It would be hard to accuse Australian politics of lacking in drama. During the three years in which Julia Gillard has been Prime Minister she has arguably spent more time being forced to defend herself from both the opposition and her own party than actually governing. When a female politician has to stand up at the dispatch box and make a serious case in defence of their actions it is often a sight worth watching. Unfortunately for us would-be spectators, the charges that Gillard has had to respond to have far too often revolved around one issue, the fact that she is a woman.
To catalogue all of the times her opponents have sought to use Gillard’s gender against her would take more column inches than I am willing to spend repeating what are frankly disgusting opinions. However the recent tally includes an opposition MP attacking her by suggesting she was not a ‘real woman’ for deciding not to have children, while the menu at a Liberal Party fundraiser in May offered up ‘Julia Gillard’s small breasts and huge thighs’, a moment that recently made the Guardian’s list of the ‘Top Ten Sexist Moments in Politics.’ As an aside, what a ‘liberal’ party is doing holding such archaic, material views on women is a question that needs answering. These two episodes , which are only the latest in a long story of sexism directed at the former Australian Prime Minister, speak volumes about the problem Gillard’s opponents have with her. She is a woman and women are not meant to lead men.
So now in her place Australians will have, until September at least, Kevin Rudd. Rudd has already served three years as PM before losing out to Gillard in a leadership spat in 2010. The irony that Rudd has now, rumour has it after three years of plotting, displaced Gillard in another leadership challenge must be sickly sweet for his supporters. However, the fact that the Labour party have replaced Gillard with the first Prime Minister in Australia’s history to lose power during his first term says a great deal about her own party’s view of her.
Of course to suggest that Gillard has lost power purely because she is a woman would be over simplifying the matter. After the 2010 election resulted in a hung parliament she was never been as politically strong as she would have hoped, partly due to the presence of Rudd et al in the ranks of her party. Her three year tenure has sharply divided public opinion and indeed the main reason stated for her ousting in both the Australian and world press is that opinion polls show that a Labour party headed by Rudd will lose ‘less badly’ that one headed by Gillard. Prior to this week two previous leadership challenges, one last year and one as recently as March, had already been mounted.
Yet despite the obvious political trouble she has faced, her harshest critics have always used her gender as part of their criticism. Whether overtly, or as an insidious undertone, sexism has been present throughout her time in public office. While the media has faithfully reported the political context of her loss of power, the social context it is placed in by Tony Abbott, leader of the opposition Liberal Party, feeling comfortable calling her both a ‘witch’ and a ‘bitch’ has been largely ignored. Abroad she has been praised for standing up to sexism, but at home her defiance in the fact of such behaviour has been less than universally praised.
In all likelihood Kevin Rudd, whose appointment was heralded as a chance to ‘finish the job’ by David Milliband on Twitter, will lose in September. It seems then that the Labour party is due to have two ‘firsts’ in recent years, Australia’s first female Prime Minister and Australia’s first Prime Minister to hold office twice but never for a full term. That piece of trivia, in all likelihood, will make bigger headlines that the way Julia Gillard has been treated.