Notes to self - for our next female prime minister

Author and journalist Karen Middleton and political scientist Professor David Denemark considered aspects of our experience of Australia's first female prime minister at the APMC Seminar 2015 at the Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House on 19 June 2015.

Covering Julia

By Karen Middleton

Prime Ministers commonly engage in opening banter with journalists ahead of what is known in the trade as a ‘doorstop’.

Kevin Rudd would ask if the camera operators were “ready to rock ‘n roll”.

Initially, Julia Gillard made disarming personal observations about her interrogators.

Fixing her eyes on me upon her arrival in Brussels via Afghanistan on her first overseas trip as Prime Minister, she said, with the cameras rolling: “I’ve got that jacket in apricot.” 

Not only for this reason, reporting on Julia Gillard’s prime ministership was not like covering her predecessors.

The odd feminist frenemy did Gillard no favours. Inexplicably, Germaine Greer thought it reasonable to observe on national television that the Prime Minister wore ill-fitting, ugly jackets, had “a fat arse” and should just “get over it”. 

Gillard was also a bit her own worst enemy, mocking opponent Tony Abbott for wearing blue ties. Now, that’s all Abbott wears - and proudly. 

For me as a journalist, it wasn’t just the inevitable fashion commentary or contrast in small talk which distinguished her stewardship. Two more-substantive things set it apart: the circumstances of her elevation and the atmosphere surrounding her gender.

The manner of Gillard’s ascendancy affected how she was greeted – and portrayed - by the media and public like.

It wasn’t about seizing power. That is now routine in Australian politics.  In the past three decades, only those who have challenged have made it to The Lodge. But Gillard’s sudden elevation was not like Keating ousting Hawke. It was a coup in the night. 

Those seizing power must build a public case. Julia Gillard and her backers didn’t do that.

Calling an election within weeks, she failed to win an outright majority.

Kevin Rudd had a hand in the result, ably assisted by the media. His favourite journalists were first with stories aimed at undermining Gillard, prevented from disclosing him as their source by their confidentiality obligations. The rest of us duly followed them up. The vengeful, duplicitous man at work was a story. Gillard would argue that angle wasn’t pointed out enough. How well or badly she might have done without his white-anting can never be known.

Despite her reputation as a personable and efficient negotiator who achieved considerable legislative success, she faced division in her own ranks. Those who despised Rudd for his personal behaviour and how he had governed supported her. Many others did not.

The criticism was venomous. I concluded that while some disliked her because of how she got the job and some because she got it ahead of them, there was another creeping undercurrent: she was female, or rather a certain sort of woman.

One Liberal supporter I know was regularly scathing about Gillard, beyond what he usually reserved for Labor leaders. He would criticise her intellect, her voice (it’s often her voice) and her decision-making. From the way he spoke, I concluded he actually objected somewhere down deep to having that sort of woman in charge. She was outspoken and forceful, not the soft, gentle feminine specimen some prefer. And she was unmarried and without children – all apparent fodder for derision.

The disrespect for the prime ministerial office during Gillard’s time was breathtaking .  2GB broadcaster Alan Jones said she should be put “in a chaff bag” and dumped out at sea. 6PR’s Howard Sattler implied her relationship was fake and asked her if her partner, Tim, was gay. Male prime ministers have been the subject of malicious gossip but I don’t recall many being grilled about it on air.

I tried to take the same journalistic approach to Gillard as to the other prime ministers – to call it as I saw it and question her decisions whenever it seemed warranted. Many colleagues did the same.

But the playing field wasn’t level. It tipped like a see-saw.

At one end was the sisterhood and associates – those who favoured Gillard simply because she was female and thought any criticism sexist.  

At the other were those who disliked and disrespected her for the same reason – harnessing any criticism for their cause. The signs proclaiming “ditch the witch” and “Bob Brown’s bitch“ weren’t about competence, but chromosomes. 

Those attempting to judge her solely on merit teetered along the plane. Attitudes to Gillard tipped so violently one way or the other, there wasn’t any flat surface on which to balance.

Legitimate criticisms became ballast in the hate campaign and attracted accusations of playing into a sexist agenda. But holding back felt equally wrong. 

Perhaps I should have considered more actively that being subjected to such appalling  denigration could have affected her decision-making.  Without that, her judgment might have been different. Again, we can never know. 

Perhaps I should have grasped more clearly at the time that the field was so uneven and adjusted my approach. But how do you do that, without shifting from observer to participant? 

I hope when there’s another female prime minister, journalists more readily call sexist responses for what they are and exercise vigilance against being used. But that goes for reporting on male prime ministers too.

I would counsel a female prime minister that while ever there are men (and women) who can’t cope with a female leader, she should think very carefully about her responses and avoid giving them free kicks. She should focus on being very good at her job. Most leaders would say they do that anyway.

At least as much as the blokes, she should guard her reputation and carefully manage her rise. Reluctantly, I’d also suggest she watch how she dresses and speaks. 

Sometimes, what we say is not what others hear – witness Julia Gillard’s now-infamous misogyny speech.   

I still believe misogyny wasn’t the right word. I don’t think Tony Abbott hates women. But Gillard was making a broader point, accusing him of complicity in the nasty campaign being waged against her and of hypocrisy for suddenly being a convenient critic of sexism.

Gillard was defending the indefensible herself – the grossly sexist and inappropriate personal behaviour of the soon-thereafter-ex Speaker, Peter Slipper, the former Liberal she had installed. 

Press Gallery journalists were pilloried for focussing on her inconsistency in defending Slipper and missing the broader point about the swirling anger at those fuelling the sexist atmosphere.

Like a lot of other women and men, l certainly understand her rage. 

Political reporting carries huge responsibility and plenty say we don’t do it well enough. I found reporting on Julia Gillard uniquely challenging.

It would be nice if we all learned something for next time.



Julia Gillard, Gender and Leader Effects

By David Denemark

Julia Gillard’s elevation to Labor leader and Prime Minister in 2010 afforded Australia’s citizens an historic first:  the chance to evaluate a woman as a major party and parliamentary leader.  Pitted against the hyper-masculinity of Tony Abbott, it was perhaps inevitable that gender would come to play a pivotal role in voters’ political assessments and electoral decision-making.  And they didn’t have long to wait.  With Labor calling the election just three weeks into the fledgling Gillard prime ministership, voters were immersed into what many labelled gender politics.

But how, in fact, did women and men across the nation evaluate the Gillard candidacy?  Were women significantly more likely to regard Gillard positively and, in turn, to cast their votes for Labor on that basis?  More generally, did Gillard’s leadership profile prompt increases in women’s political interest, trust and engagement with the Australian political process?  And if so, was there a legacy effect for Gillard on women’s politics in 2013, after being toppled from her leadership roles?  An analysis of Australian Election Surveys conducted after the 2007, 2010 and 2013 Australian federal elections yields answers to these questions and a number of insights into the politics of the “gender gap.”  

Traditionally, women in most western democracies, including Australia’s, have had lower levels of political interest, trust and active engagement in the electoral process than men.  Echoing their historical exclusion from paid employment, higher education and economic independence, women have been less likely than their male counterparts to have interest or involvement in the world of politics.  At the same time, their electoral leanings for decades took the form of a conservative gender gap – the result of being removed from organized, and in many instances, unionized work and being responsible instead for children’s upbringing and religious training.  With the increasing occupational, educational and economic convergence of men and women across the last generation, the assumption is that the political gender gap would disappear.  In terms of electoral preferences, this has indeed proven to be the case.  But, with politics still largely a “man’s game,” and with women continuing to be less likely to engage with politics, it has been argued a high profile woman leader could well be an important catalyst, prompting women’s involvement with electoral politics and, more generally, with the larger fabric of the nation’s political processes.

An examination of changes in voters’ political attitudes and behaviour during the 2007, 2010 and 2013 elections – before, during and after Julia Gillard’s prime ministership – allows us to see whether she played that catalytic role for women.  And, indeed, the patterns of women’s political involvement in 2010 show several important changes from the preceding election.  While women were not significantly different in their electoral and electioneering activities, except for having a higher likelihood of discussing politics with others, their views of politics generally show several important changes from 2007.  This is evident both in the increased proportion of women feeling the federal government was responsive to people like themselves, and sizeable increases in the proportion of women feeling satisfaction with the way democracy works in Australia, and the large number of women with high levels of political trust.  On average, women in 2010 in fact held each of these attitudes more strongly than did men.

All told, these changes in women’s perceptions of the political world around them are consistent with the argument that a high profile woman leader can “empower” women and prompt increased involvement in political processes that had long been dominated by men.  The likelihood that Julia Gillard played a role in this transformation in women’s politics is suggested by the fact that for each one of these attitudes, except political trust, women’s scores in 2013, after the demise of the Gillard prime ministership, fell once more to being below those of men.  

In terms of the way women regarded Julia Gillard as a leader, and the impact of those perceptions on their vote choices in 2010, we again see a significant impact for Gillard’s prime ministerial profile and electoral candidacy.  The survey results show that women, on average, gave significantly higher evaluations to Gillard than did men, while men assigned Tony Abbott significantly higher average scores than did women.  If there was a net negative for the way women regarded Gillard and her leadership in 2010, it is reflected in their attitudes toward Rudd’s removal from office.  Women were significantly more likely than men to disapprove of the way Rudd was bundled from the prime ministership.

But, overall, was Gillard an electoral asset in 2010 who was able to draw more women’s votes to Labor than she lost men’s votes to Abbott and the Coalition?  And did women’s positive assessments of Gillard outweigh the negatives of their unease over Rudd’s dismissal?   Perhaps the best way to gauge these effects is by using multivariate statistical tests that hold constant the effects of other factors that tend to have effects on vote choice, such as voters’ party identification, their perception of the economic conditions of the country, and their level of education, age, union membership, employment status, etc.  The results show that, controlling for all these other factors, women were significantly more likely than men to vote Labor in 2010.  Indeed, overall, the Labor “gender gap” was nearly 7% – the first pro-Labor gender gap since Australian national surveys began in 1967.  Additionally, women were significantly more likely than men to switch to Labor in 2010 from another party in the previous election, while they were significantly less likely than men to switch from Labor to another party.

Of interest is the fact that when one holds constant the effects of gender, and looks at the independent effect of voters’ evaluations of Julia Gillard, pro-Gillard evaluations remained strong predictors of votes for Labor and switching to Labor in 2010, irrespective of voters’ gender. At the same time, voter disapproval of the way Rudd was removed from office had no significant effect on vote choice.  In short, Gillard in 2010 was a net electoral asset, and almost certainly, therefore, a factor in Labor’s narrow victory.  

The question remains, however, what was the impact of Gillard’s removal from the Labor party and parliamentary leadership and Rudd’s resurrection to the helm in 2013?  Was there a pro-Labor legacy for Gillard’s time as leader or did women punish the party alongside their male counterparts after years of ALP in-fighting?   We have already seen that there were attitudinal erosions in 2013 that served to undo women’s 2010 rises in levels of political trust, efficacy and satisfaction with the way democracy works in Australia – and in their discussing of politics with others.  The results clearly show there were similar erosions in the effect of gender and evaluations of Gillard on vote choice in 2013.  Again using multivariate models controlling for a host of other factors, the survey results show that women in 2013 were significantly less likely than men to vote for Labor, and slightly less likely than men to switch to Labor from another party, while they were significantly more likely to switch from Labor.  Voters with a positive evaluation of Julia Gillard were still significantly more likely to vote Labor in 2013.  However, at the same time, those with positive Gillard assessments were also significantly more likely to switch from Labor.

The disparate patterns in the effects of voters’ gender and Gillard evaluations suggest that voters in 2013 were sharply divided in their perceptions of Gillard – their votes reflecting those divisions.  While Tony Abbott and the Coalition, overall, drew more votes from men than women, Kevin Rudd had no women’s gender gap to counter that drain of male votes – reversing the pro-Labor women’s gap that had boosted Gillard and Labor’s fortunes in the 2010 election.  In sum, the internal rupture of Gillard’s Labor government and the Labor caucus’ dismissal of the first woman leader and prime minister divided the ranks of women voters and prompted many to change their votes and switch from Labor.  The asset that had once been Gillard and her historic leadership all but disappeared in one term of parliamentary incumbency.

All told, it seems clear that Julia Gillard’s  high profile role as a national political party and parliamentary leader had significant short-term effects on women’s political attitudes and electoral preferences.  Women’s levels of political engagement and their political trust, perceived responsiveness of the federal parliament and satisfaction with the way Australia’s democracy works all saw rises over the levels evident at the preceding, 2007 election.  It is also clear that Gillard in 2010 was an electoral asset for Labor – winning more votes for the party than she lost it.  But most of these gains were lost amidst the parliamentary fracture that paved the way for Labor’s electoral demise in 2013.  Though Gillard during her time as prime minister was briefly able to harness the gender and sexism issues for advantage, by 2013 these had ceased to win her the poll support demanded of her by the Labor caucus, and she slipped in their estimation from being an electoral plus to being a liability.

It remains to be seen if another female leader will be able to reignite the embers of women’s political engagement that flared during Julia Gillard’s tenure as the nation’s leader.  But, for the present, Australia’s parliamentary leadership is once again a “man’s game.”