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

Protesters hold placards as they attend a rally in Sydney on 1 July 2012
Image caption 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.

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.

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Media captionOctober 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.

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.