July 1, 2013

Disliking Julia Gillard does not make me a bad feminist

I am tired of being branded a "bad feminist" just because I criticize Julia Gillard.  And I am equally tired of hearing the media talk about Gillard being knocked down from the top job just “because” she was a woman. This assertion is speculative nonsense, particularly when you consider all of the factors that led to Gillard taking over as P.M, her time in office, and her unfortunate exit from politics.

There is no denying that Gillard’s decision to take over as Prime Minister came with a price tag attached. Rudd’s sacking did not sit well with the Australian people, many of whom held Gillard responsible for knifing a fellow colleague in the back; a stereotypically ‘unaustralian’ thing to do.

And irrespective of the faceless men who had orchestrated this Machiavellian plot twist, it was Gillard who made the conscious decision to take the Prime Ministership away from Rudd, which no doubt upset and confused many Australians who viewed the change in leadership as an opportunity for Gillard to advance her own career at the cost of Rudd’s misfortune.  And because of the way she came to power, as opposed to the fact that she was a woman, Gillard was quickly cast as the villain in many people’s minds.

On top of the public perception of Gillard, the Labor party was also dealing with its own systemic problems. This required Gillard to step up and take leadership of an unstable & dysfunctional party, whose policies were constantly overshadowed by slander and in house bickering. Leading a minority government as the result of a hung parliament was just another hurdle Gillard was forced to overcome.

But rather than address these issues head on, and speak openly and honestly to the Australian public, particularly about the reason behind this leadership change, Gillard chose to ignore the enormous elephant in the room; to act as though everything was peachy keen, and she did this by adopting her own style of ‘political speak’ and an evasive demeanor. Regardless of whether or not Gillard was being advised to deflect the details of her leadership, her evasiveness made her seem cold, phony and robotic, particularly in contrast to the warm, charismatic and immensely popular Kevin '07' Rudd.

And despite the positive policy reforms of Gonski, the NBA, the NDIS and the Carbon Tax - all commendable achievements particularly given the timeframe and the circumstances - Gillard was never able to win the public over. 

Her passionate speech about sexism and misogyny seemed misplaced and hypocritical in the face of Labor's tough single parent reforms, and shortly before the implementation of the NDIS, it was Gillard’s Government who had tightened the criteria for the disability support pension, while concurrently booting many disabled pensioners off the DSP and onto Newstart, at a personal loss of $300 a fortnight. 

Locking children away in offshore detention camps had the left screaming blue murder under a Howard led government, and yet under Gillard, Labor was responsible for some of the worst atrocities perpetuated against asylum seekers that this country had ever seen.

People say that Gillard failed in her role as a policy communicator but it’s more likely that she failed to communicate what her government really stood for, where it was going and exactly how it was going to get us there.

Overtime, the contrast between Liberal and Labor party values had become so marginal one could barely tell them apart. Granted, there were differences in the terms of specific liberal and labor party policy, but when you consider Gillard's stance on marriage equality, asylum seeker policy, & single parent reforms, there is no disputing that Labor were angling towards the conservative right, and further away from old Labor, working class values. This shift undoubtedly confused many Labor voters.

Because on one hand the public was being introduced to Julia Gillard the Prime Minister as someone who stood defiant against marriage equality and whose policies on asylum seekers and sole parents (predominantly women) were some of the toughest in Labor’s history. On the other hand, the public was expected to reconcile that Julia Gillard with Julia the atheist, who lived in a de-facto relationship with her partner Tim, and who, for all intents and purposes, had spent her career fighting for education reforms and championing traditional, working class, Labor values. 

These discrepancies made it very difficult for the public to get a true sense of what this PM stood for, and that in turn created a sense of distrust and unease within the wider community.

And granted it should be about policies rather than personalities, but there is no denying that people tend to engage better with a leader who is authentic and charismatic (think Bob Hawke, Kevin Rudd and Bill Clinton), confident, comfortable and emotive, because those qualities are strongly aligned with trust. With Abbott we might not like the Christian, moral message that drives many of his opinions, but at least we know exactly what he stands for, and in turn, exactly where we stand.

What struck me most about Gillard was that nothing struck me at all.  Apart from education and the environment, I could never quite nail down what really made this PM tick, what she stood for and what she believed in. And while that may have been an unfortunate symptom of the unique circumstances, it made the public feel uncertain and uneasy. Despite populist sentiment, Gillard’s greatest disadvantage was not that she was a female, but rather, that she wasn’t able to drop the mask and let us peer behind the veil; that she wasn’t very good at being herself.

That said, there is no denying that Gillard’s gender was used as fodder for those sexist radio shock jocks and elements of the mainstream media who felt threatened by a strong, intelligent and powerful woman. Likewise, we cannot ignore the fact that life was made harder by the opposition simply because Gillard was a woman. But that’s hardly surprising when you consider the ilk of coalition members, many of whom are driven by their Christian beliefs on issues such as gender, abortion; climate change and marriage equality.  

However, these are precisely the reasons why so many Australians were begging for a viable political alternative, and why many voters turned to The Greens to find what they were not being offered by the Labor party. 

Had Labor readdressed its direction, repositioned its brand then perhaps Gillard would not have found herself in this position. Because while it’s very easy to use Gillard’s gender to explain her demise, I don't think we can underestimate the other mitigating factors, including that fact that in a two-party preferred system, Australians wanted to be given a choice on the issues that affected them the most, and Labor were not offering up that alternative.

It has been said by elements of the media that Gillard’s experiences as the first female PM are indicative of the course for potential female leaders and as such, Gillard is a red flag example for women to stay away from politics. 

In my opinion, this suggestion is preposterous, not only because it ignores the unique circumstances of the hung Parliament, dysfunctions in the Labor party, and the way in which Gillard came to office at the expense of Kevin Rudd, but also because it makes the assumption that Gillard was overthrown solely because she was a woman, and not because of any other reason, which is madness when you consider that Rudd was also overthrown in the best interests of the party, albeit for different reasons.

I don’t think it’s fair to say that Australia wasn’t ready for a female Prime Minister when we have no way of separating all of the other unique and complex issues, including Gillard’s style of leadership, from the issue of gender. We have never had another female PM and given the unusual circumstances, it’s hardly fair to attribute one woman’s experience to all hypothetical women in the future. 

It is possible that Australia wasn’t ready for a Prime Minister who was elected by the party rather than people, and one who arrived there at the very public expense of another. It is possible that this country wasn’t very comfortable with the way that was handled. It is also possible that another woman, a more progressive woman, a woman who stood up for the working class and championed Labor values might have arrived at a different outcome. Unfortunately we will never know, but what we do know, is that next time all the variables will be different.

Nonetheless, it was very difficult to criticize the Prime Minister without being drawn into the gender debate; even saying that makes me sound like a bad feminist. I don't know about anyone else, but Gillard didn't get my vote because she was a woman, and nor did her gender cause me to lose faith and withdraw my support. In actual fact, it was Labor who lost my support because their values were at odds with my own personal values, and because they were virtually indistinguishable from Liberal party values .As leader of the Labor party, Gillard failed to capture my confidence or my imagination on the important issues, not just for me, but also for Indigenous Australians, asylum seekers, sole parents and the long-term unemployed.

It's absurd to think that I would give Gillard my unwavering support just because she and I are both women. That kind of thinking is a form of reverse discrimination and it contributes to the kind of gender biased discourse that we are supposedly trying to stamp out.

Gillard is a woman and she was Australia's first female Prime Minister, those two things are indisputable. But they do not make her actions exempt from scrutiny or criticism, and nor should her gender be magnified to the point where we are no longer able to see the other contributing factors. It doesn’t work both ways, and if we want to change anything for women in this country, then it should be about establishing an even playing field and not just when it suits.

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