Our childless, fruitless PM
In the dying days of the 2007 election campaign, when the Liberals were thrashing around helplessly awaiting inevitable defeat, Tony Abbott gave an interview which he quickly came to regret.
The then Health Minister sat down with News Limited press gallery journalist Steve Lewis and offered his account of what a Rudd Labor Government would look like. It included an unflattering appraisal of the personal attributes the would-be Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard would bring to the nation’s political leadership.
Abbott made the loaded, nudge-nudge-wink-wink observation that Ms Gillard was a “one-dimensional political animal” who would struggle to relate to ordinary mums and dads.
Lewis contacted Gillard to relay what Abbott had said and seek her response. Gillard was furious and told Lewis as much. She regarded it as a pointed attempt by Abbott to generate fresh election-eve scrutiny of her status as an unmarried and childless “career woman”, to use that quaint old term. It’s a sledge which found its most rugged expression courtesy of Liberal Party hard man Bill Heffernan who infamously described Gillard as “barren by choice” and even chipped her for not having any fruit in her fruit bowl at her spectacularly modest Altona home, as if non-possession of the Martha Stewart homemaker gene rendered her unfit for public office.
When Abbott learned of the offence he had caused with his remark, he told Steve Lewis that he wanted it cut from the interview ahead of publication. “I know I said it, but I’m now unsaying it,” Abbott told Lewis, even ringing newspaper editors to have the quote removed. You’ve got to give him marks for trying. But as a former journalist with The Bulletin magazine, Abbott should have known that interviews, like life, do not come with a rewind button, and the statement was published, as it properly should have been.
Now that she has become prime minister, Julia Gillard’s personal arrangements have again become the subject of public debate. There’s nothing wrong with that – and to her credit, Julia Gillard doesn’t think there is anything wrong with that. The public has every right to know what type of person they are electing (or not electing) to govern their lives, and Gillard has the confidence and the candour to deal with the questions as they come her way.
But having said that, there can be no doubt that some of the criticisms she has faced reflect an insecurity – a fairly pathetic male insecurity – about the way in which women should or shouldn’t behave.
The comments made by Heffernan about her choosing to be “barren” – horrible word that it is in any context – suggest that women have failed in their role in life if they refuse to have kids when able to do so.
There’s also a sense that women are somehow less than complete if they choose not to get married, or that they’re even a little bit dangerous when, as has been the case in Gillard’s adult life, they have a few different partners over the years, but still never quite manage to walk down the aisle.
A lot of blokes are probably a bit intimidated by the idea that a woman can be so self-contained, and derive so much satisfaction from her job, that she has neither the time nor inclination to stay at home rearranging the contents of the fruit bowl or getting all giddy flicking through copies of Bride To Be and fantasising about her special day.
But regardless of whether such sentiments are logical or fair, they will still be an issue for Julia Gillard now that she has realised the greatest ambition of her working life. The ability of a politician to relate to other people – the very point Abbott was trying to make in his comments to Steve Lewis – is held in great store by the voting public. Talk to any parent about issues such as child abuse, or neighbourhood crime, or the cost of childcare, any issue which could affect the welfare of their own kids, and you tend to get a more impassioned and emphatic reaction than you do from adults who do not have children. The challenge for Gillard is to show that she is tapped into the mainstream even if she’s not statistically part of it – which in the year 2010 she is under no obligation to be.
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