Like many Australians on the political left, I’ve been looking for the legendary ‘light on the hill’ for some time. And reader, I’ve been disappointed. The Labor Party’s ‘light on the hill’ (think community-centred politics like some mythic Excalibur rising from Lake Burley-Griffin) has dimmed year-on-year since quick-witted culture vulture Paul Keating was deposed by John Howard (Keating’s ‘dessicated coconut araldited to the seat’ always comes to mind when considering Howard’s dry conservatism and seemingly endless reign). Attending Anne Summers in Conversation with Julia Gillard reminded me of an older kind of Labor brand, of feminists from another more politically active time and the best part of the Australian union movement. Today’s blog considers Julia Gillard’s discussion with Summers and the crowd, and looks back at a fraught political term that showed us misogyny is alive and well in our increasingly conservative and inward-looking community.
When Julia Gillard was elevated to the role of PM, I was excited. I was worried too – could the deposition of a sitting PM really be the best way to achieve power? – but above all my feeling was one of hopefulness and positive change. Our first woman PM, and what an excellent one at that. Having heard Gillard speak at Amnesty International meetings back in my university days, I remembered her as an excellent, humorous orator with a strong bent for community-centric politics and human rights. I remember my Mother being more circumspect about Gillard’s move to become PM – and some of our family friends who are old skool Labor voters weren’t exactly happy with the shift, but conceded that the move to Gillard was necessary because Rudd had become so completely disconnected from the party process. How different the initial Australian Women’s Weekly article commending Gillard’s skill and strength as newly-minted PM was from the last mocking take on her Prime Ministership prior to Rudd taking back the reigns (permanently curing me of my desire to buy the publication again).
As time went on, the pitch and tenor of media response to PM Gillard quickly changed. She seemed to be a less effective communicator – or were we told that she was unable to communicate? Was this because the community expected Gillard to behave in a certain way – to be warm, effusive? Perhaps the notion of a warm, effusive and decidedly feminine PM is anathema to our understanding or power. At the Gillard/Summers Conversation, I was reminded again of how feminine, humorous and delicate Gillard is in person. She has a light laugh, a fast wit and a pragmatic approach to political life. None of this delicacy transferred with her to the role of PM – which tells us something about our societal expectations of leadership i.e. in order to be taken seriously, one must behave like a LEADER, so one must behave like a MAN. Whether this is a miscalculation of Gillard or a reflection on our own comfortable Australian sexism, I’m not sure.
Melbourne Town Hall was heaving with supporters of Julia Gillard, who walked in to the tunes of Katy Perry’s ‘Roar’. I found the song choice somewhat bemusing, given Perry’s stance on feminism.
Deals had been done with right-wing unions and conservative supporters of right-wing elements of the Labor Party to retain power. The compassionate stance we expected on the issue of asylum seekers had disappeared from the Gillard government, funds being taken from single mothers were hidden sneakily in a busy news cycle, gay marriage wasn’t even on the agenda. The government were obsessed with playing the Liberal’s game instead of taking a leadership role and dragging the nation out of its complacency. Making the budget balance seemed to matter SO MUCH, despite the nation getting through the GFC with relatively healthy aplomb. Playing to racism and paranoia seemed the order of the day, rather than calling out growing parochialism. PM Julia Gillard’s values and voice seemed to disappear before my eyes – excepting her wonderful speech on misogyny.
Julia Gillard enjoyed a heroe’s welcome and mostly complimentary questions from the audience. A feeling of a missed opportunity for change in Australia was left with me.
Hearing young women speak about misogyny and identifying feminism as a relevant issue is a legacy of Gillard’s political story.
When asked about her stance on gay marriage, Gillard’s response was very personal. In a nutshell, Gillard feels like she ‘got on the tram at a different stop’ – believing that marriage is an outmoded institution. It’s little wonder this earnest expression of disappointment in the notion of marriage wasn’t voiced during her prime ministership. Although this may be Gillard’s personal point of view, it’s unlikely this was the motivation behind her reticence to make gay marriage a priority during her time in power. It strikes me that the community is leagues ahead of politicians when it comes to this issue.
I feel that history will look back on Gillard in more glowing terms than we can imagine from the political wasteland we now inhabit in Australia. I don’t need to agree with all of Gillard’s views to acknowledge that she is an important figure in our political history, that she put women’s rights and identifying misogyny back on the table and that she is an erudite and dignified leader I am proud to have witnessed in my lifetime.
For more impressions (from myself and from the punters attending) click here for a Wheeler Centre round-up of Anne Summers in Conversation with Julia Gillard.