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.