Long way to the Lodge

The Australian

13 August, 2007
By Rebecca Weisser

INDIA did it in 1966. Britain did it in 1979. New Zealand did it in 1997, but Australia never has. It is perhaps the biggest disconnect between our egalitarian self-image of a fair go for all and a more discriminatory reality.

One hundred and five years after Australia became the first country in the world to simultaneously give women the right to vote and the right to stand for elections, we have never had a female prime minister or even leader of the Opposition.

Former federal sex discrimination commissioner Pru Goward left no doubt where she thought the problem lay after she was elected to the NSW parliament in March and appointed shadow minister for women.

Goward said she had never worked in any profession as male-dominated or ruthlessly sexist as politics and that the NSW parliament was "extraordinarily chauvinistic, in a very primitive, physical way that I didn't expect people to still behave".

Goward was immediately attacked by Premier Morris Iemma as a political novice who didn't know what she was talking about and told her "to put her head down".

But evidence of sexism in politics is apparent elsewhere.

Julia Gillard, the Opposition spokeswoman for industrial relations, was subjected to overtly sexist attacks in May by Liberal senator Bill Heffernan, who said she was unfit to lead Australia because she was "deliberately barren". Heffernan's comments are indicative of a sexism that persists in the community and was more widespread in earlier decades. But it also underlines the ruthless adversarial nature of Australian politics in which any attack on an opponent is countenanced to gain political advantage.

John Howard's industrial relations hitman Joe Hockey claimed in May that Gillard got more media attention than he did because she was "prettier". Reports a week ago said the federal Government was planning another "get Gillard" campaign targeting her perceived weaknesses. Citing Coalition research, columnist Glenn Milne said concerned voters see her as "hugely ambitious", from the "hard Left" and a "spear carrier" for the unions who would "overcome" Kevin Rudd if he were prime minister.

While some of Gillard's alleged weaknesses are related to the traditional left-right divide in politics, others have a peculiarly sexist slant. It is highly unlikely Peter Costello, Malcolm Turnbull or Tony Abbott would be described as hugely ambitious simply because they have leadership aspirations or, if they were, that that would be seen as a negative.

Gillard's appearance on ABC TV's Australian Story in March last year, a profile in The Australian Women's Weekly in March discussing why she would not be marrying her partner, hair products salesman Tim Mathieson, even a photograph of her in her kitchen in front of an empty fruit bowl centred debate around her marital and maternal status.

While politicians both male and female are quitting politics to spend more time with their families - former Victorian premier Steve Bracks and star MP for Lindsay Jackie Kelly are among the most recent cases - not having a family is still seen as a barrier to being prime minister or even a minister. Last week Victorian Premier John Brumby passed over Tim Holding for the position of treasurer in part because of his lack of experience as a parent, father and husband. Yet former Labor leader Bob Carr, who has no children, holds the record for the longest continuous service as premier of NSW, from 1995-2005.

The attacks on Gillard in May seemed to backfire, with 52 per cent of respondents in an online opinion poll saying Heffernan should be sacked and 59 per cent agreeing with the statement "face it Joe (Hockey), she's smarter than you on IR issues and that's why she's polling better".

In a speech on August 3 Gillard said society still struggled with visualising women in positions of power and authority. "Helen Clark has been described as 'the ugly duckling of New Zealand politics', criticised because her hairstyle was too 'severe' and her teeth too crooked. Of course the flip side of that is almost as bad when a male opponent, like Joe Hockey, blames their lack of success in politics on 'not being pretty enough' rather than on the particularly ugly policy that they are trying to sell," Gillard said.

Julie Bishop, the Education Minister and minister assisting the Prime Minister for women's issues, says "there are subtle differences in the way the media treat women politicians: some are positive, others not".

According to Julia Baird, author of Media Tarts - How the Australian Press Frames Female Politicians, the media tends to typecast female politicians either as "Steel Sheilas", antipodean versions of Margaret Thatcher such as Bronwyn Bishop, "Superstar Housewives" such as Ros Kelly and Joan Child, or "Cover Girls" such as Natasha Stott Despoja, Cheryl Kernot and Pauline Hanson.

What is striking about Gillard and Bishop is how similar their images are. Despite Bishop criticising Gillard on the weekend for a Kernot moment, posing in designer clothes and jewellery, both women have avoided feather boas, ball-gowns and bikinis.

Gillard says it is often assumed that increasing the number of women in parliament will increase co-operation, but dismisses that view as sexist. "The difference that women make is not an outbreak of sugar and spice and all things nice. Women have different life experiences to men. They are confronted with different choices."

The debate on the abortion pill RU-486 is indicative of the difference it makes having women in parliament.

"If there had been no women in the Senate, the bill would have failed there," Gillard says. "In the house, only seven of 36 women voted against treating RU-486 like every other drug - none of them Labor, I might add - joined by 49 out of 110 of their male colleagues. That result shows that while women clearly do not all think the same way, we also clearly do not think the same way as men."

Maxine McKew, the federal Labor candidate for Bennelong running against the Prime Minister, does not believe Australia's political culture is holding women back.

"If women can come up through The Philippines, which is a much tougher society, or Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan, a much more abrasive society ... deeply patriarchal societies have produced female leaders."

True, but female Asian leaders have all been widows, wives or daughters of male martyrs from prominent political dynasties. Indira Gandhi became prime minister shortly after her father Jawaharlal Nehru, the country's first prime minister, died; Bhutto, the daughter of slain former president and prime minister Ali Bhutto, has been prime minister twice and may be a third time; Sheikh Hasina Wajed was the daughter of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the father of Bangladesh's independence; Khaleda Zia was the widow of that country's dictator Ziaur Rahman; Corazon Aquino was the widow of assassinated popular Philippine opposition senator Benigno Aquino Jr; and Megawati Sukarnoputri was the daughter of Indonesia's first president Sukarno.

In the US, Hillary Clinton is campaigning to follow her husband Bill into the White House, while Nancy Pelosi is the Democratic Speaker of the House. Yet it is New Zealand which leads the world when it comes to women in leadership.

Not only does New Zealand have a female prime minister in Clark, who entered her third successive term in 2005, but in 2000 every key constitutional position in the country was held by women, including Silvia Cartwright, the Governor General, leader of the Opposition (and former prime minister) Jenny Shipley, attorney-general Margaret Wilson (now the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Chief Justice Sian Elias and of course the head of state, Queen Elizabeth. Until last month, the chief executive of Telecom, the country's biggest listed company, was Therese Gattung.

Despite Australia's progressive stance on women's suffrage in the previous century, Australian political culture has been ambivalent about women's rights. Many in the Labor party opposed female suffrage fearing that women would vote conservatively, and many trade unionists also feared that working women would take away jobs from working men. Both sides of politics saw women's role in society as revolving around the domestic sphere.

It wasn't until 1943 when women were endorsed as candidates by the ALP and the United Australia Party (the forerunner of the Liberal Party) that Enid Lyons, widow of former prime minister Joseph Lyons, won a seat in the lower house and Dorothy Tangney who stood for the ALP was elected to the upper house.

Yet the representation of women in the Australian parliament continues to lag behind the percentage of women in the population, with 37 women in the House of Representatives out of 150 members and 23 female senators out of 76.

"When I was starting in journalism in 1974 there was a tiny number of women in federal parliament," says McKew. "Senator Kathy Martin (1974-84) was one of very few."

Between 1975 and 1980 there were no women in the House of Representatives, and the first minister assisting the prime minister for women's affairs was a man, Tony Street, appointed by prime minister Malcolm Fraser in 1976.

McKew is disappointed that 100 years after women gained the right to enter politics so few women are in parliament.

"We're still just getting to a third. It's not an impressive record, and it does lead to fundamental questions about the status of women in Australia and leads to some troubling conclusions: that we are still at some levels a pretty sexist society and that it has been particularly difficult for women."

Bishop believes that with increasing numbers of women in parliament, it is inevitable Australia will one day have a female prime minister. She also believes that the first female prime minister is more likely to come from the Liberal Party, which does not believe in quotas to get women into parliament. Of the 10 female cabinet ministers Australia has had, seven have come from the Liberal Party, including the three longest-serving: Amanda Vanstone, Margaret Guilfoyle and Jocelyn Newman.

McKew says the first female prime minister could come from either side of politics.

"But I think they will have the same strengths and weaknesses as any male, they'll be subject to the same challenges and their flaws and triumphs will be analysed in the same way. Life at the top is tough.

"Leadership at that level requires immense physical stamina, great mental discipline and, to be a great leader, imagination, and whether you're male or female they're the qualities that you have to bring together in one individual."

Gillard says having equal numbers of men and women in Australian parliaments is about merit and fairness.

"If you believe, as I do, that merit is equally distributed between the sexes, then you must also believe that our country can't afford to turn away half the talent and half the ability of the Australian community. And we cannot in conscience frustrate half the aspirations."

Gillard hopes that as more and more women enter politics and take on leadership roles the novelty will wear off.

"There will come a time when we will be judged purely on our achievements and our strength of character rather than whether we ascribe to what are seen as feminine traits, fit a particular model of attractiveness for public life or have fruit in a fruit bowl."

Rebecca Weisser is a Sydney-based freelance writer.


Media articles are posted for the purpose of criticism, comment, scholarship and research under "fair use" provisions and may not be distributed further without permission of the copyright owners, except for "fair use."