The day Julia Gillard decided to close a chapter on Australia’s intolerant past also became another page in the story of the prime minister’s unrelenting battle to prove her legitimacy with men.
Gillard, 51, found herself on March 21 facing her second Labor party leadership vote in a year, minutes after her apology for forced adoptions of children from mothers deemed to be unfit during the last century. She stared down her rivals for a third time in as many years, winning uncontested and losing three Cabinet members who didn’t back her.
The episode is symptomatic of her challenges since taking office in June 2010, as accomplishments from a tax on carbon to a jobless rate less than half the level of the euro area are overshadowed by efforts to erode her popularity, aided in part by policy missteps including a failed deal on coping with asylum seekers. Describing elections in September as a contest between “a strong feisty woman” and a “policy-weak man,” Australia’s first female prime minister today shuffled her Cabinet as she seeks to stamp authority on a government lagging in polls behind an opposition led by Tony Abbott.
“The question is: Will Julia be allowed to get away from this constant leadership speculation, will attention now turn to her policy agenda?” said Peter Chen, who teaches politics and public policy at the University of Sydney. “No women leaders in Australian political life have ever got much of a fair shake and her gender has been problematic.”
Chen, author of “Australian Politics in a Digital Age,” said Australia’s inexperience with minority administrations also explains unease with Gillard, who formed such a government after the closest election in seven decades in 2010. “On one level Julia Gillard has been pretty successful,” he said, pointing to a deeper legislative record than her Labor predecessor, Kevin Rudd, had before the party ousted him in June 2010.
Along with the carbon tax and the first plain-packaging rule for cigarettes, Gillard’s government put a levy on natural resources aimed at harnessing Australia’s mining boom. On March 21, the last day of Parliament’s sitting before it reconvenes in May for the annual budget, the prime minister sought to focus attention on an apology to the victims of forced adoptions.
The practice targeting single mothers affected about 140,000 to 150,000 children in a period between 1951 and 1975, according to a government report released last year. Gillard’s apology on behalf of Australian authorities followed by about five years the first national atonement to Aborigines taken from their families for assimilation with the white community, offered by Rudd to the so-called Stolen Generation.
“What should have been an important day that recognized past wrongs simply got swept aside,” saidHaydon Manning, an associate professor in the Department of Politics and Public Policy at Flinders University in Adelaide. “She doesn’t get the clear air even when she’s got a chance to do something good and project her government as one in control.”
Gillard, a former labor attorney, also last week won approval for a national disability insurance program, while having to shelve legislation revamping oversight of the media, which would have created a public-interest test for mergers and acquisitions.
The substance of the parliamentary proceedings that day contrasted with a flubbed effort by Gillard’s Labor opponents to bring her down. Rudd, 55, declined to run against Gillard after former party chief Simon Crean urged the prime minister to hold a so-called spill and Rudd to contest it.
Rudd told reporters he was sticking to a pledge he made after losing to Gillard in a February 2012 spill not to challenge her again. Even so, he remains in Parliament and plans to contest his seat in the Sept. 14 federal election. That may keep alive the potential of another leadership contest.
“What is he waiting for, what does he want -- that media narrative will continue as long as he is sitting there in the back bench,” said Sally Young, a political-science professor at the University of Melbourne. “They’ve got a very short space of time to present themselves as a unified party.”
Gillard today said the party had an “unseemly display” last week, as she rolled out her new Cabinet lineup. Gary Gray, who worked as corporate affairs director for Woodside Petroleum Ltd. before entering Parliament in 2007, takes over resources and energy, Transport Minister Anthony Albanese will take on additional responsibilities for regional development and Trade Minister Craig Emerson gets the tertiary education portfolio.
The changes follow last week’s departures of Resources Minister Martin Ferguson, Regional Development Minister Crean, and Tertiary Education Minister Chris Bowen.
Labor’s leadership strife is taking a toll on its public support. A Galaxy poll published in the Herald Sun newspaper yesterday showed 71 percent of respondents believe the office of prime minister was damaged by last week’s spill. The party trails the opposition Liberal-National coalition 55 percent to 45 percent on a two-party preferred basis, according to the poll. The measure is designed to gauge which party is likely to win enough seats to form a government under Australia’s preferential voting system.
Young, author of “How Australia Decides: Election Reporting and the Media,” said that a strong majority in Parliament might have given Gillard an easier time. “It was a pretty bad day for her, but in the end it showed how tough she is and how resilient she is. The prime minister will be hoping the media could move on and focus on her policy achievements.”
Abbott, 55, who is married with three children, has emphasized family values, drawing a contrast between himself and Gillard, who is unmarried and childless. He told Parliament in May 2011 that as a husband and father he understood “the financial pressures on nearly every Australian household.”
For much of her term, Gillard played down suggestions of gender bias. “Australian culture is blokey in some ways, yes, but also egalitarian,” she said in a 2011 interview.
That changed in October last year, when she stood up in Parliament and labeled Abbott a sexist and misogynist. The verbal barrage, in which she accused the opposition leader of “catcalling across the table at me,” went viral on the Internet, garnering over two million views on YouTube.
“The leader of the opposition says that people who hold sexist views and who are misogynists are not appropriate for high office,” she said. “I hope the leader of the opposition has got a piece of paper and he is writing out his resignation.”
Julie Bishop, the deputy leader of the opposition, said at a media event this month that “the use of the word misogyny against a man who’s happily married with three beautiful daughters and three sisters and a mother” was disappointing. Bishop also said “the fact that Julia Gillard occupies the most powerful and prized position of this country is something we should celebrate.”
Even so, much of the country hasn’t celebrated. Even in a nation that honored women’s right to vote years before counterparts including the U.S., Gillard has had to contend with opposition-supporters’ taunts that she’s childless, and protesters at anti-government demonstrations carrying placards reading “Ditch the Witch.”
“Gender has played a role” in undermining support for Gillard, Eva Cox, founder of the Women’s Economic Think Tank and author of “Leading Women,” said before the March 21 events. “Some of the ways they have criticized her wouldn’t have happened if she was a bloke -- it’s sharp and made nastier some of the debate,” she said, referring to media comments.
In 2005, Gillard had posed alone for a photograph in the kitchen of her home in Melbourne, backed by stark bench-tops and an empty fruit bowl, a shot that stirred public association with her choice to build a career rather than to marry and have children.
“I was horrified,” said Julie McKay, executive director for UN Women Australia, part of a United Nations arm that seeks to advance gender equality. “From the very beginning there were the articles about whether she had fruit in her fruit bowl. Whether she was a good housekeeper or not should be irrelevant on whether she could be a leader.”
Besides confronting a media unaccustomed to covering a woman in the top job, some of Gillard’s difficulties have been of her own making, according to Young. “There’ve been policy missteps along the way.”
Shortly after becoming prime minister, Gillard announced plans to open a refugee processing center in East Timor to cope with a surge in the number of asylum seekers arriving by boat -- without having completed talks with the northern neighbor. East Timor’s Parliament then voted against the facility.
Gillard’s administration also had to backtrack on a pledge to deliver the first federal budget surplus since the 2009 global recession by the current fiscal year. Treasurer Wayne Swan announced in December that it was unlikely the target would be met.
The government then announced Feb. 8 that its historic mining tax had raised in its first six months less than 10 percent of the A$2 billion ($2.1 billion) that the Treasury had forecast for the year through June.
The opposition, which has promised to rescind the 30 percent levy on iron ore and coal profits if it wins the election, painted the shortfall as another of the government’s fiscal blunders. Australia enjoyed six years of budget surpluses until Swan unleashed a stimulus program in 2009 to shield the economy from the impact of the global recession.
Reversals on fiscal targets exposed the government to attacks over its economic management even amid growth in excess of 3 percent, and a national unemployment rate of 5.4 percent -- compared with 11.9 percent in the euro region and 7.7 percent in the U.S.
One challenge masked by the macroeconomic figures is the corrosion to Australia’s manufacturing that’s been the flip side of strength in exports of iron and coal to China. The mining surge has propelled a 29 percent jump in the Australian dollar against its U.S. counterpart over the past six years, to $1.0444 in late trading March 22.
Stocks have underperformed, with the benchmark S&P/ASX 200 Index (AS51) advancing 11 percent since Gillard ousted Rudd to become prime minister in June 2010, compared with the 32 percent climb in the MSCI World Index over that period.
With the Aussie damaging domestic competitiveness, purchases of locally made cars slumped 18 percent in the four years through December, according to Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries data. Full-time employment in transport manufacturing declined to 82,800 workers in February, from 98,800 in February 2008, government data show.
Australia’s largest manufacturing region, Western Sydney is also home to at least eight lower house seats that Labor won in the 2010 election by less than 10 percentage points -- leaving it vulnerable as concern about job security spreads. Rosella, an iconic saucemaker founded before Australia became a nation in 1901, announced it would shut down March 1.
“Julia Gillard isn’t disliked because she’s a woman --it’s because we gave her a chance and it didn’t work,” Michael Wane, a 50-year-old taxi driver who moved from Shanghai in 1987 and lives in the south-western Sydney suburb of Hurstville, said in an interview earlier this month. Wane, who voted Labor in 2010, said it was too early to decide how he would vote this time.
Resource-rich regions in Western Australia and Northern Territory that have helped hold down the national unemployment rate are areas that historically haven’t favored Labor, posing a handicap for the party in the so-called two-speed economy.
Abbott, who also has pledged to overturn the carbon tax, has focused his attacks on Gillard’s credibility, saying she and her government are willing to compromise on principles to stay in power. He told reporters on Jan. 30, the day Gillard set the date for the election, that the vote would “be about trust.”
A loss for Gillard would leave just four women as heads of government in the Group of 20 major developed and emerging nations, with Germany, South Korea, Argentina and Brazil today having female leaders.
Australia’s antipodean counterpart New Zealand has a longer record of women in the top government job. The smaller neighbor had more than a decade of female governing when Jenny Shipley’s 1997-1999 term was followed by Helen Clark, who left office in 2008.
“There’s a little bit of a lack of cultural sophistication among Australians -- we’ve got a bit of a way to go,” said Chen at the University of Sydney.
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