Julia Gillard’s ‘gender wars’: sorting fact from fiction

Dr Nick Economou

Dr Nick Economou

By Dr Nick Economou

Liberal prime minister Malcolm Fraser had his war on Gough Whitlam by trying to roll back Medibank and the overuse of Section 96 grants. Labor’s Bob Hawke had a war on childhood poverty. Paul Keating had a waragainst Hawke, and John Howard had his “culture wars”. Not to be outdone, current Labor prime minister Julia Gillard is now conducting a “gender war”.

Gillard’s war is actually a fight with Tony Abbott, the opposition leader who, if the opinion polls are correct, is about to sweep in to government in an electoral landslide

Antipathy between these two individuals goes back a long way to before they even entered federal politics. Back when Gillard and Abbott were involved in university student politics, both were ideological warriors for their respective sides. Gillard fought on behalf of the Australian Union of Students along with a list of associates who would later become leading lights in Labor’s Socialist Left faction, while Abbott’s student activism reflected the ideals of B.A. Santamaria and the Democratic Labor Party.

Abortion was one of the more prominent emotive issues over which the student ideologues battled. Gillard, as a feminist and from the left of student politics, was and continues to be a strong believer in the right of women to be in charge of the reproductive capacity of their bodies. Abbott, as a social conservative wanting to project his staunch Catholicism, took a pro-life stand.

Of the two, Gillard has arguably been the most consistent on this matter. Abbott dabbled with the idea of trying to visit the abortion issue during his time as health minister in John Howard’s Coalition government by proposing to alter Medicare funding arrangements. However, he has since reconstructed his image as a much more pragmatic person as part of his bid to be prime minister.

This recasting of the Abbott image has clearly riled those on the left who remember the old socially conservative Catholic Abbott. Ever since his elevation to the Liberal leadership, Labor has waged a campaign to draw attention to his past. Central to this has been the constant refrain that Abbott has a “problem with women”.

Given the capacity of the abortion issue to cause real divisions within the ALP, this campaign against Abbott was one of innuendo. It was only last week that Gillard finally sought to clearly articulate exactly what the charge against Abbott is. The “problem with women” Labor has been trying to highlight is this association with the anti-abortion politics in Abbott’s past.

This tactic might have been clever (notwithstanding the danger raising the abortion poses to internal Labor cohesion) had the prime minister confined her comments to the debate about women to control their bodies. However, in her speech to the Women for Gillard meeting at which the latest round of the “gender war” was launched, Gillard sought to roll the abortion debate into a critique of the role of women in Australian politics. The message was straightforward enough: according to the prime minister, she is the embodiment of feminist aspirations to achieving equality in the political process.

Unfortunately, unlike her record on abortion, Gillard’s form on the matter of female advancement in the political process is not that consistent. Gillard’s claim to being the politician best placed to advance the cause of women in politics is based on a claim that, under her leadership, women have achieved new records in participating in government.

After the failed second leadership bid by Kevin Rudd precipitated another reshuffle, a record number of women were appointed to the Gillard ministry: four in Cabinet, six in the outer ministry and four parliamentary secretaries. The notion of feminist solidarity within the Labor caucus has indeed been strong. When Kevin Rudd forced a vote on the leadership in 2012 nearly every woman in caucus supported Gillard.

This has all been a major advancement on the status of women in government. In 1976, Dame Margaret Guilfoyle was the first woman to have a Cabinet portfolio when Liberal prime minister Malcolm Fraser appointed her Minister for Social Security.

Since that time both Labor and Liberal governments had a slowly increasing number of females in ministerial roles. The advancement continued apace under Gillard, but the purging of an old guard of men implicated in the failed Rudd coup in 2013 was an essential precursor to the increase in female representation to the ministry.

It is not Gillard’s record in appointing women to the ministry that is the issue, however. Rather, Gillard has a much less rigidly feminist approach when it comes to pre-selection politics. Despite being a member of Labor-affiliated group EMILY’s List – dominated primarily by the Socialist Left and dedicated to advancing the numbers of women pre-selected to winnable seats – Gillard is remembered for backing men against women in some pre-selection decisions in which she had some say.

She backed a male candidate in the pre-selection for the seat of Jagajaga back in 1996, although the eventual winner was Jenny Macklin. More recently Gillard backed senator and factional player David Feeney to replace Martin Ferguson in the safe Labor seat of Batman – a decision that terminated the parliamentary ambitions of female union official Ged Kearney at least for the time being.

All is not quite as it seems in the gender war, especially now that it has been opened up on such a wide front. Using the politics of abortion has its dangers not least for its ability to divide the Labor Party itself. With her government facing imminent defeat, Gillard may now no longer be concerned about internal party unity.

Her primary strategy now is to attack Abbott, and this is an issue that he can be attacked on because of his own ground-shifting on abortion. This is an issue that Gillard has been consistent about over the journey.

Gillard’s claim to be the embodiment of the representational aspirations of Australian women has less credibility, however, as those who remember Jagajaga and care to look at the politics of the Batman pre-selection would attest to.

The way the “gender war” is being conducted sums up the Gillard government’s problem with politics generally. It has the propensity to overwhelm important issues with hyperbole and claims that make the prime minister all too easy a target for critics looking for inconsistency between stated intentions and actual outcomes. And often the negative response to a poorly executed political strategy obscures the real achievements of her government. 

Dr Nick Economou is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Political and Social Inquiry at Monash University.

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