The Howard years were very far from relaxed and comfortable for many Australians, myself included. Given that I'm both a Muslim single parent and a member of the network stereotyped by right-wing columnists as left-wing, feminist, multiculturalist, latte-sipping, inner-city elitists (albeit without the physical trappings of elitism), I guess that's not surprising.
And yet, while the Gillard prime ministership was less grim in empirical terms than the Howard era had been, at an emotional level I found it more depressing, more isolating.
By coincidence, I was economically far better off during the tenure of our first female prime minister. As a single mother in poor physical health (multiple sclerosis), I had come through the economic boom years with no investment property, no first home (not even a heavily mortgaged one), no substantial assets or savings in any form. I commenced my first ever full-time graduate-level job just as Gillard came into office, but as often happens after a protracted underdog period, my loyalties remained with those who remained where I had been and where I suspected I would eventually return.
Disillusionment tastes sour, especially for those who consider themselves realists, whose hopes were never particularly high. I had never aspired to a feminist, socially inclusive utopia, or to any kind of utopia at all. As a pretentious undergraduate, I had a quote from Milan Kundera's The Book of Laughter and Forgetting scrawled across my ring-binder:
“People have always aspired to an idyll, a garden where nightingales sing, a realm of harmony where the world does not rise up as a stranger against man, nor man against other men, where the world and all its people are moulded from a single stock … where every man is a note in a magnificent Bach fugue and any man who refuses his note is a mere black dot, useless and meaningless, easily caught and squashed between the fingers like an insect.”
No idyllic aspirations for me, I vowed. I would do my best to resist injustice in its various forms – racism, misogyny, inequality – without any particular expectation of an idyllic outcome. How galling, then, to discover that I'd held ideals all along – however limited, however humble, however tempered by pessimism.
Let me catalogue, then, the ideals that were shattered during the Gillard years – the ideals that I had somehow maintained intact throughout the Howard years and the brief tenure of the first Rudd. All these ideals stem from the same basic source: the trust that I had – that “we” had – in the loose social and political alliance that formed to oppose the result of the 1996 election that brought Howard to the Lodge, and Pauline Hanson to parliament. This was never a cohesive, united alliance (nor would I wish it to be) – but during the Gillard era, it shattered into its multitudinous components.
One of the causes of this fracture was the reconfiguration of the asylum-seeker debate into a health-and-safety issue rather than a racially based moral panic. This was of course partly due to circumstances beyond Gillard's control. Like anyone else who campaigned on the issue, I struggled to assess my own culpability for the deaths of who knows how many men, women and children on their hazardous voyage to the country that they hoped would provide them with shelter and safety. I respect the motives even as I may disagree with the conclusions of those refugee advocates who now believe that the compassionate intention of the repeal of mandatory detention provided an incentive that was costing too many people their lives.
But this “rescue” motive provided a thin veneer of respectability to the same old dog-whistling about queue-jumping aliens who were not worthy of enjoying the privileges offered by Australia. Such concerns were “not racist”, Gillard assured us, as she called for “honest discussions”. I'm-not-racist, but. Always a sure sign of racism.
I remain a member of the single mother tribe, even after having moved through the most difficult stage of that particular battle. So while like so many other women around the world, I cheered at the spectacle of Tony Abbot's expression as he was forced to listen to Julia Gillard refuse to submit to the rants of nut-jobs and misogynists. I found myself unable to join the afterglow, knowing that her government had introduced measures to shift those single parents “grandfathered” after the introduction of the Howard-era “welfare to work” measures from parenting payment onto Newstart.
It was not only the cuts to an already meagre income that outraged me. It was the disciplinary language surrounding it – the finger-wagging assurances that it was all-for-their-own-good – as though single mothers are not acutely aware of the welfare of their own children, as though they do not battle for that outcome even under the most adverse circumstances, as though they lack the judgement to determine the best means to that outcome. As one feminist role-model after another applauded Gillard's speech, I felt like Cinderella excluded from the ball – no, worse than that. I felt like every wicked witch from every fairytale, ever, casting a dark shadow over the innocent dreams of the lead characters.
Gillard even managed to annoy me during the passage of the National Disability Insurance Scheme – a scheme from which I potentially stand to benefit more than most other Australians, even though of course I hope never to need it. While I recognise its importance, I find it difficult to take the risk of investing too much hope in its promise. The naming of the scheme as “DisabilityCare” looks like a bad omen, the word “care” of course an echo of “Medicare”, but also redolent of charity, of patronising and intrusive helping-hands, of dependence rather than the proclaimed target of independence.
Opposition disability spokesperson Mitch Fifield said that the name was “close to being hated” by people with disabilities, and I hated the fact that I was agreeing with a Liberal Senator. I even managed to be angry with Gillard's tears as the legislation was passed – not because I thought that they were fake but because they seemed sentimental. I battle with the spectre of disability every day. I cannot afford sentimental tears myself, and I do not want Gillard or anyone else to shed them on my behalf.
We still face the prospect of an Abbott government. Should the worst come to the worst, I am planning to console myself by holding a reunion party, for all the comrades-in-arms from the Howard era. We'll reminisce about old battles, as old veterans like to do. We'll make contingency plans for the battles ahead. We'll join forces and gird our loins for the struggle.
I just hope that they're all still talking to me.