Is This How You Smash A Glass Ceiling?


It didn’t take long. This time last week, it was only bored political writers for The Australian and dinner party guests who were talking seriously about a change of ALP leadership.

But things started to change yesterday. Bernard Keane reported in Crikey that Rudd’s adviser Alistair Jordan had been doing the numbers and sounding out the support of federal MPs for Kevin 07. The results he gathered can’t have been too good because this morning, Kevin Rudd stood aside to make way for his deputy, Julia Gillard.

And now, Julia Gillard is Prime Minister Designate — until she’s sworn in by Governor-General Quentin Bryce. A female PM will be sworn in by a female G-G. It’s a powerful image — but does it constitute the great victory for Australian women that is currently being celebrated? "The King is Dead, Long Live the Queen!

Julia Gillard has been one of federal Labor’s top performers in Parliament and she has juggled difficult portfolios with considerable aplomb. She’s been a hard-working and charismatic member of Rudd’s so-called "Gang of Four" and enjoys considerable personal popularity. There’s no doubt that she’s qualified to take on the top job.

And Gillard has faced the additional obstacles that are raised before female politicians. Her personal life has been scrutinised closely as her public profile has been raised and much hay has been made over her childlessness, her romantic life, her domestic habits, and her hair. And at every stage, much has been made of the fact that she’s a woman.

Since the spill started spilling, Gillard’s gender has been at the centre of discussion. Indeed, if all the talk about glass ceilings being smashed in Canberra is true, there are some very serious health and safety concerns around Parliament House.

Caroline Overington writes of Gillard’s ascension in The Australian in ardent tones: "It’s precisely what our mothers — and Germaine! — hoped would one day happen, as they argued, throughout the 1960s and 1970s, for fundamental changes to the fabric of the nation. It shouldn’t matter who you are, or where you come from. If you’re capable, there ought to be no barriers."

The Sydney Morning Herald ran a cutesy photo gallery of "The Many Faces of Julia Gillard" alongside an article titled "Gillard’s fruit bowl runneth over" which claimed, "having a woman running the country will continue to challenge our collective notions of what it means to be Australian, to be a leader, to be a woman."

Let’s all take a deep breath and consider what kind of a victory this is for Australian women.

Gillard rose to prominence as a member of the Victorian Left. Her alliance with Rudd appeased the Left and unified the ALP in advance of the 2007 election victory. Her history with the union movement is occasionally trotted out by the Libs in efforts to discredit her by association with some archaic image of the loony left.

It’s a cohort of men from the Right who orchestrated this coup: David Feeney, Don Farrell, and MP Bill Shorten. NSW Right headkicker Mark Arbib joined in once the wheels had started turning. It was a much smoother operation than the ousting of Malcolm Turnbull last year — and one from which the challenger was remarkably absent.

Indeed, Gillard has repeatedly denied that she was considering a leadership challenge. There’s no sign that Gillard initiated this coup and every sign that she had to be talked into it.

The most high-profile woman in Australian politics — and the most high-profile left winger — has been promoted thanks to a bunch of right wing men.

Pressure from the mining industry on the RSPT, the failure of the ETS, and the unpopularity of Rudd’s asylum seeker policies have all been cited as reasons for the ALP’s drop in the polls — and the reason for this coup. But are we seriously to believe that Gillard will be implementing her own agenda with the hard men of the Right behind her? Was Gillard elected on her own terms?

As Shakira Hussein wrote on The Stump this morning, Gillard’s promotion is "a moment to remember that the hardest battle for feminism has never been the struggle for a few women to make their way right to the top. As important as it is to have women at the top, the hard grind is about improving the lives of the most vulnerable women."  The track record of Gillard’s supporters doesn’t suggest that the interests of the most vulnerable women in Australia are at the centre of their agenda.

This is what Rudd said to the press last night: "I was elected by the people of Australia as the Prime Minister of Australia," he said. "I was elected to do a job and I intend doing that job." It’s an important point. Australian voters didn’t elect the leaders of the ALP’s factions — and they haven’t yet elected Julia Gillard as PM. If they do so, arguments about the readiness of Australians to accept a female leader won’t ring so hollow.

Gillard, of course, isn’t the first female politician who’s been drafted mid-term to clean up the mess made by her colleagues. Kristina Keneally, who certainly lacks Gillard’s experience, was appointed NSW Premier by the Right of her party mid-term in a desperate effort to hold onto power. The political careers of Joan Kirner and Carmen Lawrence show that this tendency of Labor factions to turn to women when the going gets really tough is not a new one. In fact, Anna Bligh was the first female state premier to win an election in her own right.

Now that Gillard has been appointed, talk about her gender hasn’t stopped — but there has been far less attention on the policies she will take to a federal election as leader. Antony Green predicted the Libs would have to go soft on Gillard in an election campaign because she’s a woman and the voters won’t cope with her being treated savagely — even after her sterling public performances. Let’s hope that’s not the case.

Instead of asking tough questions about where Gillard stands on controversial and divisive policy issues, discussions are thriving about how to refer to Gillard’s de facto partner Tim Mathieson. We need less of the first bloke talk, and much more about how Gillard will deal with Rudd’s policy legacy. Kevin Rudd sniffled his way through his very moving farewell speech and reminded listeners of the runs the party has scored under his leadership. Rudd’s apology to the Stolen Generations and his signing of the Kyoto Protocol were touted as the most promising achievements of his prime ministership — but they were followed by a set of policy disappointments.

Once the fuss dies down, some of these questions will be answered and a bigger one will emerge: are Australians really ready to elect a female prime minister?

There’s no doubt that Gillard’s promotion is an important symbolic victory for Australian women. But is this the exemplary trajectory for female success? To act as deputy until those whom you have vehemently opposed act to support you?

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