WMC News & Features

Australia Prime Minister Julia Gillard—Poised to Hold Her Own

Julia Gillard

Australia's first woman PM is unusual in more ways than one, and feminists such as political scientist/author/poet Susan Hawthorne are cautiously optimistic.

Australia has joined that group of nations with a woman leader. As we feminists know, simply having a woman in charge is not enough. Women come in all political shades, and there have been warmongers and peacemakers among the many women leaders. So, that alone is not enough.

Julia Gillard is shaking some long-held norms however, since not only is she female, she’s also single—her male partner is not presented as a likely marriage partner. She is also not religious, a distinct difference from former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd (who became the first Labor prime minister ousted from office before completing a first term). One doesn’t hear her speak of herself as a feminist, but many of her assumptions and actions are clearly based on an underlying feminist worldview.

Julia Gillard comes from the left wing of the parliamentary Labor Party, but she has the support of significant heavyweights from the right of that party. This mixed genesis can be seen in the very first action she took after coming to power. She wound up the negotiations with large mining companies that had ransomed the Rudd government over a mining tax. Somehow, her approach has woven a way between the big miners and a resource tax. The tax is not as high as the Rudd government had wanted, but nor is it as low as the opposition Liberal Party would support.

Julia Gillard is also overseas born. From a working class Welsh mining family, she is also a redhead, and all these outstanding features have drawn media comment. And she’s had the wit to parry them with her own brand of deadpan humor.

How do women come to power? Gillard is being accused of coming in by coup; the commentators, however, forget to mention that party leadership has methods for changing, and she has followed them scrupulously. But because she’s the first woman to do it, there are some who seem to regard her as an aggressive bitch; were she male it would just be seen as the usual changing of the guard.

I have enjoyed watching the changeover. It’s had thrilling moments. Like the one when Julia Gillard was sworn in as prime minister by our head of state, Quentin Bryce, who is a declared feminist; Bryce, governor-general of Australia and the first woman to hold that office, in turn is answerable to Queen Betty Windsor of England. Many mothers have sat their young daughters down to watch TV to see these historic events take place.

Of course, it’s been a long time coming. Women gained the vote federally in Australia in 1903, as well as the right to stand for parliament. This was preceded by 50 years of protest and activism on the part of nineteenth century suffragists and political rebels arising out of the miners’ riots at Eureka led by Peter Lalor. Gillard is the representative for the seat of Lalor in the State of Victoria, a seat in the working class Western suburbs of Melbourne.

So several lines intersect here around the rights of miners (I note however, that miners used to be workers, but these days those called miners are multinational corporations). Another issue she is going to have to deal with is that of the boat people, the refugees arriving from Afghanistan and Sri Lanka. Gillard’s family migrated to Australia because her health was in jeopardy as a small child growing up in damp and polluted Wales.

And then there’s climate change: the policy area that Kevin Rudd hung his entire political career on. The problem was that in influencing the “greatest moral imperative of our time” (as he said), he simply didn’t make the grade. The collapse of the Copenhagen talks were his downfall, so far as the media was concerned. But his lack of support inside his own party was the real weakness of his political style.

Interestingly, Julia Gillard found it difficult to get into politics. It wasn’t until after she helped to redraft the rules of the Labor Party that 35 percent of candidates should be women, that she was successful in being pre-selected by the party to stand for a winnable seat. Having been subsequently elected, her rise since then has been fast.

And policies? I think none of us knows yet really what she stands for. She’s articulate, she’s politically savvy and appears to know how to make political power plays. It seems to me that she stands for us. She stands for the kinds of things we have wanted. Her worldview seems a better fit than the previous ones I’ve encountered in Australian prime ministers. They used to be different from me, now we are similar. And I just want to call out, Go for it, Julia.

In the meantime, we have to wear a reality lens and not expect her to be able to fix all the horrible things in the world. One woman—even several—isn’t enough to change the entrenched masculine culture of contemporary politics. I look forward to the next election campaign, which I expect is just around the corner. If she’s successful in the next few weeks, then perhaps she can make history a second time and be the first woman elected prime minister of Australia.

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