Thursday, 27 June 2013

Farewell, Julia

There's a kind of post-modern irony in the fact that some of the final images of Julia Gillard as Australian Prime Minister to flood the mass media depict her knitting a toy for the new royal baby.  Why is our feminist heroine doing something so stereotypically feminine?  The rest of the tale, though, has a more classical feel, like a Shakespearean tragedy with its cycle of hubris and retribution. 

Many of my feminist friends feel Gillard's treatment over the last few months is a sign of ongoing sexism and misogyny in politics and the media.  There is something in what they say.  "Ditch the witch", the fake menu and (if we reach back to the beginning) Bill Heffernan suggesting she wasn't qualified to lead the country because she didn't have children are all incredibly gendered pieces of abuse.  But when Rudd was deposed three years ago, did anyone say it happened because he is a man?

At risk of alienating some good friends I have to say I'm not entirely convinced of Gillard's feminist credentials.  It's a further piece of post-modern irony that one of the high points of her Prime Ministership, her famous misogyny speech, was prompted by the need to deflect attention from the sexual misconduct of former Speaker Peter Slipper, the man Gillard enticed from the Liberal Party with the promise of office in order to secure her majority. 

Even more ironic if you consider that at the time she made that speech her government was passing a law which reduced the incomes of a large number of sole parents (most of whom are women) by shifting them from parenting payment to Newstart.  If this is feminism at all, and not mere cynicism, it is a kind of conservative Women's Electoral Lobby feminism where already successful women work to push the glass ceiling higher.  Nothing wrong with that, but it's hard to get too excited about it when poor sole parents are made to struggle even harder to pay the rent and feed their kids.

So much for irony, now for tragedy.  Three years ago, Gillard was convinced to dethrone Rudd because the polls were clearly showing that Labor would lose the election with him as leader.  Three years later, the polls are showing they are unlikely to even be a credible opposition with Gillard as leader but are close to a winning position with Rudd.  So the wheel turned and Rudd once again found himself on top.

In the meantime, what has Gillard left us to remember her by?  In a sense, quite a lot.  It's interesting to hear Tony Windsor talk on the subject of our supposedly dysfunctional hung parliament.  Windsor notes that large volumes of legislation have passed this parliament in the last three years as a result of skillful negotiation managed by Gillard and her Ministers.  Amongst these are some extremely important reforms, including the Carbon Tax, the National Disability Insurance Scheme and the Gonski education reforms.  Sure, there have been some mis-steps - asylum seeker policy is a cruel shambles, they allowed the mining companies to con them on the mining tax, sole parents as mentioned already - but to paint this as a dysfunctional government is certainly overstretch.

So if the government is not dysfunctional and it's not simple sexism, what went wrong for Gillard?  The conventional wisdom is that the electorate is just not listening to her any more.  But why is that?  Is it because she sounds wooden every time she speaks?  Is it because her voice is being drowned out by those of her critics, both inside the Labor Party and on the opposition benches?  Is it because the media refuse to report her message any more so there is nothing for the electorate to listen to?  The sad thing is that all these alternatives suggest that it is not the government that's dysfunctional, and certainly not Gillard, but the electorate itself which refuses to take actual governance seriously and prefers to rate politics as if it were just another form of entertainment. 

I suspect the main thing to be learned from the polls that sparked both Rudd's demise and his resurrection is that polls are dumb. We have no way of knowing what would have happened back in 2010 with Rudd as leader, but I suspect that outcome in September will be a serious wipeout for Labor, followed by Rudd's final political demise. Much like Macbeth following the advice of the witches, the superficial evidence of veracity will mask a deeper tragedy. People prefer Rudd because he is absent. Once he is present they will be reminded why they spurned him three years ago.  Then they will vote for Tony Abbott and his Coalition cronies, and the tragedy will be complete.

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