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Julia Gillard’s ‘gender wars’: sorting fact from fiction

Liberal prime minister Malcolm Fraser had his war on Gough Whitlam by trying to roll back Medibank and the overuse of Section 96 grants. Labor’s Bob Hawke had a war on childhood poverty. Paul Keating had…

Does Julia Gillard’s record on gender advancement actually stack up when compared to her attacks on opposition leader Tony Abbott? AAP/Tony McDonough

Liberal prime minister Malcolm Fraser had his war on Gough Whitlam by trying to roll back Medibank and the overuse of Section 96 grants. Labor’s Bob Hawke had a war on childhood poverty. Paul Keating had a war against Hawke, and John Howard had his “culture wars”. Not to be outdone, current Labor prime minister Julia Gillard is now conducting a “gender war”.

Gillard’s war is actually a fight with Tony Abbott, the opposition leader who, if the opinion polls are correct, is about to sweep in to government in an electoral landslide.

Antipathy between these two individuals goes back a long way to before they even entered federal politics. Back when Gillard and Abbott were involved in university student politics, both were ideological warriors for their respective sides. Gillard fought on behalf of the Australian Union of Students along with a list of associates who would later become leading lights in Labor’s Socialist Left faction, while Abbott’s student activism reflected the ideals of B.A. Santamaria and the Democratic Labor Party.

Abortion was one of the more prominent emotive issues over which the student ideologues battled. Gillard, as a feminist and from the left of student politics, was and continues to be a strong believer in the right of women to be in charge of the reproductive capacity of their bodies. Abbott, as a social conservative wanting to project his staunch Catholicism, took a pro-life stand.

Of the two, Gillard has arguably been the most consistent on this matter. Abbott dabbled with the idea of trying to visit the abortion issue during his time as health minister in John Howard’s Coalition government by proposing to alter Medicare funding arrangements. However, he has since reconstructed his image as a much more pragmatic person as part of his bid to be prime minister.

This recasting of the Abbott image has clearly riled those on the left who remember the old socially conservative Catholic Abbott. Ever since his elevation to the Liberal leadership, Labor has waged a campaign to draw attention to his past. Central to this has been the constant refrain that Abbott has a “problem with women”.

Given the capacity of the abortion issue to cause real divisions within the ALP, this campaign against Abbott was one of innuendo. It was only last week that Gillard finally sought to clearly articulate exactly what the charge against Abbott is. The “problem with women” Labor has been trying to highlight is this association with the anti-abortion politics in Abbott’s past.

This tactic might have been clever (notwithstanding the danger raising the abortion poses to internal Labor cohesion) had the prime minister confined her comments to the debate about women to control their bodies. However, in her speech to the Women for Gillard meeting at which the latest round of the “gender war” was launched, Gillard sought to roll the abortion debate into a critique of the role of women in Australian politics. The message was straightforward enough: according to the prime minister, she is the embodiment of feminist aspirations to achieving equality in the political process.

Opposition leader Tony Abbott appears to have moderated his previously hardline on position on abortion from his days a student politician. AAP/Dave Hunt

Unfortunately, unlike her record on abortion, Gillard’s form on the matter of female advancement in the political process is not that consistent. Gillard’s claim to being the politician best placed to advance the cause of women in politics is based on a claim that, under her leadership, women have achieved new records in participating in government.

After the failed second leadership bid by Kevin Rudd precipitated another reshuffle, a record number of women were appointed to the Gillard ministry: four in Cabinet, six in the outer ministry and four parliamentary secretaries. The notion of feminist solidarity within the Labor caucus has indeed been strong. When Kevin Rudd forced a vote on the leadership in 2012 nearly every woman in caucus supported Gillard.

This has all been a major advancement on the status of women in government. In 1976, Dame Margaret Guilfoyle was the first woman to have a Cabinet portfolio when Liberal prime minister Malcolm Fraser appointed her Minister for Social Security.

Since that time both Labor and Liberal governments had a slowly increasing number of females in ministerial roles. The advancement continued apace under Gillard, but the purging of an old guard of men implicated in the failed Rudd coup in 2013 was an essential precursor to the increase in female representation to the ministry.

Under Liberal PM Malcolm Fraser, Margaret Guilfoyle was the first woman to serve in a ministerial role. AAP/Alan Porritt

It is not Gillard’s record in appointing women to the ministry that is the issue, however. Rather, Gillard has a much less rigidly feminist approach when it comes to pre-selection politics. Despite being a member of Labor-affiliated group EMILY’s List - dominated primarily by the Socialist Left and dedicated to advancing the numbers of women pre-selected to winnable seats - Gillard is remembered for backing men against women in some pre-selection decisions in which she had some say.

She backed a male candidate in the pre-selection for the seat of Jagajaga back in 1996, although the eventual winner was Jenny Macklin. More recently Gillard backed senator and factional player David Feeney to replace Martin Ferguson in the safe Labor seat of Batman – a decision that terminated the parliamentary ambitions of female union official Ged Kearney at least for the time being.

All is not quite as it seems in the gender war, especially now that it has been opened up on such a wide front. Using the politics of abortion has its dangers not least for its ability to divide the Labor Party itself. With her government facing imminent defeat, Gillard may now no longer be concerned about internal party unity.

Her primary strategy now is to attack Abbott, and this is an issue that he can be attacked on because of his own ground-shifting on abortion. This is an issue that Gillard has been consistent about over the journey.

Gillard’s claim to be the embodiment of the representational aspirations of Australian women has less credibility, however, as those who remember Jagajaga and care to look at the politics of the Batman pre-selection would attest to.

The way the “gender war” is being conducted sums up the Gillard government’s problem with politics generally. It has the propensity to overwhelm important issues with hyperbole and claims that make the prime minister all too easy a target for critics looking for inconsistency between stated intentions and actual outcomes. And often the negative response to a poorly executed political strategy obscures the real achievements of her government.

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43 Comments sorted by

  1. Marilyn Shepherd

    pensioner

    Attacking men who wear blue ties as all being about preventing abortions was the height of lunacy, the ALP using that silly 20 year old rehashed menu of Kentucky fried stuff was madness because was well known that the attack was a joke against Hillary Clinton in 1993 and she laughed it off as nonsense.

    Attacking and punishing single parents, mostly mothers, on the basis that their 8 year old kids would do better if their parents were working is just plain cruel with 65% of new jobs going to overseas…

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    1. Chris Harper

      Engineer

      In reply to Marilyn Shepherd

      Marilyn, absolutely.

      Julia Gillard is happy to dish out abuse to anyone, over anything, if she thinks it will benefit her political aspirations. On the other hand, she is incapable of accepting anything in response. The overwhelming majority of criticism she receives is based on her political and character flaws, but her standard response is - to paraphrase Ali G - "It's cos I's a girl, innit".

      No, it isn't cos she's a girl, it is because she is who she is.

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    2. Freya Elizabeth

      Graphic designer

      In reply to Marilyn Shepherd

      Marilyn, I notice that your hatred of Gillard is pretty well entrenched. But has it ever occurred to you that your feelings are being manipulated by those who would like to see a Labor govt ousted at any cost?
      Probably not, but consider this: the LNP supported the single parents bill and they will cut health, education and welfare to the bone if they achieve power.
      Look around Marilyn and try to see what really threatens you and where you would be most effective directing your hatred and anger.

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  2. Riddley Walker

    .

    I think accusing Abbott of having a problem with women is a poor tactic.

    There's a thousand other areas you could find - the failure to understand 21st century technology like the NBN, or climate change, the idea of building 100 dams across Northern Australia, the economic incompetence, preferring freeways over rail as a solution to moving masses of people about a city, and not to mention the stupidity and arrogance of the dumb thugs that call themselves the Front Bench of the Opposition in our Parliament... etc...

    It's a bit rich for a male commentator to claim the Australia' FIRST female Prime Minister has done a disservice to women, don't you think?

    Also, Ged Kearney withdrew her pre-selection bid for professional reasons, not because she was afraid to go to against Feeney.

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    1. Marilyn Shepherd

      pensioner

      In reply to Riddley Walker

      Maybe but why should her gender have anything to do with anything in the 21 st century.

      There have been female leaders in all sorts of countries around the world for decades, centuries even without this childish carry on

      And getting pre-selection under a quota system based only on being female is also quite childish in my old woman's opinion.

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  3. Sheryll Harrild

    logged in via Facebook

    Surely being a feminist and promoting women does not mean that you should always have to back a woman for a seat - can you not back the best candidate regardless of whether they are female or not? It is better for the best candidate to be chosen regardless of their gender. Being a feminist would be choosing the female candidate if she was of similar or superior quality to any male candidates. We all lose if inferior candidates are chosen purely based on their gender and I think it is wrong to say that Julia Gillard should always back a woman in this situation.

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    1. Freya Elizabeth

      Graphic designer

      In reply to Dianna Arthur

      Precisely, Dianna! No respite from the double standards anywhere. Gillard would be as roundly condemned for favouring women if she had chosen a female candidate.

      The inane irrationality of those who blame Gillard for being too feminist at the same time as not being feminist enough is just ubiquitous, particularly in the media. I truly fear that a fair and open discourse in which women in power can speak freely about women's concerns is a long way off in this country.

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    2. Chris Harper

      Engineer

      In reply to Dianna Arthur

      Dianna,

      You got it. People make critical and nasty comments, whatever the situation. It's called politics.

      If the Prime Victim wants to be surrounded by loving and supportive people at all times she shouldn't have chosen to spend her life in the nastiest of all professions, as a career politician.

      Julia Gillard is the single most powerful person in Australia today, and the idea that the Prime Minister is some sort of a victim is patently absurd.

      The more I hear this whining "It's because I'm a girl" drivel the more contemptuous I get.

      Ms Gillard has a history of giving at least as good as she gets, and is unquestionably one of the most abusive people in parliament today.

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    3. Dianna Arthur
      Dianna Arthur is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Environmentalist

      In reply to Chris Harper

      Chris Harper

      I disagree with your interpretation of my above post at such a fundamental level, that it makes chances of effective communication unlikely in the extreme.

      Please reread and take some time to consider the impossibility of a leader who is be pilloried no matter what decision she makes - including having the temerity to stand up for herself when insulted.

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    4. Freya Elizabeth

      Graphic designer

      In reply to Chris Harper

      And yet, with the self pitying outrage from (a few) men over the PMs harmless jokes about blue ties, one would think they were the ones with a victim mentality, poor petals!

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    5. Chris Harper

      Engineer

      In reply to Dianna Arthur

      Of course she is pilloried regardless of what decision she makes. That is par for the course for any senior politician. It is the job of the opposition to point out the downside of any decision the government makes, and it is the job of the government to do the same to the opposition.

      Further, it is the right, the absolute and unquestionable right, of every citizen to evaluate government policy and action, and there will always be those who are hit by the downside. Are you implying that they should…

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    6. Chris Harper

      Engineer

      In reply to Freya Elizabeth

      Freya,

      That Ms Gillard and her supporters are now trying to portray her venom as a 'joke' is a demonstration that even they acknowledge that she went too far is her attempt to further poison divisions in Australian society.

      I see nothing amusing in the words she user, nor the tone in which they were delivered. The retrospective claim they were a joke is an insult to the intelligence.

      As to poor petals, Ms Gillard is the person who has promoted sexism as an issue. That being the case one would have thought she would wish to avoid indulging in it herself. However, if one did think that, one would clearly be wrong. I am not aware of any Australian politician who promotes gender division and hatred to the extent she does.

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    7. Dianna Arthur
      Dianna Arthur is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Environmentalist

      In reply to Chris Harper

      "broken record" - Projecting much Chris?

      I do not know of any Australian Prime Minister who has been:

      asked about his partner's sexual preferences

      demanded that he be tied in a chaff bag and dumped at sea

      should have died of shame upon the death of his parent

      had his genitals on the menu of the Opposition's knees-up

      been referred to as 'he' without reference to his name or position of office

      had lurid drawings of himself circulated throughout parliament

      And this is just what we, the public, have evidence of.

      This is beyond the heckling of robust debate, this is abuse. That you are attempting to condone this behaviour speaks volumes about you - suggest there are plenty of websites more suited to your beliefs and values - such as they are.

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    8. Chris Harper

      Engineer

      In reply to Dianna Arthur

      Dianna,

      Please show me where I condone this behaviour?

      I am just contemptuous of the double standards which progressives are, yet again, demonstrating.

      Just another example where the rules apply to me but not to thee, right?

      We have in Ms Gillard the most blatantly abusive politician since Mr Keating, and the most blatantly sexist in memory, the poor widdle ting...

      She is so hard done by and so picked on that all she has been able to accomplish is reaching the pinnacle of political…

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    9. Chris Harper

      Engineer

      In reply to Freya Elizabeth

      So smearing men for not being women is all fine and dandy in your book then?

      Do you really believe that, as a male, I can expect fair and honest dealing from this gender obsessed and abusive misandrist?

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    10. Freya Elizabeth

      Graphic designer

      In reply to Chris Harper

      If you simply do not believe that women are economically, politically and socially disadvantaged and oppressed by virtue of their sex, then we have no grounds for discussion and your complaints are meaningless.
      Moreover, in your denial of reality, you relegate yourself to the very irrelevance you fear.

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    11. Chris Harper

      Engineer

      In reply to Freya Elizabeth

      What on Earth makes you fantasise I hold that view?

      What we are discussing is whether Ms Gillards determination to foment division between between men and women in our society, by the use of lies, abuse and smear, is anything other than despicable? That there are other despicable people in society by no means excuses Ms Gillard's behaviour.

      Or do you think it does? One rule for her, a different rule for others?

      Why the hell should I fear irrelevance? Are you perchance projecting? What a meaningless and baseless allegation.

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    12. Chris Harper

      Engineer

      In reply to Freya Elizabeth

      If you would like to point out the exact words which reasonably lead you to that conclusion I will try to rework them. Please take note of my use of the word 'reasonably'.

      Or, am I to assume that you are reluctant to address the core issue, Ms Gillards blatant misandry and her abuse, lies and smears about those who decline to support her politically, and so are attempting to deflect attention from that topic?

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  4. Lee Emmett

    Guest House Manager

    The main part of Julia Gillard's speech was itemising how Labor is, and has been, the major party to support reforms which encourage women's wider and more equal participation in the workforce, politics and social life in general. The speech also gave a clear indication of the areas in which women would have more to lose under a LNP government. It's the media calling this a 'gender war'.

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  5. Lyn Keaney

    Should not matter

    The comparison between abortion and pre- selection is apples and oranges. One is a women's issue and the other about opportunity. Men like Abbott are the least entitled to dictate to women what should happen to them with regard to unwanted pregnancies. However Ms Gillard is entitled to have an opinion given her experience and standing as to who would make a good candidate regardless of gender. The author's lack of logic and reason leaves him wide open to accusations of an attempt to be fashionable ie criticise the Prime Minister regardless.

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    1. Hardy Gosch
      Hardy Gosch is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Mr.

      In reply to Lyn Keaney

      It appears it is fashionable at the moment to focus entirely on the incumbents, a great distraction from the real issue of our time. No thought is given to what a future will hold under a News Limited approved LNP government. How many advantageous reforms will be repealed?

      Unfortunately it has been decided by those who know what you want better than you do that you want three topics only:

      (1) How appalling the Government and its leader are;
      (2) How disastrously they are doing in the opinion…

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    2. Freya Elizabeth

      Graphic designer

      In reply to Hardy Gosch

      I agree Hardy, our democracy is threatened by a corporatised media using personality politics and gossip to undermine a govt that doesn't suit them. I would welcome more serious debate about this in the Conversation, rather than more fiddling gossip about the putative character and worthiness of current PM.

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    3. David Thompson

      Marketing Research

      In reply to Freya Elizabeth

      Actually it is the corporatised media which is enabling Gillard's race to the bottom by deigning to treat such tawdriness as 'Menugate' as worthy to be the week's lead story.

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  6. Don Williams

    Water Policy Analyst

    One small point about grammar: 'Of the two, Gillard has arguably been the most consistent on this matter'.

    When two are being compared, the comparative form '...more consistent on this matter' should be used, not the superlative form with 'most'.

    Do I recall academics complaining about students coming to them from secondary schools, without a proper grounding in written expression?

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  7. Norm Stone

    logged in via Facebook

    Whilst there is no doubt Labour will be better for women than the conservative opposition, most of Julia's gambits seem to fall flat often because of the very bad legislation mixed with the sometimes good policy. Consider Gonski, for example, wherein secondary education funding is increased by decreasing tertiary. If that is not enough have a look at the recent, failed, political funding legislation. Need I remind anyone that single parents are mostly female? I cannot help suspecting that Julia is being (very badly) advised in these matter and probably by a phalanx of men. All of this adds up to a politician who has her back to the wall, who has been paying back political debts, as politicians do, and just seems to be sinking further into the political mire, even when it appears there is no further to sink.

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    1. Dianna Arthur
      Dianna Arthur is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Environmentalist

      In reply to Norm Stone

      Norm

      Are you referring to the "sometimes good policy" as follows?

      "ALP achievements/bills since they came to office in 2007.

      • NBN (the real one) – total cost $37.4b (Government contribution: $30.4b)
      • BER 7,920 schools: 10,475 projects. (completed at less than 3% dissatisfaction rate)
      • Gonski – Education funding reform
      • NDIS/DisabilityCare
      • MRRT & aligned PRRT
      • Won seat at the UN
      • Signed Kyoto
      • Signatory to Bali Process & Regional Framework
      • Eradicated WorkChoices
      • Established…

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  8. David Semmens

    logged in via Twitter

    On two occasions in the last 17 years Julia hasn't supported female candidates at pre-selection. This is evidence that she has only inconsistently advanced the role of women in politics and undermines her credibility on the issue. How pathetically tepid.

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    1. Freya Elizabeth

      Graphic designer

      In reply to David Semmens

      Good point David, It is extraordinary just how high the bar appears to be set for a woman in leadership to qualify as a feminist isn't it? At this rate no woman in power will ever be able to mention women's issues, which, I suspect, is the whole point of this ridiculous debate over Gillard's entitlement to speak at all.

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    2. David Thompson

      Marketing Research

      In reply to Freya Elizabeth

      Freya, given that Gillard's entire political career from SRC to PM has been built in similar environments to the genderists, she has never identified as a genderist, preferring the company and intrigues of burping, farting, hairy-assed trade unionist males to university quilt-making, Judith Butler-reading, genderist group therapy whinge-ins.

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    3. David Semmens

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to David Thompson

      So, to be a 'real' feminist you have to conform to your stereotype of what a feminist is.

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  9. Freya Elizabeth

    Graphic designer

    I don't agree with the author's claim that the abortion issue is the only grounds for the Gillard/Labor contention that Abbott has a problem with women.
    Abbott's many sexist statements about Gillard, prior to the Misogyny speech, were deeply offensive and belittling to women. They represented a serious lack of political and personal judgement, which was, moreover, never called out by the media.
    Many women are not confident that a man in a position of power and influence who believes it is acceptable to use sexism as a political tool, will represent their interests.

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    1. Dianna Arthur
      Dianna Arthur is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Environmentalist

      In reply to Freya Elizabeth

      "Many women are not confident that a man in a position of power and influence who believes it is acceptable to use sexism as a political tool, will represent their interests."

      This is very pertinent. How can the type of men who indulge in childish behaviour at the expense of professional women, be trusted to govern in the interest of women?

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    2. Hardy Gosch
      Hardy Gosch is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Mr.

      In reply to Dianna Arthur

      This is indeed very pertinent. How can the type of person who indulges in childish behaviour at the expense of professional people, be trusted to govern in the interest of a nation? How will this person ever understand what true "equality" means!

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    3. Chris Harper

      Engineer

      In reply to Dianna Arthur

      Tou said: "How can the type of men who indulge in childish behaviour at the expense of professional women, be trusted to govern in the interest of women?"

      Indeed. And further, how can the type of woman who spews abuse, smear and baseless accusations of misogyny at males, for being males, be trusted to govern in the interests of men?

      Better the occasional bout of childishness than her venomous hatred, lies and abuse hey?

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  10. Comment removed by moderator.