Through the rose-coloured looking glass


Picture from “Anne Summers Reports – Vol 3”

Anne Summers, in her new online magazine Anne Summers Reports, is very proud to have conducted Julia Gillard’s last major interview and clearly still very angry over how appallingly our recently ousted Prime Minister was treated by ‘so many in this country’.

But before I come to the content of the interview, I will say that Gillard would undoubtedly approve of Summers’ complimentary depiction of her, especially with regard to the wonderful photographs included in the 13 page article.  Much better than surrounding her with knitting needles and a cavoodle, Australian Women’s Weekly.

Indeed, Summers’ article is most respectful of the deposed Prime Minister’s legacy and contains very little criticism.  So little, in fact, that I’m not sure it’s an entirely balanced account of Gillard’s Prime Ministership.

Summers begins The Prime Ministership according to Julia Gillard by discussing how Australia has grappled with having a woman lead us and that we’ve done a pretty bad job of accepting it.  Summers seems to imply that most of what went wrong for Gillard was related to her gender.  Yet even Gillard herself knows this is not true, saying ‘that it wasn’t everything (and it wasn’t nothing)’.

Summers suggests that Gillard had many fine qualities that should have stood her in good stead, but that the public just couldn’t see them.  For starters, there was her unwavering self-assurance; a quality, Summers notes, that Hawke, Keating and Howard also possessed.

But to include Gillard in the same company as these former PMs, who were loved by ‘protective, adoring mothers,’ is unjustified.  That Gillard was likewise loved by her parents is not an amazing revelation, I wouldn’t have thought.  And those three Prime Ministers had something that Gillard did not: the heart of the people.  Being loved by one’s parents is easy to achieve – a common phenomenon; being loved by the Australian populace is not.  And this was a significant failing of Gillard’s, not a strength.  There is no point having good policy if you are unelectable as a leader.

Similarly, Summers implies that if the voters knew how loved Gillard was by her colleagues, the admiration and loyal she commanded, they would love her too.  Not sure about that one.  Everyone knew that she was a better communicator and nicer to work for than Kevin Rudd, but this did nothing for her public popularity.

Summers alludes to other factors which led to Gillard’s demise but, to me, these are not gender related but just part and parcel of being Prime Minister.  For instance, Gillard bemoans the fact that, leading up to the 2010 election, ‘all the scrutiny was on us, and none of it was on the other side.’  A government being under scrutiny?  Who ever heard of such a thing?  There’s a well-known saying that governments lose elections, rather than oppositions winning them, so yes, the scrutiny is usually on them.

Similarly, it’s a bit generous of Summers to suggest that independents Oakeshott and Windsor aligned themselves with the Labor party because of their admiration for Gillard. It is more likely and widely accepted that these two were more interested in securing three years in parliament than supporting any leader in particular (and since they knew that Abbott would have called an election soon rather than waiting out the three years).

And should we pity Gillard because she felt she couldn’t take Reubey Cavoodey on the RAAF plane back to Adelaide?  I feel as though I’m being petty now, but perhaps if Gillard had concerned herself with legitimate causes of public wrath rather than such trivial ones, things may have worked out better for her.  Why, for instance, wasn’t she more worried about what the public would think of her hanging out with sleazy Sandilands on numerous occasions?

To Summers’ credit, she does identify some reasons for Gillard’s demise which are not linked to society’s response to her being a woman.  The two most obvious: Gillard was unable to connect with voters, due to her ‘enigmatic and somewhat remote countenance’ and what Summers labels Gillard’s natural composure and serenity but which, as she rightly points out, colleagues saw as infuriating (former colleague Simon Crean called it her ‘tin ear’ when it came to devising political strategy).  These are political shortcomings, not inherent in her gender, which certainly contributed to how she was perceived by the public and her party and how she was subsequently treated.

Summers really hammers home the fact that Gillard was a prolific policy maker, ‘responsible for legislating at the rate of 0.495 acts per day’.  But since when was a Prime Minister’s worth measured in such terms?  And doesn’t a country need more from its leader than bureaucratic competence?  Perhaps some of the other requirements are what Gillard lacked, such as the ability to inspire a nation with passion and purpose.

But ‘what makes Julia Gillard’s heart swell most,’ notes Summers, ‘is what she has done for working women.’  And it’s true that women who work are her focus.  She calls it her ‘tough love’ policy and all women under this policy, including single mothers, are expected to work.

While Gillard’s aim was to ensure that single mothers will ‘have a life’ of their own once their children are older (implying that paid work is the only measure of a successful life), those of us who watched the harrowing report on Four Corners recently, know that such women, living on $35 a day, are often only a bout of illness or an unexpected bill away from disaster.  In fact the opposite of what Gillard planned can happen, whereby ‘their world contracts and they can find themselves cut off from society.’[i]

In the end, though, Summers tells us that what ‘got to’ Gillard most was Tony Abbott’s hypocrisy, ‘as if he is some convert, or someone with a real understanding about what it’s like to face the world as a woman and to feel the weight of that’.  This is akin to saying that men cannot hold the position of PM because they cannot truly represent women’s best interests.  This extreme gendered attack became typical of Gillard’s modus operandi in her final months in the top job and it’s what caused some to view her as a PM for women and hence her male voter support dropped.

Summers acknowledges that the misogyny speech was a crucial mistake, as it gave Gillard’s enemies — ‘those who would prefer women to be either absent or silently compliant in public life’ — lethal ammunition.  I would contend that Gillard was not ‘punished’ for not being compliantly silent but rather for making unjustified accusations of a deeply personal nature.

And really, what did Gillard expect?  If you are going to get aggressive and start hurling around insults of that magnitude, you have to expect some backlash from your opponents.  That’s politics, man – or woman.  To suggest that Gillard’s enemies sought to get rid of her because of this speech and the gender war it ignited is delusional and fails to adequately account for Gillard’s myriad other flaws.

And yet Summers persists with her lecture on Gillard being vilified for the sin of being female.  One of her examples?  That Gillard was blasted ‘over a twenty-year-old matter to do with a union she once did some work for’.  What’s that got to do with being a woman?  If we are going to argue in this manner, Abbott has surely been scrutinised to a far worse extent for being a man, such as the more-than-twenty-year-old matter of punching a wall close to the face of Barbara Ramjan in his university days.  Similarly, Bill Clinton had to endure the Whitewater scandal (though in the Summers interview, Gillard talks of this as though it had been Hillary Clinton’s burden, somehow borne from being a female politician).

Last week the Victorian Women’s Trust took out full page advertisements in The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and the Herald Sun to put on record their thoughts on how Gillard was treated in Office.  Though their open letter Credit where credit is due makes mention of some of Gillard’s bad policies — ‘we remain baffled by several of the Gillard government’s policies – on immigration and asylum seekers, reducing economic support for single parents and the Prime Minister’s position on same–sex marriage’ — they bizarrely conclude that Gillard’s demise was due to anything but these issues; that it occurred primarily because of her gender and society’s reaction to it.  Go figure.

Surely we are allowed to talk about Gillard’s failings without being seen as criticising her gender?  Why then, hasn’t Summers mentioned the broken Carbon Tax promise or Gillard’s other obvious errors of judgement: the Malaysian solution, the handling of Peter Slipper, etcetera, etcetera.  Surely it would be more balanced to do so.  In protecting her status as the first female Prime Minister, do we really have to blame everything on the fact that ‘Australia wasn’t ready for a female PM’ or that from the minute she took office, men were trying to get ‘back in their perceived “rightful place” as political leaders of both the government and opposition.’[ii]

At the end of the day, Julia Gillard is right.  It will be easier for the next woman and the woman after that and the woman after that.  Just by making it to the top job in the country, Gillard has no doubt advanced the prospects of every woman in politics, now and in the future.  And though I don’t wish to speak ill of the politically-dead, neither do I wish to air-brush history — even for the worthy goal of feminism.

About Sonia Bowditch

Writer on society and culture in Australia. And short stories.

One Response to “Through the rose-coloured looking glass”

  1. I have come to the conclusion that Anne Summers is just another ‘tribalist’, seeking to defend the self-appointed “Queen of the Tribe” from any and all crtiticism, whatever its merits. I hope Summers gets back to issues of general substance rather than perpetual whingeing about one female public servant.

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