According to the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, it is wrong to talk down the economy since Australia has one of the best performing economies in the Western world. Fair enough.
However, supporters of the Prime Minister such as Anne Summers have expressed delight that Gillard”s speech in Parliament last Tuesday has been noted in New York and London and has had more than 1 million downloads from YouTube. Yet the message of the Prime Minister”s address is that Australia is a society riven by sexism and misogyny.
Gillard presented herself as a political leader who is attacked because of her gender. More seriously, the lead attack-dog is Tony Abbott, the Leader of the Opposition and, as such, the alternative prime minister. According to the Prime Minister, she hears “”misogyny, sexism every day from this Leader of the Opposition””.
The message is clear. All that is standing between a civilised society, in which women play their proper role, and rampant woman-hating is the continuation of a Labor government. Yet such a message to overseas audiences is much more negative than talking down the Australian economy.
The facts are obvious. Women occupy senior roles in politics, business, the judiciary, medicine, law, even sections of the clergy. Labor”s Gillard is Australia”s first female prime minister. If the Coalition wins next year”s election, the Liberal Party”s deputy leader, Julie Bishop, will become the most senior female Coalition minister ever.
Certainly Gillard has experienced a degree of misogyny – especially from the likes of cartoonist Larry Pickering, who, these days, is a bit player on the edge of Australian politics. Some of this unpleasantness is documented in Summers”s 2012 Human Rights and Social Justice Lecture.
The problem is that, at times, Summers goes right over the top. For example, she claims the word liar “”was not a term used against back-flipping male prime ministers””. But it was. In the early 1980s, Bob Hawke called Malcolm Fraser a liar. Summers went on to work for Hawke. In 2006, Kevin Rudd called Howard a liar. There are all too many examples.
I agree with Summers it is “”terrible”” to call the Prime Minister a liar. However, when I asked her if she had expressed such a view when Howard was called a liar, she declined to answer the question. Summers also takes offence that, on occasions, Gillard is referred to as “”she”” or “”her”” and maintains that “”previous prime ministers were accorded the basic respect of being referred to by their last names””.
This is manifestly not so. Moreover, last Thursday Gillard used the words “”he”” and “”he”s”” in one sentence when referring to Abbott.
This is normal conversation.
It seems that Summers”s evident sensitivity has had an impact on Gillard. Last Tuesday, the Prime Minister complained that Abbott was “”now looking at his watch because, apparently, a woman has spoken for too long””. In the 1992 US presidential campaign, George H.W. Bush was criticised for looking at his watch when debating Bill Clinton. This is not a gender specific act. Nor is being told to shut up. Nor is being called a “”piece of work””. Last year I was called a “”piece of work”” by the Sydney University academic Simon Chapman. It took me a full eight seconds to recover.
The problem with such over-readiness to take offence is that it can lead to setting impossible standards. Last Tuesday, Gillard stated Liberal parliamentary members who were present when Alan Jones made an offensive comment about her late father should have either left the room or walked up to Jones “”and said this was not acceptable””. Yet neither Wayne Swan nor Tanya Plibersek took either course of action last Wednesday when a comedian at a trade union function they attended made an indefensible reference to a senior female Coalition staffer.
Conservative female leaders such as Margaret Thatcher and Angela Merkel – and social democrats such as Hillary Clinton – have learnt to accept criticism and to dismiss abuse. Last week in Greece, for example, Merkel was confronted with banners depicting her as a Nazi. It is difficult to imagine a greater insult. But she did not take offence. Likewise Thatcher, when some radical feminists declared she was really a man.
Gillard was very popular when she became Prime Minister in June 2010. Her credibility was diminished by Abbott doing his job as Opposition Leader and by the damaging leaks against her from inside Labor. Then, after the election, the Prime Minister did the unnecessary deal with the Greens and broke her promise not to introduce a carbon tax. Her problems stem from politics, not gender.
Gillard has suffered no greater abuse than that experienced by such predecessors as Fraser, Keating and Howard. Commentators who look at contemporary Australian politics and see wall-to-wall misogyny, diminish the very real achievements of Australian women in recent decades.
Gerard Henderson is executive director of The Sydney Institute.