Check Matey

A woman is finally prime minister of Australia. But for how long?

Scott Barbour/Getty Images
Scott Barbour/Getty Images

One cool morning in June, Australians woke up to find that they had a new prime minister. And for the first time in history, she was a woman. Kevin Rudd, who three years earlier was swept into office in a landslide, had just been ousted by his deputy prime minister, a woman named Julia Gillard.

The arrival of a woman to Australia’s highest office was both accidental — after all, she was installed, not elected — and inevitable. Women are increasingly likely to hold prominent political positions in Australia today, and there is nothing unusual per se about Gillard’s politics. Still, the last two months have been monumental, breaking some of the stereotypes of a national culture of “mateship” — not least because a woman has been brought in to shepherd the incumbent’s politics, which were increasingly losing grip with the electorate. Rudd’s agenda got stuck in Parliament; he was losing allies left and right. The party brought in a woman to clean it up, and now, on August 21, Australians will go to the polls and decide whether or not they want to keep her.

Saturday’s vote will be something of a referendum on the performance of the ousted Labor Party administration. Rudd’s most notable achievement — foresight and swift action that saved Australia’s economy from the worst of the 2008 global financial crisis — was impressive indeed. But it wasn’t enough for voters or his party, especially after his attempts to implement a carbon-trading scheme were scuttled in Parliament. Gillard has wisely steered further from climate policy, preferring to call attention to Rudd’s gains on education, healthcare accessibility, and the economy.

As a politician, Gillard has an impressive record. A 48-year-old former lawyer, she rose quickly through the Labor Party ranks since becoming a member of Parliament in 1998. She is quick on her feet and renowned for exercising a quick wit in parliamentary debates. She is an unabashed supporter of women’s rights and, though some progressives have been dismayed by the conservative stances she has taken on issues like immigration and gay marriage, her takeover was seen by many as a welcome change.

Gillard the woman, however, has been entirely more controversial. Anyone who has come within three meters of a newspaper in Australia since she took office will know that the new leader is not married but in a long-term relationship. This makes her not just the first woman prime minister, but the first unmarried one, too. When her takeover was announced on June 24, the newspapers had a field day, wondering among other things, if she was setting a bad example for Australian women, if her partner would live with her in the prime minister’s official residence, and what on earth the function of a “First Bloke” might be. It bears noting that her partner is a former hairdresser who, the Sydney Morning Herald made very clear in a football and pub-going profile, does not want to be “Julia’s man-bag.”

In many ways, the public conversation about Gillard’s personal life reflects the underlying discomfort that Australians still have with women in positions of power. Though Gillard has company in high office — women currently hold such posts as mayor of Sydney, governor general, premiers of Queensland and New South Wales — she raises the bar on Australia’s ability to outgrow its macho history.

Australian culture grew out of the rugged frontier mentality of its settlers’ past, making their way in a new land. Women fit into that story largely by standing on the sidelines. And while the country has made great progress in women’s rights since, much remains to be done. Women represent 55 percent of Australia’s workforce but earn about one fifth less than men. The number of women on corporate boards hovers at a measly 8 percent. The cultural desire to keep women in line, subtle and subconscious though it may be, keeps those numbers down. Added to this is Australia’s general discomfort with ambition and high achievement — a national inferiority complex that has been dubbed the “Tall Poppy Syndrome,” or a tendency to cut down those who excel and are foolish enough to acknowledge or brag about it. In short, a woman prime minister — ambitious and high-achieving by definition — should expect to have, in local parlance, a hard go of it.

Indeed, the latest polls do not bode well for Gillard. For a start, her opponent Tony Abbott, the head of the Liberal Party (Australia’s conservatives), is her polar opposite: a conservative Catholic who once trained for the priesthood and whose views on social issues are not unlike those of the average U.S. Republican Party senate candidate. A proponent (though famously not a practitioner) of pre-marital abstinence, against gay marriage (he has said that he feels “threatened” by homosexuality) and staunchly pro-life, Abbott is far more socially conservative than the Liberal Party leaders who preceded him. And opponents have been quick to accuse Gillard of being politically out of touch as a result of her personal choices: For example, in 2007, one Liberal Party member suggested that Gillard, being childless, would not be able to understand the needs of Australian parents.

Still, in the end it may be not so much Gillard’s leadership as Labor’s record that cuts short her political career. Two months may simply not be enough time to recover the faith in the party that was lost under Rudd.

Perhaps it speaks to the progress that Australia has made that Gillard’s policies have largely been evaluated on their merits, rather than through the lens of gender. Indeed, when news came last month that women voters were more likely to support Gillard, she responded by asking for the votes of all Australians, regardless of gender. This may seem an obvious move, but Gillard’s refusal to appeal specifically to women voters is a telling one.

If Gillard loses, it should by no means be interpreted as a rejection of women’s leadership. If she is elected, it won’t be because she is a woman. And that is a step forward Down Under.

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