I find it so hard to discern any real difference between the two current contenders for the Prime Ministership that I sometimes fantasise that (after the Latham catastrophe) the faceless men of the ALP went off to a secret underground laboratory and created their ‘perfect candidate’ by putting in 98 per cent Essence of Howard, reducing his age by 20 years, adding a dash of Mandarin, and bingo they had Kevin Rudd.
Clearly, this was a clever strategy as, despite the increasingly desperate efforts of the original Howard to throw something (anything!) at his doppelganger that will stick, according to the inexorably unchanging opinion polls, nothing ever does.
Honestly, Rudd and Howard are so similar Rudd reminds me of one of those guys who starts to follow a slightly faster car on a freeway, overtaking when the car ahead does, and ducking in behind him again once both cars get back into the slow lane that if it wasn’t for compulsory voting, come 24 November, I would be sorely tempted to ignore the whole thing. But I can’t, so I have been desperately seeking some way to tell the difference between the pair and I think I may have found one.
While both Howard and Rudd are hiding very efficiently behind their media images mouthing only what their focus groups and spin doctors tell them to the women they chose to marry may actually reveal something about the sort of men they really are.
Mind you, I am no expert on the lives and times of either Janette Howard or Therese Rein. Despite having googled them both, I know little more than the average voter about the two contenders for First Lady. But that doesn’t matter because what interests me is the public message that Rudd and Howard’s choice of life partner is sending out to the electorate.
And it is fascinating that, while the two men shadow one another relentlessly, their wives could hardly be further apart. Janette Howard, despite 11 years as First Lady, remains an enigma she stands so firmly behind her man that it’s hard to see her at all. She was a teacher who became a stay-at-home mum; there have been a number of biographies (of her husband, not her) and media articles that have tried to persuade us she is a political animal; and it is clear that her husband is devoted to her but to the public, there is a Janette Howard shaped space at Kirribilli House.
Because the public abhors a vacuum, we have projected onto Janette all sorts of negative perceptions. Classically, she is seen as the ‘real power behind the throne,’ a manipulator, and the reason the Howards haven’t moved to The Lodge in Canberra. I have lost count of the number of people who have told me that Howard did not retire because Janette couldn’t bear to leave Kirribilli House.
The tragedy of the woman who chooses to lead the life of a traditional, self-effacing wife, is that she then attracts all the sexist, negative stereotypes about the unknown (and therefore frightening) woman ‘behind’ the Prime Minister. Whatever the truth about Janette, she is clearly a woman who does not see the public sphere as her space. The fact that she only named the cervical cancer she battled in 2006 7 years after the event reinforces her image as an intensely, almost neurotically, private woman. Even her support for the fight against breast cancer is typically low key.
Janette is doing what she was brought up to think is right, the trouble is, society simply doesn’t agree with her anymore.
Don’t get me wrong, Janette Howard, private citizen, has every right to remain true to herself but, given her husband’s post, she cannot escape the reality of the messages that her choices send to the electorate. To put it bluntly, Janette Howard makes her husband, despite his protestations, look like a creature from another era.
Therese Rein, on the other hand, while no more familiar than her Liberal counterpart, is easier for a modern electorate to understand she is the sort of woman we all now admire. A self-made millionaire, she is the founder, Managing Director and Chair of Ingeus, a multi-million dollar company that, according to The Age, has global revenues of ‘topping’ $170 million, Australian government contracts worth about $58 million a year and British government contracts worth $198 million.
If Rein’s husband wins the election, she will become the first prime ministerial wife to run her own business and most symbolic of all keep her maiden name. Even Cherie Blair (nee Booth) and Hilary Clinton (nee Rodham) were ‘forced’ to take their husband’s surnames when they became First Ladies. It is testament to the maturity of the Australian electorate that absolutely no fuss has been made about Ms Rein remaining Ms Rein.
Fortunately for Therese (although this may be the first time she’s ever heard this) like Janette, she does not look particularly formidable. Both women are comfortable, round and short. No matter how extreme each of their lifestyles may be (how many of us are either quite as traditional as Janette or even remotely as successful as Therese?) they both look like your average Aussie mum. And, though it shouldn’t, this matters.
However assiduously Rudd tries to paint himself as a true-blue conservative, fiscal or otherwise, his wife keeps the hopes of those who’d prefer him to be a little less mainstream alive. Therese Rein makes her husband look like more than just a modern bloke, she makes him look like a man who is particularly secure in his own skin. Clearly having a wife who is financially more successful than he is doesn’t worry him a jot.
If Leader of the ALP Kevin Rudd and Ms Therese Rein look like the ideal couple for a new century, then the Prime Minister and Mrs John W Howard look more and more like a hangover from the last one.
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