A modern Enid Lyons?

With Julia Gillard’s ascension last week, Australians witnessed momentous history. More than six decades ago, a very different woman became Australia’s first female member of the House of Representatives. As a conservative, Dame Enid Lyons nominated for the seat of Darwin (now Braddon), campaigned with a handful of helpers against two party colleagues and four other opponents, and won on preferences in an election that was a landslide for Labor’s John Curtin. Lyons’ win was against all odds. But, as a widow and mother of eleven, she had got there first.

Even so, Lyons would have cheered from the grave at Gillard’s elevation. Tea towels and posters decorated with the heads of Australia’s prime ministers will now, finally, include a woman.

It has been a field day for news media, Tweeters and bloggers, and seemingly a boost for Labor’s 2010 election hopes. A new personality, a new voice, and within days voters have come back to Labor for a fresh start. Lindsay Ellison SC, a long-time follower of Australian politics, summed it up in a personal text message: ‘I am neither Tweeter nor blogger but could not resist. I am sure that at Melbourne University all those years ago that not in 100 years would you have thought that the Victorian Left would provide the PM, and a single female at that.’

Happy times have abounded for some. Journalist Christine Wallace spotted the resurgence of Labor immediately — and no doubt a bestselling outcome for her 2011 biography of Julia Gillard. On the other hand, Patrick Weller’s book on Kevin Rudd has since been postponed by its publisher. The fate of books, like the news, can be a 24-hour cycle now.

A few notes of caution have been sounded, despite early polls. Queensland premier Anna Bligh has registered unease at the effect on voters over the surgical nature of the leadership changeover. Piers Akerman on Sunday’s ABC Insiders noted that there had not been much of a shift in the polls for Queensland and Western Australia. Labor’s base vote is up — but coming largely from the Greens. The Gary Morgan telephone poll taken over the four days following the leadership change has the Coalition ahead — 51.5 per cent to Labor’s 48.5 per cent. Opposition leader Tony Abbott joked to a Liberal party conference that in NSW, voters have a woman premier, governor, prime minister,  governor-general, all the way to a Queen for monarch. Could this ignite a possible boys’ backlash?
Ordinary folk might be forgiven for thinking they have been forgotten in the media highlights. At a Rotary Club dinner, the jokes came thick and fast at the expense of Australian politics. Steve, half English and half Irish, told me that even in the UK reaction had been astonishment at the changeover of Australian leaders.
But women leaders can make a difference. The same Rotary Club has just elected a female president and seen a change in the projects it will support and the relationship with the recipients of that support. On the Sunday after the Labor leadership change, I made a five-hour drive across the Blue Mountains to the town poet Banjo Paterson had named ‘Ironbark’. North Sydney Sunrise Rotary president Moira de Vos, Ted Sheedy and I were to present a Books in Homes donation to the primary school children of Stuart Town. Just nine pupils in a one teacher/one assistant school.

At the Freemasons Hotel in Molong that Sunday evening, discussion of Julia Gillard’s ascension to Labor PM was no priority. Interest was more on the fire, blazing with a couple of old railway sleepers (the town’s Federation-style railway station is now the local library). The fire pulled in chilled patrons from a night predicted to be below zero. A tree changer from Sydney has taken over as chef at the Freemasons, and I can highly recommend the tucker.
This good season of rains has ended long years of drought for areas near Molong and Stuart Town. But farmers John and Sonia, with whom we had dinner, have barely caught up after years of hand-feeding stock. We discussed the government’s stimulus cash handouts; among us, only Moira had received a payment, while John and Sonia’s adult son in Singapore had received two cheques as a parent of expat Australian children. Sun shining on the melting frost, we made the 30-minute drive through undulating grazing country next morning. Stuart Town (population 120) has a public school which advertises its Building the Education Revolution spending with a modest notice on a large rock in a tidy garden. No political statements here. Their BER renovations have gone well and they have used the small amount of money to refurbish a closed-in verandah on the two-room schoolhouse, landscape the garden and improve fencing. Only the giant shed was delivered, placed in the wrong area with a door facing the wrong way.

Stuart Town Public’s teacher and assistant, Mrs Wyner and Mrs Fraser, have a handful of very individual pupils. At times it can seem like breakfast at home with a mob of grandchildren. The pupils’ intellectual needs range from kindergarten to Year 6, from diagnosed learning impairment to bright leaders. Can a school with so much and yet so few stay open? The problem, says Sandra — her son and grandson among the nine — is how to increase the town’s size when the council won’t subdivide more housing blocks. In Canberra, Julia Gillard has promised to contain Sydney’s population growth; in Stuart Town they think they have the answer. After a week of drama, it was interesting to catch up with a Labor party operative in Sydney. I expected no secrets.

But as I suggested how Labor must have seen welcome change in the swinging seats he works on, he was cautious. Driving through western Sydney and into the country can challenge what we hear from the Canberra Press Gallery. One negative remark, passed on from a friend, came from a taxi driver: ‘She took an affirmation, not the Bible,’ the driver said. It is still open for debate. Can a modern woman make a difference?

Article published in Spectator

'2012