Last week in Australia, Julia Gillard became the first female Prime Minister in the country’s history. Three or four months out from an election, Gillard went to (now former) Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and suggested he “spill the leadership.”
Rudd’s fall from grace was, as the ABC reports, precipitous. After sweeping to power in 2007, Rudd was enormously popular for his first two years; however, this year he quickly slid into disfavour—most notably, his proposed heavy taxation of the influential mining industry saw him widely pilloried in the press. With his ousting fairly well assured amongst his Labor party, Rudd took the graceful way out and handed over the leadership and thus the Prime Ministership to his deputy.
Gillard now faces the daunting task of gearing up immediately for the election, an election which perhaps more than usual features a stark contrast between the two party leaders. One the one side, we have Gillard. She has a background working as a lawyer for unions and lives unmarried in Melbourne with her partner, real estate agent Tim Mathieson. The Prime Minister has been criticised for her personal life and decision not to have children, having been described by Liberal senator Bill Heffernon as “deliberately barren” in 2007.
Gillard is a pro-choice non-practising Baptist, and has recently spoken about her concern for the commodification of female sexuality in “raunch culture” and the need to increase female representation in Australian parliament from the current 27 percent to “true equality.”
Indeed, Gillard made the highly symbolic choice to not swear her oath to serve on the Bible when she formally took the Prime Ministership—a clear sign that religiously motivated politics will not be high on the agenda she takes to the Australian electorate. One question mark over Gillard’s head is her support of GLBT rights, having said in 2009 that “the government’s position is very clear that marriage is marriage between a man and a woman.”
National Convener of Australian Marriage Equality Alex Greenwich is “hopeful Julia Gillard has an open mind on marriage equality. Unlike Kevin Rudd, she is not known for putting conservative religious prejudices ahead of legal equality and fundamental human rights.” Nevertheless, it is difficult to guess if Gillard is likely to remove 2004’s ban on gay marriage in Australia.
Gillard has a razor sharp tongue–a fact that has made her respected and admired in some quarters and considered shrill and vicious in others. Further, her position as Deputy Prime Minister leaves her in ambivalent position with regards to her record—too valuable to discard entirely (after all, Australia is one of the few nations to avoid recession since the global financial crisis struck in 2008), but decidedly dicey with Rudd’s fall in popularity. Gillard has a fairly short amount of time to carve herself out a distinctive niche as a leader.
In contrast, we have the known political quantity that is Liberal Opposition leader Tony Abbott, a former Minister under the Howard government between 1998 and 2007. Like most of his party, Abbott has little love for the unions Gillard began her political career in. Abbott places his ultra-conservative Catholic politics front and centre, unapologetically meeting with such extreme sects as the Exclusive Brethren.
Unlike his predecessor Malcolm Turnbull, Abbott has steadfastly opposed GLBT rights throughout his career, admitting to Liz Hayes on Channel Nine’s Sixty Minutes in May that he “felt a bit threatened” by homosexuality. The following night on ABC’s Dateline, he made the matter even worse in his clarification:
Leigh Sales (Dateline interviewer): But, I just – I didn’t understand when I was watching the program what the word “threatened” meant, though. Were you making a joke that you feel threatened that men hit onto you, or that you feel that traditional families are threatened? What was “threatened” referring to?
Tony Abbott: Well, there is no doubt that it challenges, if you like, orthodox notions of the right order of things, but as I also said on the program, it happens, it’s a fact of life and we have to treat people as we find them.
Further, he has sought to bring US-style debates about restricting women’s access to abortion and contraception to the Australian public. In the same Sixty Minutes interview, he said, “I guess in the end I’m a bit like Bill Clinton on this matter, who said that he thought it [abortion] should be safe, legal and rare. And I underline ‘rare’.”
Unlike the private Gillard, Abbott has made his personal life a matter of policy. Famously, at the age of 19 he and a girlfriend had placed a child up for adoption. Bizarrely, Abbott believed that an ABC cameraman working in Parliament House might have been his son, although DNA tests later proved that to be incorrect.
Because of this Abbott has had one of the more notorious reputations in Australian politics for being a misogynist. Famously in 2002, Abbott said:
“I’m dead against paid maternity leave as a compulsory thing. I think that making businesses pay what seems to them two wages to get one worker. Almost nothing could be more calculated to make businesses feel that the odds are stacked against them. So, voluntary paid maternity leave: yes; compulsory paid maternity leave, over this government’s dead body,”
Although Abbott has now recanted on this policy, the underlying belief in enforcing a traditional heterosexual nuclear family has continued into the present.
Earlier this year, Abbott was lambasted in the press for his comments that young men and women should adhere to “the rules” about sex before marriage (that is, do not have sex), and that his daughters’ virginity was “a gift” that he would strongly urge them to save. This did not go down especially well in Australia, where US-style abstinence-only views about sex are often considered unacceptably outdated. Indeed, Gillard responded at the time that Abbott’s comments “confirm the worst fears of Australian women. Australian women don’t want to be told what to do by Tony Abbott.”
Abbott unconvincingly has tried to rebut this perception, saying to Hayes that “I’ve never quite figured this, because women are a very important part of my life. Obviously, I have a wife and three gorgeous daughters. My chief of staff has always been a woman. All my press secretaries have been women.”
What is shaping up, then, is a profound clash of values between the two leaders. Gillard, the loud and proud, a-religious woman with a background in the left of the Centre-Left Labor party; and Abbott, the far-Right promoter of “family values” apparently threatened by homosexuals, a climate change skeptic, and a promoter of deregulation.
The question is, then, whether Australia is truly ready for a female Prime Minister, and in particular whether Australia is the modern, progressive country that Gillard’s ascension might suggest. Or, will the Australian electorate respond to the uncertainty of economic turbulence and environmental disaster overseas (looking to the US, as it so often does) by voting for a known commodity, a backward-looking conservative through and through? Only time will tell.