been between two men? Had Rudd remained, even in unpopular decline, would he have also stirred the visceral bitterness that seemed to attach so readily to Gillard? On the evidence of his second, albeit brief, term, you’d have to say no. Not really.
It has always been about her. And about her sex. For her foes, a hatred of both has mingled with the simpler, more conventional loathing of her politics.
From the 2010 campaign, with its sudden and unprecedented focus on the particular geography of one candidate’s ears (when in truth both had lugs and lobes worthy of comment), through the endless Juliars, to ‘Bob Brown’s Bitch’ and ‘Ditch the Witch’; to Larry Pickering’s strap-on cartoon obscenities, Tony Abbott’s ‘make an honest woman’, Alan Jones’ assumption of her father’s dying shame and Abbott’s subsequent recasting that Gillard’s was a government that also ought to have ‘died of shame’; to the endless, gutless misogyny of social media and that lush undergrowth of foetid hate and bile, the comment threads of mainstream blogs like those of Andrew Bolt and Tim Blair—all of it tumbled into that single potent speech of 9 October 2012.
It will rank with the great policy moments of Gillard’s prime ministership, with Gonski and NDIS and even, yes, the carbon tax, not because of the direct politics of that hot quarter hour in the House of Representatives, not because of the accusation it levelled at the uncomfortable form of Abbott across the table, but more because it shone a light on the quiet struggle against hate, loathing and invective faced by so many other women—the PM, so often so hapless, so often just a clanging gong, an uninspiring oratorical automaton, had used words to create empathy.
It was one of only a handful of moments of truly effective communication in the whole Gillard prime ministership, perhaps matched only by her considered statement of intent after knifing Rudd, and then her heartfelt speech on departure. Here were fifteen minutes and three seconds of unambiguous message, delivered with the clear tone and simple force Gillard only ever seemed to rise to when riled.
The clarity of anger seems to order her thoughts and words and strip away the fear of misspeaking, replacing that terrible stilted and nasal staccato with something invested by truth and simple feeling. ‘Iwill not be lectured on misogyny by this man.’ Powerful stuff.
The speech quickly rose to be more than the simple sum of its immediate political parts. It had a talismanic quality; it jumped out from its simple context to speak to a global audience attuned to the routine denigrations of sexism.This was such an obvious reading. To insist on a higher political interpretation only served to demonstrate the gap between the commentariat and simple daily reality—evidence, in the disconnect between these two views of one piece of oratory, of the press gallery’s distance from the broader social being.
The gallery reported the politics with conventional accuracy, but the narrowness of that perspective was suddenly obvious.
This was a failing of the game. Suddenly it was important how ordinary people viewed events. Their interpretations had a voice in the new age of flexible micro-media, and the political mainstream would do well to give it attention.
Here was proof that political professionals might have one interpretation, the ordinary people another, and that both could now find means of almost equal public expression.
It probably said something about the imperfect nature of professional politics that there should be such a yawning chasm of difference.
After all, wasn’t making an accurate assessment of the public mood the very basis of political and journalistic craft?
In the end, it was Kevin Rudd that had her measure.
History will probably record his malign and lingering influence along with sexism and dumb errors of politics with almost equal emphasis when weighing the cause of Gillard’s demise.
Gillard said as much in her parting speech: sexism had something to do with it, but not everything. Just how much was clear enough in the first few days of the second Rudd prime ministership. He was instantly everywhere, and carrying with him the suddenly impermeable dignity of the office, a trick Gillard could never master—a woman who was prime minister without ever really being prime ministerial. And suddenly there was Rudd, swearing in Cabinets, jetting to Jakarta, reforming the very nature of the ALP, consigning the desperate to a living hell in PNG … getting things done.
Some strange sense of normalcy had been restored; Rudd was so noticeably prime ministerial; it was as if we had been three years with a vacant office, three years in which two people, Gillard and Abbott, traded blows on an almost equal footing, with neither capable of claiming the sober advantages of incumbency.
Gillard had somehow never seemed legitimate, whether through constant undermining or a lack of innate instinct—perhaps confidence—for the role. Rudd had the chutzpah to fill the office, breaking no new ground of either gender or experience, comfortable in the required performance.
The ship of state had been righted. Somehow we watched a lifting of the tone; personal denigration and demeaning abuse were out of the equation.
After Rudd’s return, no one called our prime minister a bitch or a witch, criticised the prime ministerial dress sense, drew obscene caricatures, wished anyone drowned in a chaff bag, sniggered at her ‘big red box’ or pondered her dead father’s lingering sense of shame. Much had changed: misogyny did its worst and the ‘big-arsed bitch’ was silenced; purely vengeful politics had its day too, and the ALP numbers tumbled towards Rudd, in a self-preserving rush for electoral survival and hope.
But other change has come silently, subtly, quickly. The Prime Minister, Mr Rudd, with his full complement of commas and honorifics, had replaced Juliar, and with our first female PM winkled from the Lodge, the contest between Abbott and Rudd seemed somehow a more reassuring spectacle.
The great weight of ingrained sexist assumption is probably the key, but a striking duality in our politics plays a hand too. Rudd’s gender has something to do with it, but not everything to do with it. How much Gillard’s gender had to do with it was suddenly that much clearer.
This is an edited extract from The Year My Politics Broke, by Jonathan Green, (MUP $24.95) Order here.
Jonathan is an ABC journalist, commentator, broadcaster and avid tweeter. He hosts Sunday Extra on Radio National and writes regularly for The Drum. He is also the author of The Year My Politics Broke which is released this week. You can follow Jonathan on Twitter @GreenJ.