The sacking of Australia’s first female Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, by her own party and the deed’s revival of the PM she ousted, Kevin Rudd, towers in tragedy and vitriol.
A tragedy for her and a setback, surely, for women. It came on a night of deceit, blood and burned friendships that had been brewing for the two years in which leadership acrimony has consumed the party and turned it into a resented force, one facing a defeat of historic proportions at the planned September election.
A condition Gillard set when she – again under siege from the Rudd forces – called the ballot was that the loser resign from politics immediately. Gillard reasoned that this was the only way to end leadership tensions.
Thus it is her who leaves politics.
She is not an easy read. A day before the leadership ballot, as Parliament prepared to shut down ahead of the election, Julia Gillard appeared on the cover of the mass-circulation The Australian Women’s Weekly, sitting in an armchair knitting a toy kangaroo for the royal baby and wearing a crafty smile, her dog Reuben at her feet.
Her minders would later claim they’d been conned by the magazine but whoever conceived the shot managed to instantly unleash a gallery of irked commentators; the chief political correspondent (a middle-aged male) for Rupert Murdoch’s The Australian newspaper led the charge, complaining that the photograph immediately sabotaged two years of work to refine Gillard’s no-nonsense image and surely portended the oblivion that befell the former leader of the Australian Democrats, Cheryl Kernot; she was cast as the scarlet woman after appearing on the Weekly’s cover wearing a red dress and feather boa.
Gillard is, unhappily, no stranger to those who seek to deep-read her circumstances. In 2005 she was photographed in her suburban Melbourne bungalow beside an empty fruit bowl and kitchen without clutter. The trim scene instantly became a metaphor for her childless and, then, partner-less life. It might equally have suggested a tidy mind.
No Australian male politician was so examined.
Australia has a woman Governor-General, a women deputy leader of the Opposition. Even the country’s richest person is a woman. It cannot be a nation unused to powerful women.
Yet women in politics who are bosses – in control, giving orders, making decisions – are at risk of being portrayed as unfeminine. When Gillard chooses to be pictured as a woman, condemnation roars. Men, of course, aren’t required to be convincing as a man or a leader.
This may explain, not excuse, the grossly excessive nastiness to which Gillard had been subjected to by an array of shock jocks, columnists and political rivals. The broadcaster and former Wallabies coach Alan Jones suggested she be cast out to sea in a chaff bag. A banner reading “JuLIAR … Bob Brown’s bitch” was erected behind opposition leader Tony Abbott while he was speaking to an anti-carbon tax rally.
And not only men. The Australia-born feminist Germaine Greer mocked the Prime Minister’s figure on national television, saying she should face the fact she has a “big arse”. A Queensland restaurant owner, preparing to host a dinner for Gillard’s political rivals, thought it hilarious to produce a menu that included Julia Gillard quail distinguished by small breasts and huge thighs.
Julia Gillard is gone. Deserved or not, her end carries no comfort for women in public life.
Bernard Lagan is a New Zealand journalist who writes for The Global Mail.