Gladiator meets Romper Stomper


As cultural icons go, John Howard and Mark Latham do not compute. Neither leader can claim to embody the Australian male as we know him today. This does not have to be a bad thing, but it is unusual. Our previous two prime ministers were leaders in step with the masculine images of their times. Bob Hawke was an 80s bloke, a Mick Dundee in a pinstripe suit. Paul Keating was an early model metrosexual, an Ian Thorpe without the tact.

Howard and Latham, by contrast, are just dags with egos. Both would love to be seen as Steve Waugh, but they’d be dreaming.

The Prime Minister comes across as an earnest older uncle as he power-walks each morning in matching trackie dacks and top. A comforting figure for many Australians, certainly. But he is not The Man to connect with the men and women of new Australia. The issue isn’t age, but style and empathy. He lacks both elements, which is why no one ever asks the question: Does the PM have sex appeal?

At twenty-two years Howard’s junior, the Opposition Leader should be closer to the likes of Thorpe and Waugh, who cover the spectrum between the buffed and the basic SNAG. But Latham lacks the clarity of image that society expects of its male icons. What you see with Latham is not necessarily all there is. There’s the hint of a volcanic temper beneath his polished exterior. This appeals to some but disturbs others. He’s the Russell Crowe of Australian politics.

Our leaders look like men from another era because they face a nation being reshaped by women. Three majorities help explain the transformation, and, in turn, why politicians such as Howard and Latham are at risk of being caught behind the times. Women took the majority of bachelor degrees awarded between the 1991 and 2001 census, they hold the majority of professional jobs, and the majority of couples in Australia do not have dependent children. Women are better qualified – though not better paid – than men in many fields, from law to nursing. They are having babies later and returning to their careers sooner than their mothers’ generation ever dreamed.

When Hawke reigned in the 80s, the majority of mothers did not go back to work until their youngest child was aged six to 13 years. Hawke was better able to represent the blokes of that era because he was running a blue-collar nation.

Under Howard, the threshold between kitchen and career has moved to when the youngest child is one to two years old. This is a pink-collar economy, where women can be counted as members of the mainstream workforce. Yet the politicians who serve this more complex Australia were schooled in the last bastion of blokedom – parliament. This spells disconnection. Not just between politicians and the public, but between the men who run the main parties and the men and women who live and a work in a more feminine and cosmopolitan nation.

The working woman has more power than she may realise because she has become the swinging voter of our culture. Her greatest triumph, so far, is to help redefine the male hero. Waugh, and especially Thorpe, would not have made sense twenty years ago when Paul Hogan was the celebrity benchmark for manhood. Today, we don’t tolerate sportsmen who play up off the field. Recall the ‘gang bang’ scandal in Rugby League earlier this year, or the saturation coverage of Wayne Carey’s infidelity in 2002. And Waugh and Thorpe click, in part, because they win without gloating and devote time to charity.

Politics, like team sports, is struggling to adjust to the new woman. In May, voters were given their first bonking budget. It contained the largest transfer of taxpayer funds from childless singles and couples to mothers in electioneering history – $19.2 billion in extra family payments versus $14.7 billion in personal tax cuts. Tipping a bucket of money at the electorate is the instinct of old male politics. It plays to the idea of the bulging wallet in a bloke’s pocket. Women, who pay the bills in most households, think a little differently. Give them a choice between increased government spending on health and education and lower taxes, they tell the pollsters they prefer the former.

As it happens, the party polling of voter reaction to the Budget suggests the bribes did not increase support for the Government. The public still wants more money devoted to social services, which – surely? – are more feminine concerns.

But if tax cuts don’t appeal, what about mateship? Howard and Latham share an affinity for the latter term, and repeatedly nominate it as the essence of who we are. Both say it is a concept that includes women. It smells of assimilation – a one-sided appeal for women to re-embrace old male values. In the real world of lived compromise, men and women under forty are already making the adjustments to the way they view the world – but in both directions.

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.