This week Julia Gillard asked women voters to consider the prospect of an Abbott government. Labor, she insisted, is the party of women. Abortion could become the “plaything” of men. The window for outrage about the PM playing the gender card wasn’t open for long, thanks to Mal Brough. Just what was on the menu at that fundraiser isn’t clear — but the debates around sexism, feminism and the PM are still brewing. Eva Cox wrote in Crikey that the PM should leave gender out of her campaigning and Christine Jackman drew into question the PM’s record on women’s issues, especially given the reduction to sole parenting benefits.
So what are women voters to make of the Women for Gillard campaign? NM asked Greens councillor Melissa Brooks, Wikileaks National Council member Kellie Tranter and academic and educationalist Melinda McPherson for their take on Gillard’s appeal for the feminist vote.
In another week where feminism in this country has been reduced to how precisely we should react to offensive jokes and the colour of men’s ties, what claim does Gillard have to the support of feminists in this election?
I don’t think the feminist movement should be co-opted to agitate for the return of a Prime Minister who has not just stood idly by as single parents and their children are driven into poverty, but pursued a policy agenda that directly contributes to this.
I will not be holding my nose and begging people to vote Labor, because Abbott would be worse, as the number of Indigenous children taken from their families soars again. A flurry of outrage is directed at Brough for a stupid, offensive joke menu while there is silence as his and Howard’s NT Intervention, not just continued but expanded by Labor, devastates Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory.
As one of a generation of young women who were introduced to politics under a Howard government, I always hoped that a Labor government would be better than this – but on the issues that matter most deeply to my sense of justice – the alleviation of poverty, the rights of Indigenous people, offering safe haven to refugees – this government has appalled me. My feminist politics aren’t about simply my own position as a woman but the experience of women as a class, and Labor has failed so many women as it tries to make feminism about the number of women on its front bench, and not about liberating all women from poverty and from violence.
And this is what I find really frustrating about "Women for Gillard" – which is when it comes down to it simply a fundraising outfit for the ALP – is that it is focused on a select few women in the political class. Gillard claims that women will be banished from the political life of the nation under an Abbott Government – as if Tony Abbott, or any Prime Minister, has the power to banish us.
The political life of this country doesn’t just happen in the chambers of parliament. Women participate in the political life of this country every day, in their unions and workplaces, in community groups and collectives, in schools and campuses and online. Feminist women will resist the cuts and regressive measures of an increasingly likely Abbott government, as they have resisted Gillard’s cuts, not just by voicing by their opposition but by offering their time and their energy to building communities that try and insulate people from the worst impacts of the neoliberal agenda that has captured major party politics in this country.
Of course this election is important – and women have every reason to fear an Abbott government, the deals it will strike with right wing reactionaries in the Senate to implement its agenda – but voting Labor is no answer to feminists concerns about the lives of women here and around the world.
Melissa Brooks is a Greens councillor for Marrickville.
“Women for Gillard” is a plagiarised, unimaginative attempt by campaign strategists to try and shore up votes from women, who in recent times have formed the majority of Labor voters. Women are emotionally intelligent. They recognise stage managed political manipulation in the same way that they sense, in my view accurately, what Tony Abbott’s policies and actions would be if he wasn’t constrained by the need for popular appeal.
What’s interesting is that polls suggest that women are drawn to neither Julia Gillard nor Tony Abbott. Why? Because they both lack vision, the ability to unite people and the compassion and courage required to change the existing power, economic and social structures which have resulted in women being the cheap (and often free) labour force upon which the Australian economy depends.
Whether or not Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott are feminists privately, publicly they fall short. The feminist flag should fly at half-mast in Canberra. Consider the devastating impact on women and children of their continued unwavering bipartisan support of US foreign policy. Consider their detention of women and children who come to our country to flee persecution. Consider the health gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous women. Does this constitute feminism? Whether it’s Women for Gillard or Tony Abbott the family man, each is hypocritical in using women as their moral cover to win elections.
The notion that women’s voices will be banished from the core of political life if Labor were to lose in September is to assume that most women currently feel as though they can contribute in an important and meaningful way to the political decisions that affect their lives. They can’t and don’t. Women don’t need to be a member of either Labor or Liberal to find their political voice: the WikiLeaks Party National Council consists of an equal number of men and women. The women I work with are intelligent, passionate and informed. They understand and appreciate that the exploitation of women (and men) in all its vulgar forms will continue irrespective of the colour of government if we don’t insist on truth, transparency and justice.
Kellie Tranter is a lawyer and human rights activist. She is a member of the WikiLeaks Party National Council.
The question of whether feminist women should support Women for Julia Gillard depends on one’s definition of feminism. While the church of feminism can be broad, to be feminist is to acknowledge the existence of gendered social discourse and its negative effects on women – especially and including women who are subject to multiple marginalising discourses related to their age, ethnicity, class, and ability. From my feminist perspective, the question of how any leader, male or female, contributes to combating the effects of patriarchy on women is therefore important. I do not think it is ‘feminist’ to agree with the policies of any woman just because she is in power. I disagree with practically everything that emerges from the mouth of Sophie Mirabella. However, I believe a second and distinct imperative exists for feminists regarding the sexist treatment of women politicians on all sides of politics, including the opportunities available to them. It is in this framework – of considering Gillard’s feminist actions separate from the question of the sexist treatment of Gillard – that I assess the question of whether ‘feminists’ should support her.
Regarding the question of her treatment as a woman, I think Gillard has been subject to extraordinary levels of sexism. As Jacqueline Maley commented yesterday in The Age, "Anyone who doesn't believe that many of the attacks Gillard has sustained are sexist is in pure denial".
The recent menu from the Mal Brough dinner referring to Gillard’s body parts was sick and perverse. I disagree strongly with those who play it down. Symbols matter. Words matter. Much of the commentary from Gillard detractors has attempted to invoke old fashioned methods of reducing her to biology as a way of undermining her integrity and power – playing ‘the man’, so to speak, and not ‘the ball’. Women (and good men) need to speak out about these despicable acts. I thought Gillard’s tirade against Abbott in the parliament was overdue and spot on. Despite early commentary that criticised Gillard’s personability in front of the camera, there are many things I admire about her – including the way in which she conducts herself with colleagues and in a parliament that is savage, especially to women. As a feminist, I am therefore very committed to condemning the appallingly sexist treatment of the Prime Minister. And whether we are speaking of Margaret Thatcher, Jenny Shipley, or Julia Gillard, I think it is fabulous that young girls now have exemplars of female leadership in the top job.
Regarding Gillard’s feminist credentials – her actions to support women and other marginalised groups — there are many ways in which I am profoundly disappointed in her leadership. I think Gonski and the Disability Insurance Scheme have been important and significant policy steps. And it is my personal view that the calculated risks taken by Labor during the GFC paid off – something for which it deserves credit. Anne Summers has also pointed to a raft of policy decisions, including gender pay equity and paid parental leave, as being illustrative of Gillard’s feminist credentials. However this must be balanced against other policy decisions, such as fundamentally and disproportionately increasing the marginality of poor single parents, predominantly women, by forcing them on to NewStart. And having endured Howard’s Pacific Solution, I consider the Government’s increasingly retrograde policy on asylum seekers to be ethically corrupt. Even Liberal members such as Petro Georgious considered the detention of children as barbaric. Excising Australia’s migration zone and banning media reportage of camp conditions is Orwellian. Allowing the most marginalised men, women, and children to die at sea for political point scoring is contemptible.
To my mind, the question for feminists is whether Gillard’s compromises have been worth it for women. At the core of this question is what might have been sacrificed in her will to power. It is my view that the debt required of Gillard was too great. Maley and Summers have both characterised Gillard’s pre-selection support for Feeney over a woman candidate as being a feminist disappointment. Christine Jackman wrote a stinging critique of Gillard’s race to the bottom through recent association with Kyle Sandilands, a man whose track record on women’s issues is poor. Personally, given her lengthy participation in the left faction of Labor, I cannot come to terms with Gillard’s policy treatment of same sex marriage, refugees, the single parents’ benefit, or her decision not to support a worthy woman candidate in pre-selection. And for many of the reasons outlined by Eva Cox in Crikey I think it is inopportune, risky, and unnecessary to have raised the issue of abortion right now.
But I would hasten to add that balancing the feminist equation in relation to Gillard’s leadership is not straightforward. Some feminists might consider the "greater good" is being achieved and was worth the cost. In such a framework, Gillard’s refusal to endorse a qualified female candidate for pre-selection is just one more bitter pill to swallow. I can see the outcomes Gillard has achieved – however to my mind the sacrifice has been too great. The party machine is broken and in a sense, all – including Gillard – are victims of its machinations. In a two-horse race, I would rather my vote go to Gillard than to Abbott, for all of the reasons that are so eloquently layed out by Susan Mitchell in her book. But I will not be voting for Gillard.
Dr Melinda McPherson is a social justice researcher and activist with an interest in gender, diversity, refugee issues, and education.
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