Viewpoint: After Gillard, is gender an Australian election issue?

Protesters hold placards as they attend a rally in Sydney on 1 July 2012 Will Julia Gillard's time at the top encourage more women to enter politics?

Two months after Julia Gillard was ousted, feminist and sociologist Eva Cox looks back on the misogyny debate her time as Australia's prime minister sparked - and whether gender issues are on the election agenda as a result.

The question of female leadership still sits rather uncomfortably in discussions of power politics. The recent death of Margaret Thatcher reminded us of her politically successful tenure and re-elections, whether we agreed with her stance or not. However, the UK has not had another female leader since.

Helen Clark's New Zealand experience followed another woman, Jenny Shipley, but again there is no sign there that women leaders are normalised. Germany's Angela Merkel stands out but there are only a few other European women in the feed-line for leadership.

Australia has had just one woman leader in five of our six states and two in our small capital territory. The ascent of Julia Gillard in 2010 was therefore an exciting event in terms of potentially moving Australian politics into more female-friendly territory.

Some of the few women who had risen in state politics had a rough time. Joan Kirner and Carmen Lawrence, who served as Victoria and Western Australia premiers respectively, copped a range of criticism that suggested their performances were judged more severely than males in similar circumstances.

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Recognising Julia Gillard's downfall was much more than gender-based encourages other women to have a go - I hope!”

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Anna Bligh, the Queensland premier who overlapped with Julia Gillard, was the first premier to be elected in her own right rather than taking over the role, and that was seen as perhaps signalling change.

Julia Gillard was also elected in her own right but in such a close result that she had to form a government with minor parties and independents. She had also displaced a first-term prime minister with residual popular support and a desire to retrieve his position.

The combined effects meant she had serious trouble connecting with a majority of voters. Her electoral unpopularity was often described in deeply misogynist terms and opposition leader Tony Abbott was seen as using her gender against her.

So her displacement by her predecessor, Kevin Rudd, in June raised questions over the extent to which her demise was based on misogyny and sexism.

'Non-sexist pressures'

Consistent campaigns by tabloids and shock jocks had attacked her over her voice, appearance, lack of children, dress and other personal issues that are rarely raised against men. Her visible toughness, a quality usually admired in men, was in her seen as a negative.

On tough political issues, she had to negotiate with independents and the Greens to pass legislation, requiring serious compromises that were evidence of her skills in this area.

She did not, in the early years, use the gender card in any obvious way - in fact she made it clear she wished to be judged as prime minister, not as a woman prime minister. She did, however, put a record number of women in cabinet and appointed the first woman attorney general.

It was not until her second year that she raised the gender issue. Angered by the attitude of Mr Abbott and, no doubt, the wider continuous sex-based criticism of her performance by his supporters, she let loose one day in parliament.

Her diatribe on his views was delivered with a spontaneous sincerity she rarely manifested. The footage went viral and gender issues were now clearly on the political agenda.

October 2012: Gillard's outburst was seen around the world

That was 10 October 2012 and the debates about misogyny and sexism were clearly part of her political agenda from then until her demise in June 2013, when Mr Rudd finally had the numbers to oust her as her popularity continued to fail.

Many asked whether her displacement was evidence of a widespread inability among Australians to accept a woman as prime minister, but while this is an issue, it ignores the many non-sexist pressures on her.

She recognised this herself in her final speech by acknowledging that gender had been only part of the problem, despite many claiming it was the main, if not sole issue.

Helping women?

The leadership change does, however, raise questions over the longer-term effects of the loss of a women prime minister on the current election campaign.

Would the change make it easier or harder to engage with gender attitudes, policies and inequities? What did women gain under Julia Gillard and what could we expect from the opposition, led by someone she dubbed a misogynist?

The Labor Party will earn some good marks on a feminist scorecard because of its record in the last six years.

It supported payment for parental leave, more equal pay for mainly female welfare workers and increased subsidies for childcare fees as well as introducing new quality regulations for childcare services.

Eva Cox

Eva Cox
  • Australian feminist and sociologist who has written widely on political and social issues.
  • Professorial Fellow at the University of Technology Sydney, currently working on social policy and Indigenous issues.
  • Became an Officer of the Order of Australia in 1995 for services to women's welfare and in 2011 appeared on a postage stamp as part of a series honouring women who had advanced gender equality

There was extra for pensioners, more of them female, and a small adjustment to savings taxes that again mainly helped women.

However many problems continued and some of Labor's policies were actually anti-women, such as dropping 100,000-plus single parents onto a lower welfare payment, claiming they should get jobs, even though most of them were already working part time.

The opposition Liberal-National Coalition is unfortunately almost identically anti-women in these areas. Cuts to single parent welfare payments started with John Howard's welfare-to-work programme, which the Labor Party has recently extended.

This was supported by Tony Abbott, so he would not reverse this, despite his earlier support for women at home.

The election policies on offer are interesting, given the gender questions. The Labor election promise so far, aimed at working mothers, is a sizeable boost to out-of-school care funding.

Mr Abbott's major promise targets the same group and is deliberately attempting to outbid Labor. He is offering a much more generous paid parental leave scheme which replaces income up to high levels, rather than the Labor version of paying everyone the minimum wage. He also offers 26 weeks of full pay for mothers versus 18 at the minimum wage under Labor, and retirement contributions.

This more generous offer has dominated the news cycle in recent days but is under attack from the right and Labor for its costs and by denigrating income replacement as a privilege for "rich" women.

Does this brawl over the entitlements of employed mothers signal a new interest in gender issues? Or is it just a one-off Abbott tactical move to counter the sexism tag?

My view is that the policy and responses are both driven by expediency so there is little hope that the Gillard experience will change gender biases in cultures of power.

Julia Gillard left with a wish that her tenure would make it easier for future women aspirants, but this hope could be undermined if possible candidates are discouraged by her experience.

Recognising her downfall was much more than gender-based encourages other women to have a go. I hope!

Eva Cox is an Australian feminist and sociologist who has written widely on political and social issues.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 43.

    As an Englishman living in New Zealand since 2008, a regular visitor to Australia yearly since 1998 & afternoon daily watcher of Sky News Australia; I can report thus:

    Australia is right to protect their borders.

    Gillard battled strongly in power, but ultimately was destined to lose.

    Even I, as a Conservative voter, have been astounded at the extent of the Murdoch media bias. BBC shocked!

  • rate this

    Comment number 42.

    Gillard's problem was that she was ill-equipped to be PM. It was nothing to do with the fact that she is a women. That said, as an ex-pat living in Canberra, I can tell you that Australian politics can get quite nasty and two-faced. And, of course, Gillard was just as bad as the rest.

    No wonder they make it compulsory to vote over here!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 41.

    Plainly put Julia Gillard was a bad leader and therefore a bad PM. There are many females in high positions in Australia who to be honest far exceed the capabilities of our former PM - example: Governor-General Quentin Bryce, NSW Governor -Marie Bashir, Lesley Gillespie -entrepreneur (Bakers Delight Group) etc etc etc

  • rate this

    Comment number 40.

    I don't doubt racism and sexism exists but on some occasions it's merely in the mind of the individual who feels unfairly treated. As per the famous Ali G quote "is it because I is black".

  • rate this

    Comment number 39.

    @21.Geoffrey "I am not sure how much of Julia Gillard's problems were due to misogyny and how much due to an increasing focus on trivia"

    Only idiots and fools speak so strongly about what they are not sure.

  • rate this

    Comment number 38.

    I think the fact of the matter is that Gillard was an awful PM. End of

  • rate this

    Comment number 37.

    Gillard was thrown out because she promised "there will be no carbon tax under my government" then introduced one - something curiously absent from this piece. And her famous parliamentary diatribe against Abbot was in defence of a Speaker she appointed who had been exposed as a disgusting misogynist but who she needed to retain her majority - a shameful hypocritical stunt. Good riddance.

  • rate this

    Comment number 36.

    Lets not beat around the bush, no pun intended, targetting any group with extra benefits has a cost to all others.

    Buying voters in UK helped create an obese welfare state that only presently exists due to increasing national debt.

    Australia economy is wasting its new found wealth from mining, just as UK wasted N sea oil, when the money runs out, so will the votes

  • rate this

    Comment number 35.

    The day we beat sexism is the day people stop using their gender as an excuse for the consequences of their mistakes. In other words, it will be the day when every person on Earth is flawlessly honest and rational.

    I won't hold my breath.

  • rate this

    Comment number 34.

    Women already have everything handed to them on a silver platter and now if you point out when they lie and do a terrible job you get called misogynistic. Disgusting.

  • rate this

    Comment number 33.

    Why do ardent feminists immediately play the 'gender card' when things don't go according to plan? (there's no mention of inequality when female tennis players get a significantly better deal than the men). Like those who play the 'race card', it is cheap, underhand bullying

  • rate this

    Comment number 32.

    Someone wrote the other day that if Obama's crowning achievement is that history remembers him only as the first (1/2) black president, and none of his policies, his tenure can be considered a failure. Much the same can be said of Gillard in regards to her tenure as first female PM of Australia. Give Maggie this, love her or hate her, it was her policies as much as gender that saw people 'talking'

  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    A typical article written by a typical feminist.

    It says nothing, really. It just puts out the tired old line about how hard women have things in the world.

    In this day and age, with information available so easily, you have to be plain stupid to believe that women have harder lives than men. You also have to desire never ending conflict with half the human population, including your own family.

  • rate this

    Comment number 30.

    You can't compare other female leaders with Margaret Thatcher, I believe that Thatcher was unique and she had a strong mans style of leadership that inspired admiration/fear in her supporters and hatred/fear in her opponents.
    I doubt most would be female leaders would take the strongman leadership style work. Thatcher was also fearless and tenacious in a way that outdid many male leaders.

  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    When it comes to women's issues, Australia - my country - is about as backward as a 1st world country can be. Of courrse people had it in for Julia Gillard because she was a woman. It wasn't the only issue but definately the stand-out main one. People who claim differently are either misguided or just plain lying.

  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    Julia Gillard missed the one thing staring her in the face. Its nothing to do with gender dynamics you are a politician. Once you enter politics, especially major party politics, you cease to be a woman or a man you are reduced to being politician. Nobody likes politicians. Regardless of gender, male or female, politicians all sound the same, the same tired party political rhetoric.

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.


    Gillard went to election: "There will be no carbon tax under a Govt I lead." She broke her promise, the polls went against her. Also her treasurer lost control of the finances. Fail!

    Kirner led VIC to ruin and the worst recession since 1930s. Bligh racked up $90billion debt, and QLD lost AAA rating. Lawrence: see "Easton Affair".

    Clare Martin still popular in NT. Why? Competence!

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.


    And Tony Abbott will make the third of the 3 worst PMs this country will have had after his party gains power on Saturday. Remember - no one ever wins an election the ppple just want to keep the other choice out! Whether its the incumbant they want out or the opposition to remain that.. thats how democracy works. No one really wants Abbott and the Libs just Labor out!

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    It was a non-issue. Go through any media in Australia and you will see similar "disrespect" shown to male leaders as well. Gillard wanted to make an issue of this to garner sympathy for her flagging fortunes and deflect her deficits as leader by making this an excuse. Gender issues? She wouldnt have become leader were gender that much of an issue,

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.


    RUBBISH! thatcher was awful for this country. Marginalised huge sections of the country, killed manufacturing and destroyed the mining industry. Only the rich benefitted from her time in office


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