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Leadership & Communication

Gender politics and Julia Gillard’s downfall

25 Jul 2013, by Informa Insights

English: Prime Minister of Australia Julia Gil...

Australia last month said goodbye to the country’s first female prime minister. Almost three years to the day after taking over leadership of the government, Julia Gillard was ousted on June 27 by former prime minister Kevin Rudd.

Some may call it poetic justice, with Gillard having won the leadership following a similar coup on Rudd in 2010 – but many commentators have raised concerns over the perceived gender politics at play in Australia’s political landscape.

Gillard and gender politics

Writing for The Age just two days before Gillard left office, Marilyn Lake noted that history will remember the 51-year-old’s policies and legacy fondly, but will also be astounded by her treatment at the hands of colleagues, opponents and the media.

“How could we have foreseen what would befall her?” Lake stated.

“The relentless persecution by senior male journalists, the vilification, the sexist mockery, the personal abuse and the contempt with which she would be treated.”

Lake cited several instances where she said Gillard was exposed to prejudice based on her gender, including an interview with shock jock Howard Sattler.

On the show, which aired on radio station 6PR in June, Sattler asked the prime minister several intimate questions about her relationship with her partner.

Sattler was later released from the station, but it followed a tough couple of months for Gillard, who had also featured on a joke menu at a Liberal Party fundraiser.

While the majority of the meals were of standard fare, one fried quail dish cast disparaging remarks on the then-prime minister’s physical characteristics.

However, other journalists have countered this argument, including the Irish Independent’s Eilis O’Hanlon.

O’Hanlon claimed in an article for the paper that the prime minister was jettisoned because she was going to lose the upcoming general election in September – not because she is a woman.

“That’s the cardinal sin of politics,” she remarked.

“You can be and do anything, as long as you’re winning. Winners are impervious to challenges. Liabilities get dumped. It’s that simple.”

Political response

Leadership for Women training courseWhile some politicians have rejected the notion that gender politics were at play during Gillard’s tenure, others have been more outspoken on the issue.

Most notably new deputy prime minister Anthony Albanese, a staunch Rudd supporter, who told Guardian Australia: “There is no doubt that gender was part of it in my view.

“The prime minister was subjected to a range of political discourse that was deeply disturbing in its nature.”

However, he claimed that while this was a factor, the most significant element of Gillard’s failure in office was based on the way she took leadership in 2010.

Albanese said Rudd had been expected to lead Labor into the 2010 election, but the fallout from him being deposed created lasting divisions in the party.

Gillard herself hinted at the effects of attacks on her gender while prime minister during her farewell speech.

“The reaction to being the first female prime minister does not explain everything about my prime ministership, nor does it explain nothing about my prime ministership,” she stated.

“I’ve been a little bit bemused by those colleagues in the newspapers who have admitted that I have suffered more pressure as a result of my gender than other prime ministers, but concluded it has had zero effect on my political position.”

Despite this, she concludes by saying that the road for Australian women in politics will be less bumpy.

“What I am absolutely confident of is that it will be easier for the next woman, and the woman after that and the woman after that. And of that I’m very proud.”

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