Australia, Go to Your Room

I’d like to tell you a story about my country, Australia.

We’re healthy, and things are going well on many fronts. We weathered the GFC better than most nations, with low unemployment (5.5% in May 2013), a strong dollar, contained inflation, and solid economic growth. In 2012, the International Monetary Fund said Australia had the strongest economy in the developed world.

Also, we’re in a state of political disarray.

Until the night of Wednesday 26 June 2013, when there was a coup, our Prime Minister was Julia Gillard. She was Australia’s first female leader and, as it happens, unmarried, childless, an atheist, and from a working-class background. She is a redhead, not skinny, and not young. None of those things should have mattered; they all did.

Gillard’s trip to the top was controversial and dramatic. She has been compared to Lady Macbeth and, while that’s a twisting of the original tale, she did first stand on the podium with blood on her hands.

What happened was this:

November 2007 The Labor Party (our Democrats) won the federal election, ending 11 years in opposition. Kevin Rudd was Prime Minister, Gillard was Deputy Prime Minister.

June 2010 Internal argy-bargy and public loss of faith in Rudd led to a leadership challenge. Gillard was elected unopposed and became party leader and Prime Minister of Australia. The Australian public was shocked by the rapid change in leadership. As Katharine Murphy wrote in The Guardian: ‘Voters didn’t expect it, and they didn’t care for it.’ And the thumpingly amateurish way it was handled has meant ongoing credibility problems for Gillard who was labelled cut-throat and untrustworthy.

August 2010 Labor barely won the federal election and Gillard headed-up a minority government, a ‘hung parliament’. Labor won 72 seats, the Opposition 74, but Gillard won-over the Greens (the ‘third’ party) and three independents to form government. Rudd became foreign minister.

February 2012 Rudd resigned as foreign minister, citing a lack of support from Gillard. The Prime Minister called a leadership ballot, which she won, 71 to 31. Rudd promised to dedicate himself to ‘working fully’ for Gillard.

Gillard’s path to power has never been forgotten. Even after winning the 2010 election in her own right, the nation was wary of her. And, unlike Lady Macbeth, Gillard’s enemies are all alive, circling her, and they did not quit. She had knives at her throat the entire time she was in office. She was badgered and mocked until, in October 2012, she made a furious, eloquent speech about the Opposition’s misogyny that made international headlines.

So that’s stage left: a leader who fought to retain power, with a minority parliament, internal division, and a pack of politicos and journalists biting her heels.

Stage right: The Liberal Party, led, bewilderingly, by Tony Abbott, a man so small in thinking, so snarling and angry-eyed that one could mistake him for a cranky Chihuahua.

Here are a few quotes from Mr Abbott:

On immigration: ‘Jesus knew that there was a place for everything and it’s not necessarily everyone’s place to come to Australia.’

On abortion: ‘The problem with the Australian practice of abortion is that an objectively grave matter has been reduced to a question of the mother’s convenience.’ He has also described abortion as ‘the easy way out’.

On representation: ‘I think it would be folly to expect that women will ever dominate or even approach equal representation in a large number of areas simply because their aptitudes, abilities and interests are different for physiological reasons.’

On climate change: ‘Climate change is absolute crap.’

On paid maternity leave, both of these things: ‘Compulsory paid maternity leave? Over this government’s dead body, frankly.’ And, ‘I think a very strong Conservative case can be made for it (paid parental leave) because the most conservative thing anyone can do is have a family, and far too many bright, modern women have no children.’

Here’s a short video of Abbott explaining his comments regarding the death of an Australian solider in Afghanistan.

Here’s one of the many unpleasant interactions of late between Gillard and Abbott:

Abbott says to Parliament that the Labor Government ‘should already have died from shame’, echoing the words of radio broadcaster Alan Jones, following the death of Gillard’s father that, ‘The old man recently died a few weeks ago of shame. To think that he had a daughter who told lies every time she stood for parliament.’ When confronted over his words, Abbott said he was ‘absolutely oblivious’ of Jones’ remarks.

Here’s what our political reporters have been up to:

Radio broadcaster Alan Jones (the ‘died from shame’ man) whined to the Prime Minister that she was late to an interview and called for her to be drowned.

Garry Linnell, editor of The Daily Telegraph newspaper, for no readily obvious reason, ran a cover during the 2010 election campaign portraying Gillard as an old woman.

Janet Albrechtsen wrote in The Australian newspaper, ‘Gillard admits she never wanted children or marriage. She has showcased a bare home and an empty kitchen as badges of honour and commitment to her career. She has never had to make room for the frustrating demands and magnificent responsibilities of caring for little babies, picking up sick children from school, raising teenagers. Not to mention the needs of a husband or partner.’

Radio broadcaster Howard Stettler asked the Prime Minister if her longtime partner was gay, because he is a hairdresser.

Germaine Greer complained about the Prime Minister’s arse, saying on national television: ‘Every time she turns around, you’ve got that strange horizontal crease which means they’re (her jackets) cut too narrow in the hips. You’ve got a big arse, Julia.’

Oh, and right-wing political lobbyist Grahame Morris said Australians ‘ought to be kicking her (the Prime Minister) to death’. Yes, an influential member of the Liberal Party suggested the population ought to kick their leader to death.

And the image at the top of this page? It’s a menu from a Liberal Party fundraiser. The menu item reads: Julia Gillard Kentucky Fried Quail – Small Breasts, Huge Thighs & a Big Red Box. Box is a euphemism for vagina. Julia Gillard has red hair. And is the Prime Minister.

Not everyone has gone mad. Journalist Bernard Keane wrote on the Crikey news website: ‘She seems to push the buttons of older white men who aren’t used to dealing with women professionally, as if their long years in all-male environments have rendered them unable to process the idea of a woman who isn’t a subordinate or in a domestic role… The subtext — although it’s rarely particularly sub — is that Gillard, with her apparent lack of interest in such allegedly feminine pursuits as marriage and children (men of course never want to get married or have kids), is thus both unattractive and unnatural. Hence the violent language from older men, in which Gillard is an animal, to be slaughtered or drowned, a crone, or that ultimate symbol of aberrant, transgressive womanhood, a witch.’ She has endured the relentless and horrendous personal attacks to which he refers with enormous dignity and resolve.

Also, who are her advisors? In the past few months, she has been encouraged – and, admittedly, gone through with – these appalling howlers:

At a ‘Women for Gillard’ fundraiser, she said women will be ‘banished’ from politics and abortion will be ‘the political plaything of men’ if the Opposition wins the election. (Too much, too much!) Even female supporters thought this was not the moment to bring up the issue of abortion. Commentator Jane Caro said, ‘My heart sank. My feeling about it is that this is not the way to win an election.’

Gillard sat for a photo shoot for the Australian Woman’s Weekly magazine that showed her sitting in an armchair, wearing a frock, knitting. What? Why?

Against this scrappy background, Kevin Rudd challenged Julia Gillard. He wanted his job back, arguing the Labor Party would lose the upcoming election if Gillard was in power, that she had not connected with the electorate, and that he was the nation’s best hope.

At this point, who knew what the electorate was thinking. The media had roundly cut her down and the polls reflected that. But the woman was a battler and a doer and, traditionally, we love that.

Here are some of the achievements of the Gillard government:

Health reform

Education reform

The introduction of a carbon tax

The introduction of the National Disability Insurance Scheme

The introduction of plain packaging for cigarettes

The launch of a Royal Commission into child abuse in institutions

A National Broadband Network

A mining tax

Which is a lot when you think about it. And there’s more to be done. We have many social issues to address. Australia’s indigenous people are in terrible trouble, and accounts of racist behaviour on our sporting fields and boardrooms litter our newspapers daily. The mining boom that has helped to keep us afloat will go bust, we seem unable to find a workable and compassionate solution to the wave of refugees arriving on our shores, our farmers are struggling to compete with cheap imports, and the way our armed forces think about women – a whole other article.

On the night of Wednesday 26 June, Rudd won the leadership challenge over Gillard, 57 to 45. He is now Australia’s Prime Minister, again.

If you were a pessimist you’d worry that whichever Prime Minister Australia ends up with after the election – the bullying egomaniacal Kevin Rudd or the mean-spirited small-minded Tony Abbott – things will not go well.

Ex politician and journalist Mary Delahunty wrote: ‘There are angry women, and men, around Australia this morning. Angry because a gutsy woman wasn’t given a fair go. Angry because this country is better than the tawdry treatment of a leader who, in the swamps of misogyny was ridiculed and demeaned because she was a woman who dared to lead.’

Feminist icon Anne Summers wrote: ‘We are now, apparently unashamedly, a country where bullying, stalking, undermining and outright treachery are not just tolerated but are the new way of doing business.’

Gillard’s exit speech was clear and calm.

Australia is a young country compared to many, and a minor player on the world stage. And while this fresh-faced energy could be a positive global force, at the moment it is not. So, I say now to every person in Australia who is involved in politics and political reporting, go to your room. Right now, go to your room. And don’t come out until you’ve had a long hard think about your behaviour. Because, frankly, we’ve had enough of you.

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