A year ago, Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard had won her first election, silencing grumbles from some corners that she hadn’t properly won the leadership of the Australian Labor Party from previous leader Kevin Rudd. The ALP win was a close thing. Gillard had to scramble to negotiate with three independents and the Australian Greens in order to form a coalition – in part because her party lost a lot of votes on its left flank to the increasingly popular Greens. Not only was Gillard remarkable for the close shave, or for being Australia’s first female Prime Minister, but she was also an unmarried atheist without children and with a reputation for progressive thinking. In Australia’s fairly conservative political landscape, in which it seemed unlikely that we’d have a Prime Minister who wasn’t a very wealthy married Christian father any time soon, this was unbelievable.
A year on, the left is just slightly confused about Gillard’s swing to the right – see for instance, our esteemed editor on the “Malaysian solution.” One might then wonder why, just a year out from the election in which they backed Gillard, Rupert Murdoch’s conservative media is baying for her blood.
What’s going on exactly? The big news story in Australia over the last few months has been a proposed carbon tax. Should it go ahead, only 0.02 per cent of Australian businesses will be taxed under this scheme, and 90 per cent of households will receive compensation for the increase in expenses they will undergo as we change over to clean energy. So far, so good – except barely anyone in the country knows those facts. Whoever is running the media show over at the ALP is floundering. Pushed hard by opposition leader Tony Abbott and Murdoch’s News Limited, the only message that is getting through is that the carbon tax is outrageous. Given that News Limited has control of about three quarters of metropolitan daily newspaper circulation in Australia, that’s quite a push. Make no mistake: Murdoch’s press is waging class war on behalf of the extremely rich, and it’s being done in the name of a phoney popularism. It takes quite some nerve to push a distortion of this magnitude down the throats of the people on whose behalf you’re supposedly speaking. More to the point, it takes power and money.
Sad to say, that’s the only part of the coverage that’s happening with so much as a patina of integrity. At the end of August, Murdoch’s The Australian published an opinion piece alleging that, two decades ago, Gillard knowingly helped with and benefited from her then boyfriend’s embezzlement of union funds. As the Sydney Morning Herald reports, this was utterly baseless, and The Australian replaced the column with an apology.
This is the latest in a long line of ugly reporting on Gillard, and it’s gotten a lot more misogynistic than fabrications about ladies catering to their lovers at the expense of their principles; Gillard famously has a background in the trade union movement. In June, The Australian published a piece called “Julia’s dad sees turnaround for embattled daughter”. Gillard is Julia, where Rudd was Rudd. Not Prime Minister Gillard: just a girl whose dad should be speaking for her. There have been endless silly articles mapping her changing hairstyles, of all things. I don’t much care for a lot of Gillard’s policies, but I must applaud the guts of anyone putting up all with this rubbish while facing comments from her colleagues of the ilk that she’s a sub-par human being because she has no children.
The misogyny, then, hasn’t let up since Gillard’s days as Deputy Prime Minister. It’s been simmering for a while, and it’s therefore less obvious that Murdoch and co are pulling it out in a big way now that there’s a policy they really don’t like: the carbon tax. We’re talking about people who would in all honesty prefer that the planet crumble than take on a tax they can well afford, and doing it in the name of the people without millions of dollars who are going to be the ones suffering for it. If they can push the narrative of Gillard’s lady incompetence, the thinking goes, they can get rid of her and the carbon tax both. Around the time The Australian was head patting Gillard’s father, Murdoch’s Daily Telegraph published a piece called “Angry voters want election before carbon tax” that hit all the getting-rid-of-the-redhead sweet spots News Limited have been running for months. There’s talk of a call for another election, there’s a focus on quoting Abbott rather than anyone from the ALP, and there’s useless polling positioned as crucial.
Most importantly, seeded in there are doubts about whether Gillard has a mandate, whether she’s legitimate, whether she’s competent enough to lead the country. Apparently she became Prime Minister by wily trickery or some such thing. Conversely, our televisions screens have been flooded with images of Tony Abbott looking like a leader. He’s always putting himself out there, being seen to be in touch with the people, being seen as active, sporty, masculine. Where the ALP is floundering, the Liberal Party are masters of staying on message – even if that message often happens to be that Gillard has none. The thing is, Gillard’s government have actually done some pretty solid governing over the last year. However, she’s not a Christian family man from a wealthy part of Sydney, and it’s easy to alienate the public from this woman with a working class accent who broke an election promise about a carbon tax because she thought it was the right thing to do under changed circumstances.
With former Liberal Prime Minister John Howard telling television’s Ten Network that “I don’t think the prime minister’s got real authority,” things are looking pretty dire for Labor. Fellow former Prime Minister Paul Keating of Labor hit the nail on the head on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Lateline program:
TONY JONES: Let’s talk about the politics of this with the time we’ve got left. Do you think Murdoch’s News Limited is effectively at war with the Gillard Government?
PAUL KEATING: I think it’s beyond doubt. I mean, when the Daily Telegraph yesterday is saying, “Let’s have a national election,” why do we need a national election? We have an operating – a clear operating majority in the House of Representatives, it’s a stable majority, the business of the Government is reasonable business, that is the controversial matter is putting a price on carbon.
There is a consensus, it seems, in both Houses of Parliament for it. Why should there be an early election, other than the editors of that newspaper believing that were there to be an early election, the existing government would be defeated.
So this is why ministers are saying News Corporation is after – or News Limited is after regime change. You know, I think, you know, how can you read it any other way?
He’s right: News Limited is picking a tacky, misogynistic, and utterly transparent fight with the Prime Minister, and they’re doing it so that the very wealthiest people in the country can stay so. She may not be making the sort of moves that appeal to the left, or being the sort of person who appeals to the right, but her party won the election fair and square. There’s something else going on. I’ll put it bluntly: if Gillard were a man, the media landscape in Australia would be looking vastly different right now.