News Analysis

Thursday 18 September 2014

Frank O'Shea: Aussie 'sheila' culture drove Gillard from office

Frank O'Shea

Published 29/06/2013 | 17:00

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The Prince Of Wales And Duchess Of Cornwall Visit Australia - Day 6...CANBERRA, AUSTRALIA - NOVEMBER 10: Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard attends the naming of Queen Elizabeth Terrace at Parkes Place on November 10, 2012 in Canberra, Australia. The Royal couple are on the last day of the Australian leg of a Diamond Jubilee that takes in Papua New Guinea, Australia and New Zealand. (Photo by Chris Jackson/Getty Images)...E

THERE is one thing you should know about Australia: many people here see the role of a woman in the same way that their grandparents did. The word 'sheila' is not heard as widely as it used to be, but Helen Reddy and Germaine Greer notwithstanding, you wouldn't want to let that fool you.

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When the general election of 2010 threw up a hung parliament, independent members gave their support to Labour leader Julia Gillard to head a minority government.

The loser in that fight for numbers was Tony Abbott, a former Rhodes scholar with an Oxbridge blue for boxing. He liked to be seen in budgie-smuggler swimming shorts or in a lycra bicycle outfit: a man's man.

Contrast that with one of the first opinion pieces written in the upmarket Murdoch newspaper, 'The Australian', which said that people were discussing the length of Ms Gillard's earlobes. That article was written by a woman and one of the saddest things about the way she has been treated has been the lack of support by women.

In vox-pop interviews, some of the most savage comments about her have come from women. Even the aforementioned Ms Greer saw fit to criticise her dress sense.

After she was ousted two nights ago by Kevin Rudd, a number of ministers resigned: they were all men – not one of the nine women ministers did so.

Almost from the start of her time as PM, Gillard has been under sexist attack. Initially, this was led by Mr Abbott, including his presence at a demonstration where he addressed a crowd from a platform in front of signs that said things like 'Ditch the Bitch' and 'Brown's Bitch' (Bob Brown was the leader of the Greens).

He has been much quieter since she took him to task in parliament last year, accusing him of being misogynist in a blazing speech.

Then there are the radio shock jocks. One suggested that the best thing for the country would be if she was put in a chaff bag with the (female) lord mayor of Sydney and both were dumped at sea.

In earlier programmes, he heard one of his listeners asking whether she "goes down to the chemist to buy her tampons or does the Australian taxpayer pay for those as well?"

"Okay, you've made a lot of valid points there," the shock jock agreed.

At a dinner later in the year, he told his listeners that Ms Gillard's father, who had passed away a short time before, had died of shame at the way she was running the country.

Someone has suggested that there was a kind of frog-in-boiling-water effect about the way that the PM was treated. Last week, we heard about a fundraising dinner for an opposition candidate at which there was an unofficial menu that read "Julia Gillard Kentucky Fried Quail – Small Breasts, Huge Thighs & Big Red Box".

Then in a radio interview in Perth last week, she was asked if her partner is gay. The questioner claimed that since he is a hairdresser, it was a valid question! She seemed as surprised as the rest of the country at the complete inanity of the question, but answered as calmly as she could in the circumstances.

Put it all together and you would have to think that this is more than just the glass-ceiling effect: this is symptomatic of a wide culture of sexism. And remember that Gillard is leading a country with low inflation, 5.5pc unemployment, GDP growth about 3pc, one of only a small number in the world with triple-A rating from all agencies. She was deputy leader and then leader of the party that brought the country through the global financial crisis.

During her three years as PM in a hung parliament, she steered 523 pieces of legislation through both houses. Despite all this, opinion polls were predicting a Fianna Fail-type wipeout for Labour in the general election due in September.

Meanwhile, Kevin Rudd travelled the country where he was treated like a rock star. In the end, to clear the air, she called a leadership spill, which she lost 45-57.

Unlike Rudd three years earlier, she departed with dignity and said she would retire from politics.

One of the most telling moments happened in parliament on Thursday. A backbencher ended his valedictory address by praising Ms Gillard and adding: "Your father would be proud of you."

There was a moment of silence while members joined the dots; then genuine applause. Australians may be sexist but they know unfairness when they see it.

Irish Independent

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