Three years almost to the day the Australian Labor party sharpened its collective knives, ousted Kevin Rudd as leader and installed Julia Gillard as the nation’s 27th – and first woman — prime minister. At 7pm on Wednesday, in an equally spectacular and bloody knifing, Rudd returned the political favour, wresting the leadership from his nemesis by a decisive 57 votes to 45.
The poll, held behind closed doors, ends one of the most tumultuous prime ministerial tenures in the nation’s modern history, and ensures that, if nothing else, the word “brutal” will become the default adjective to describe Labor politics, Aussie style.
Gillard’s demise, viewed from afar, seems as surreal and extraordinary as her election on 24 June 2010. Then Australia – a nation still so defined by its predominantly male icons, from Ned Kelly to the muscle-bound lifesavers of Bondi beach – seemed ready to embrace a woman at the helm: a tough, unabashedly childless, “what you see is what you get” woman leader to boot.
And yet in retrospect, signs that female leadership of an Australian government would attract this unprecedented level of public opprobrium dished out to Gillard were already there in spades.
Just five years before her elevation to the leadership, Gillard, then deputy PM, endured an extraordinary savaging at the hands of the media when a series of photographs taken in the kitchen of her home led to widespread condemnation. Implicit in the criticism was an unsightly workaholism and ambition: that if her kitchen benches were so clean and tidy they could not be truly used. Not long afterwards, an MP from the conservative Liberal benches alleged she was “deliberately barren”, apparently suggesting this meant she lacked proper qualifications to lead a nation. Incredibly, these were not one-off gaffes.
Since then, every aspect of Gillard the woman – from her voice and proudly broad Australian accent to her clothing (just last week a female newspaper reporter criticised her modest neckline for revealing “too much cleavage” for the parliament), and even the sexuality of her long-time partner – has been subject to public comment.
And not just comment but vituperative, ugly, blatant sexism of a kind that culminated two weeks ago, in a Liberal party fundraising dinner menu offering “Julia Gillard Kentucky Fried Quail – Small Breasts, Huge Thighs & A Big Red Box.” Those responsible ducked for cover while the stunt made headlines the world over.
And this week, indeed just 24 hours before her dramatic loss to Rudd, Gillard was once again in the news, not for a policy announcement but for a photo shoot in a women’s magazine. It was apparently the idea of her spin doctors, desperate to build bridges with a demographic of conservative, older women deemed to have been alienated by the prime minister’s robust discussion of feminism – but Gillard was pilloried for being snapped knitting.
In most scenarios Gillard’s tenacity and courage in the face of a kind of scrutiny and ugly voyeurism no male leader ever had to endure should have played well with at least half the electorate. Instead, faced with a hostile media and leading a minority government, she seems to have been utterly unable to communicate her legislative achievements, seemingly drowned out by the maelstrom of attention to her gender – and the never-ending destabilising conjecture about her rival’s ambitions. Wave after wave of opinion polls has suggested that Labor, under Gillard, would face catastrophic defeat in the September general election.
And so it is that on Wednesday night, a spooked Labor party allowed Kevin Rudd to wreak his karmic revenge.
Of course, few will remember that in 2007, as Labor celebrations roared into the night after Rudd toppled John Howard, the long serving Liberal prime minister, a Rudd insider was quoted as saying: “He will be a nightmare but he was the only chance of winning the election.” Today, six years later, that prescient observation has been played out, and Rudd is once again Labor’s only chance.
Meanwhile, Australia has shown the world that it is not yet ready for a woman leader.
Paola Totaro is an Australian journalist and writer specializing in European affairs, politics, social policy and the arts.