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Essay

Liars, witches and trolls

IT WAS SURPRISINGLY sunny the Sunday morning in October when we bumped into the PM. On a broken suburban footpath I nearly tripped over the leash that restrained her cavoodle puppy. We were walking and talking, my daughter and I, on Mugga Way, the bush boulevard below Red Hill. Until our eyes met from under her cap I hadn't recognised Australia's first female Prime Minister, strolling with her partner and a couple of equally casually dressed protective services officers.

Only in Australia, probably only in Canberra, could a citizen casually come across a prime minister on a weekend morning and have a yarn under the gum trees.

The national capital is now a hundred years old. The bastard child of bickering Sydney and Melbourne, it grew up in a sheep paddock, its genes shaped by the visual brilliance of artist Marion Mahoney Griffin and her landscape architect husband Walter Burley Griffin. While Walter planned the land axis from parliament house across the lake to the War Memorial and the capital axis that dissects a great inverted V – the wide boulevards, hexagons and circles that so bedevil visitors – Marion imagined a rainbow of native flora lighting the hills. She understood that before the sheep paddock these plains were once rich grasslands, home to the Ngambri people, edged on the rises by eucalypts, melaleuca, casuarina and grevillea.

Paul Daley writes in Canberra (New South, 2012) that the capital's name comes from the Ngambri for cleavage, though like much about this place this is contested. Topographically it is like a woman. Looking north, Mount Ainslie and Black Mountain form her breasts, the basin once rich with marsupials, birds and fish, her fertile womb, and to the south, the long ridges of the Brindabellas her hips.

Ngambri elder Shane Mortimer is insistent. 'No doubt, whatsoever. Her womb is where Capital Hill is today,' he told Daley.

That Sunday morning Australia's first 'deliberately barren' Prime Minister, according to Liberal Senator and verbal boffer-boy Bill Heffernan, seemed relaxed. I introduced my daughter, who stepped forward, hand and smile ready, 'Good morning Prime Minister.'

For an instant I saw Australia's most powerful woman through the eyes of a twenty-three-year-old: Shorter than on television, with slim shoulders and hands, and smooth alabaster skin. No makeup. A different face of power to the ones she was used to.

POLITICS IS A business of apprenticeship, you learn it at someone's side. I didn't do the apprenticeship; I came into politics after a career in journalism. So sitting at the cabinet table as a minister in the Victorian government I watched those who had learnt the political craft comfortably wield power, while I was less certain. As a journalist I had keenly observed the trajectories of women moving towards power, but watching is different to doing.

Female leaders have been fast-tracked if, like India's Indira Gandhi, Pakistan's Benazir Bhutto and recently South Korea's Park Geun-hye, they were savvy daughters of politically powerful men, or like The Philippines' President Cory Acquino and Argentina's Isabel Peron, widows of powerful men. In the West, the UK's Margaret Thatcher, Golda Meir in Israel, Jenny Shipley and Helen Clark in New Zealand, Angela Merkel in Germany, Canada's Kim Campbell and Australia's Julia Gillard among others have made their own way through the political class, rising on skill and tenacity.

Women leaders have shown they can be just as vain, venal or virtuous as men in power. Thatcher, Gandhi and Meir took their countries to war. Bhutto was ensnared in nepotism and corruption. Merkel, negotiating through the prolonged European economic crisis, and Gillard, shepherding the carbon price through parliament, demonstrated their steel.

Australian women with political power were initially capable widows who assumed the seats and positions of their husbands, the gift of a party that valued 'name brand recognition' and low risk.

Dame Enid Lyons was the first woman elected to the House of Representatives and the first appointed to Cabinet. Earlier she lived in the Lodge, with twelve children, the much-admired wife of Prime Minister Joseph Lyons. As his widow she exercised political power more directly.

The first woman elected to the Victorian parliament was reluctant – the political equivalent of the Hindu widow throwing herself on her husband's funeral pyre. In 1933, after the sudden death of her husband, the state's premier, Lady Millie Peacock was persuaded to stand at the by-election for his seat. Still in mourning, she neither appeared, nor spoke, in public during the short campaign. Once elected, she made only one speech in her single term. She did not seek re-election and left parliament full of disdain for the company. Six decades later, as a minister in a hung Victorian parliament, I occasionally shared Millie's view as personal abuse was hurled across the despatch box.

Australians are ambivalent about women and power: one of the first countries in the world to grant women full political rights, but one of the last to elect women to the national parliament. Access to power, not actual power seems to be the offer.

As the colonies federated into a nation, Australia bolted out of the blocks with progressive legislation. The Franchise Act 1902 gave most Australian women (excluding Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women in some states) the right to vote in Commonwealth elections. Four women stood in 1903, the first federal election under that Act. Not one succeeded, but they were the first female candidates for any national parliament in the British Commonwealth. It took another four decades to muster enough votes to propel women to Canberra: Labor's Dorothy Tangney from sparse Western Australia became a senator, and Enid Lyons took over her husband's Tasmanian seat. Both were elected in 1943, the year John Curtin was returned as prime minister, William Dobell controversially won the Archibald Prize and Dark Felt took the Melbourne Cup.

Tangney was the great stayer of female politicians, serving over a quarter of a century. In 1970, Margaret Guilfoyle was also elected to the senate and a decade later became the first female Minister for Finance, and Susan Ryan three years later, led the modern era of women in parliament with a toehold in Cabinet.

SEVEN YEARS INTO the new century a high watermark was set. Julia Gillard became Australia's first female deputy prime minister, Anna Bligh was the first elected female state premier and Julie Bishop, the first female deputy leader of the Liberal Party. Five years later more women were at the top of the power pole – Gillard the first female PM, Nicola Roxon the first female attorney-general, Penny Wong Finance Minister and four other women ministers. Tasmania has its first female premier, the ACT its third female chief minister and women occupy ministerial roles in every state and territory.

One could be excused for thinking that things were looking up. Raw data tells only some of the story of power gained, challenged and diminished; there is something corrosive, undermining, a sustained visceral assault on legitimacy, a sneer at women in control.

Women comprise less than a third of all parliamentarians and occupy fewer than one-quarter of all Cabinet positions. The number of women in the Senate reached a high point after the 2010 election, while the number of women in the House of Representatives declined.

Even more perplexing is Australia's sharply declining international rank. Comparing the proportion of women in national parliaments around the world Australia has slipped from twenty-first to thirty-eighth over the past decade, behind Rwanda, Germany, Denmark and Sweden, although ahead of Britain and the United States.

It's as though Australians are comfortable with the principle of female political power, but discomforted by its practice.

Hillary Clinton concluded after her 2008 presidential nomination campaign, that the country approved of female candidates when they appeared to be serving others, not when they were seen to be seeking power driven by personal ambition.

Joan Kirner, Australia's second female premier agrees. 'Women are accepted if serving but not if controlling. We might be accepted as a minister, even a deputy leader, but the leader controls, controls the government, influences the country.' Kirner, Victoria's only female premier, was remorselessly depicted in cartoons as a housewife in a polka-dotted shift, appropriate in the kitchen but a disaster for the state. Kirner was anointed leader in 1990 when the Labor government was facing imminent and almost inevitable defeat, yet the conservative press's view that her leadership was illegitimate was palpable. The people liked her – 'Rock on Joan' – so the conservatives could not risk her getting traction in office. I often interviewed her on the ABC during this time. I think we both thought that women were taking their place in power. I hadn't predicted the backlash.

Twenty years later, in a salute to her friend and mentor, Julia Gillard wore a black dress with white polka dots when she gave her first press conference as prime minister. Soon though, and out of sight of most decent Australians, demeaning cartoons stole into more personal space: from the kitchen to bedroom, from pots'n'pans to dildos, from a ballooning dress to the vulnerability of nakedness.

Same goal though; steal the legitimacy of a woman in power.

On 24 June 2010, as a popular deputy, Julia Gillard won the leadership of the government in a political coup that shocked the nation. Leadership changes are hardly new in Australian politics – Paul Keating wrenched the prime ministership from the popular Bob Hawke twenty years before – but this was different. The victor was a woman and the press gallery had missed the signs.

While she was in her place as deputy the media had been quite taken by this fiery, smart and rapier-witted parliamentary performer. Indeed, Gillard's public approval ratings were strong. When she was sworn in as the twenty-seventh Prime Minister of Australia she added 14 per cent to the ALP vote. More stunning, according to Barrie Cassidy's The Party Thieves (MUP, 2010) was the new leader's approval rating. In June 2010, Kevin Rudd had an approval rating of minus nineteen, a week later Julia Gillard's was plus nineteen, a breathtaking thirty-eight point turnaround.

SO WHAT HAPPENED? Why was the honeymoon so short?

The conventional mantra is that Gillard rushed to the polls to legitimise her leadership and was rewarded with a hung parliament and a compromised government, stumbling on both politics and policy.

Going to an election before she had put her stamp on the government was unwise, and she has had her share of policy (asylum seekers, pokies reform) and political (elevating Peter Slipper, propping up Craig Thompson) missteps.

It's the shape of the 'legitimacy question' that disturbs me; the higher, never-ending test that applies to this Prime Minister.

Seven months earlier, Tony Abbott wrested leadership of the Opposition from Malcolm Turnbull by one vote. The legitimacy of his victory was not, and has never been, questioned. Yet Gillard, whose ascent in 2010 did not even require a caucus vote her support was so overwhelming, and who again in February 2012 held the leadership with a forty-vote margin, has had to battle the phantom of her right to power.

Outside parliament something was stirring. In the swamps of offended opinion the question of legitimacy took on a dark and gendered blaze. Placards demanding 'Ditch the Witch', 'Ju-Liar' and 'Bob Brown's Bitch' were held high, capturing the cameras and intruding into public consciousness, at rallies opposing the carbon tax. If decent Australians felt a line had been crossed in the vitriol of this political contest, most remained silent. Running through this and other campaigns – including the allegations that as a solicitor two decades prior she was involved in a union slush fund organised by a former lover – is the implication she is an illegitimate prime minister, that she has no morality and somehow this is linked to her gender.

Lancing a leader by calling her a liar is designed to destroy trust. Trust is crucial currency for any politician. Liar is regarded as such a damaging word, its use is forbidden in parliament. If flung in the heat of debate the Speaker declares it unparliamentary and demands it be withdrawn.

I tried to get used to raining insults when as a minister I rose to speak during question time in the Victorian Parliament. A so-called 'celebrity recruit', I was fair game for an opposition stunned to be on the other side of the chamber. Some of the jibes were entertaining – 'Mary, where's your autocue' – most were puerile, but some destructive. One afternoon in the House I was called a 'liar'. It escalated into a protracted stoush.

'This Minister has misled the house,' the opposition cried, lining up to demand my head. I was accused of not tabling all the notes I referred to as I answered their questions. Weeks later they were still at it, with confected fury. The leader nearly blew a gasket: 'For her to tell this House that she was referring to notes was an absolute and utter lie!'

It was a nasty note struck under parliamentary privilege, but he was emboldened. On commercial radio, the Opposition leader was egged on and again declared I had lied.

This was turning a spat in the sandpit into public slander. It was wrong. I wanted to sue. Instead I took guidance from senior Cabinet colleagues, political advice that slow court proceedings would have the matter in court smack bang in the middle of the next election campaign, an unwanted and uncertain distraction. Besides, I hadn't been accused of manslaughter or corruption, plundering the public purse or advancing mates. But I had been accused of being dishonest.

I felt that my integrity was intact and I hoped the public, if they took any notice at all, would be baffled by the parliamentary games. The Opposition continued to complain to the Speaker and the press about my behaviour, but their accusations were not referred to the Privileges Committee and eventually the pantomime fizzled out. I was battered, not beheaded. But it lingered and took some shine off me – and, I realised later, had an additional gendered meaning deep in the male subconscious.

If the word 'liar' is a political weapon that can be used against women, 'witch' is an even more primal image of mysterious female power. History shudders with both the fear of these women – gynaephobia – and the horror of their burning or beheading. Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII's second queen, was famously branded a witch. She was said to have bewitched a king, corrupted his court and isolated a nation. Hilary Mantel, in her Booker prize-winning novels Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies (Fourth Estate 2010 and 2012) paints the sexual dimension into a political narrative from the bloodless perspective of Thomas Cromwell. Chief Minister to Henry and unburdened with moral equivalence, Cromwell astutely assesses Anne as a worthy political opponent, and an opportunist like him. She comes to power, the only way women could in the sixteenth century, through sex and the promise of a male heir. Mantel describes the highly sexualised demise of a woman whose power is feared, her gender mistrusted when she fails to deliver that male heir.

Cromwell and his cabal must not only curb her power, they feel compelled to humiliate and destroy her. In Bring up the Bodies, Cromwell judges Boleyn, 'cold, a woman who took her maidenhead to market and sold it for the best price'. Charges of treason, through adultery, are hurled at her. There are no constraints. Cromwell's coalition brand her a heretic who fears 'neither the law of the land nor the law of God'. They demean her with monstrous extravagance and flimsy and highly sexualised evidence. She will fornicate with her brother to deceive the king with a son who looks like a Boleyn.

The woman cannot be trusted. How the echoes reverberate across the centuries.

Anne Boleyn is arguably the most controversial woman in English history. She is shaped by preoccupations with the mystery of female power, described as a witch, bitch, temptress, cold opportunist, chromed words that still echo here. Though crafting a portrait of Boleyn through Cromwell's eyes, Mantel insists 'Anne remains unexplained.'

JULIA GILLARD ALSO remains unexplained. An unmarried, childless, atheist with a live-in partner is a challenge for conservatives. Yet Gillard seems to embody a particularly potent insult to many of the old boys with megaphones and microphones, some of whom have made less than conventional lifestyle choices themselves.

Older conservative males are driving the bellicosity – the constant demeaning mantra on radio ('she should be chucked in a chaff bag and sunk at sea') is echoed by bloggers and net trolls vilifying her online ('this evil slut'), a ceaseless rant that she is not to be trusted. It seems to come from a deep seam of panic about women in power – and if said often enough builds belief and almost seems normal.

This was the dominant dynamic in focus groups of swinging voters in Queensland in 2009 when premier Anna Bligh was seeking to win the premiership in her own right. 'That bitch is not going to tell me what to do,' was the refrain.

Focus groups both measure and help shape modern politics. The raw, rancid sexism was too much for one witness: 'I heard middle-aged blokes angrily refer to Bligh as "that slut" and "she'll get what's coming to her". It struck me they kept calling her "that bitch".'

Bligh's team gave up on the grumpy old men and focused instead on working mothers prepared to give another woman a go. This was effective in 2009, but could not be sustained against the angry bellicosity in 2012. Even widespread satisfaction with her empathetic leadership during the 2011 floods could not save her from ridicule as the 'weather girl'.

As has so often been the case in Australian politics, Queensland was the off-Broadway tryout for a new style of politics, before the main event in Canberra – in this case demeaning, sexualised and based on gender.

The cohort of older white males fired up and most virulent against a female political leader seem to see in her power the mirror image of their declining influence and potency. The sexual decline of the alpha male is a cruel burden, particularly if your self-image and brand is based on dominance and certitude. It is easy to build a constituency of those men in the marginal seats, beloved of focus groups of all parties, who bluster while their jobs disappear in industrial restructures, and whose personal authority in the family dissipates as wives and daughters soldier on in the services sector.

Pub talk masks the deep pain of diminishing self-belief. 'That bitch' makes handy target practice. Julia Gillard's power has become, under the incantations of the shock jocks and net trolls, sorceress to a declining demographic.

If you want to put one face to this phenomenon, go no further than Alan Belford Jones, AO. He has been at the forefront of the campaign with cruel jibes about chaff bags, saying her father died of shame – until the backlash forced an ungracious apology. Others at the forefront also have ideological agendas or old scores to settle, like the discredited Ralph Blewitt, who came from a steamy stint in Thailand to attack the Prime Minister's memory and actions as a lawyer twenty years before. In one studio interview, Blewitt was asked why according to his Facebook page he spent so much time on the 'Worst PM in History' website and Larry Pickering's lewd cartoons of the PM. His answer, 'I just look at them occasionally for a laugh.'

A laugh at the poisoning of a public figure, the worst form of degrading pornography yet directed at a woman in public life, most certainly the most virulent assault on any Australian Prime Minister.

Anne Summers' research for her Human Rights and Social Justice lecture at the University of Newcastle uncovered a 'whole industry of vilification', sexually crude and designed to undermine Julia Gillard's authority and legitimacy, and described it as the political persecution of Australia's first female Prime Minister.

It is shocking that vile and sexually demeaning drawings were being regularly sent to every member of the federal parliament, and no one called it out. Is female power so mysterious to us and its consequences so threatening it cowers so many? It took the PM herself to name it. In one of her marathon press conferences over the AWU saga she asked and answered the question herself, 'Will the nut jobs on the internet give up? No they won't.'

Love her or loathe her, Julia Gillard is a portrait of resilience, a challenging physiological and political study. What is this steely resilience, this quality that allows some people to be knocked down by life and come back stronger?

Psychologists identify some of the factors as a positive attitude, optimism and an ability to regulate emotions. Julia Gillard seems one of the most controlled human beings on the planet; she doesn't give away pieces of herself, with the unusual ability to regard failure as a form of helpful feedback. Even after misfortune resilient people are able to change course and soldier on. Setbacks prompt the resilient to take risks, as Gillard has done. She flicked a switch and turned weakness into strength. Facing plummeting polls she struck out, intimidated Rudd, called Abbott's sexism and stared down the boys on the slush fund affair. She unleashed a feminist fire that gave Australians a look at courage under pressure. Flipping orthodoxy on its head, Gillard named the election date at the start of the election year (as Harold Holt did in 1966 and New Zealand's John Key did in 2011). Well behind and weighed down by party scandals not of her making, she demonstrates fortitude that had the 'boxing blue' Tony Abbott, the most pugilist Opposition Leader in modern times, lament to his party room 'she just won't lie down and die.'

Gillard happily describes herself as a 'ten pound Pom', a four-year-old arriving in Adelaide from Wales under Australia's assisted-passage migration scheme. In Jacqueline Kent's The Making of Julia Gillard (Viking, 2009), Moira Gillard describes her daughter as 'a very calm child, never let things ruffle her too much'. Gillard led the student debating team at Unley High School – apparently only hesitating when given the affirmative side on the topic: Man should lead. At Adelaide and Melbourne universities studying arts-law in the eighties, she plunged first into student then Victorian ALP politics, then the toughest in the business. According to Kent, Gillard was remembered as single-minded, but reserved. By the time she got to parliament in 1998 she had a searing political apprenticeship under her belt. She was just thirty-seven and not disconcerted by the high-octane activity of the parliamentary anthill, with its bells, rules and swirling allegiances shaping and reshaping like amoeba.

Politics is a collective activity. It works on the numbers which are the reward of long association or group manipulation. She arrived armed with a political network, a faction, friends and foes from a wide political patch and a predilection not to be hemmed in by expectations.

One of her networks is Emily's List, the lobby group successful in propelling 153 progressive women into safe and winnable Labor seats around Australia. When it was formed in 1996, Emily's List fired a rocket through the party, put steel into political affirmative action. It was set up outside the party. Joan Kirner and Carmen Lawrence, Australia's first female Premier, understood women would always be mendicants unless they established an alternative centre of power. Julia Gillard wrote the constitution.

In government both as Deputy PM and PM, she has earned a reputation from allies and enemies as a dogged and skilled negotiator. Making the Fair Work Act, Gillard set up a relentless circuit of consultation and abatement successfully navigating the treacherous shoals of industrial relations policy and the dismantling of John Howard's WorkChoices. Faced with the first Australian hung parliament in forty years after the tawdry 2010 election she out-negotiated Tony Abbott and cobbled together, held together, a minority government and passed significant legislation.

POLITICS, LIKE FIRE, uses people as fuel, and Julia Gillard stoked up Australian politics in the House of Representatives on 9 October 2012 when she let rip at Tony Abbott. 'I say to the Leader of the Opposition I will not be lectured about sexism and misogyny by this man. I will not. And the Government will not be lectured about sexism and misogyny by this man. Not now, not ever.'

On this day hers was a voice sharp with disdain. It faded and almost faltered when she referred to the death of her father whom she loved deeply. 'Can I indicate to the Leader of the Opposition the Government is not dying of shame, my father did not die of shame, what the Leader of the Opposition should be ashamed of is his performance in this Parliament and the sexism he brings with it.'

This was a stunning political persona: fierce, feminist, barely restrained. The speech was an electric shock, firing a charge into a population who had never heard a woman in power speak of sexism. Gillard named it for all women.

Though the nation still divides between those who applaud her and those who are appalled by her, something changed with the 'misogyny speech'. Occasionally in politics, like tennis, you hit the sweet spot when not only does the ball hit the target with laser-like precision but its truth is recognised and appreciated by a surprised audience. So 'I will not be lectured by this man... I will not' echoed around tearooms and boardrooms. Women and girls watched it whooping and punching the air as they heard the Prime Minister put into words a truth they all knew from their own lives. Something shifted. Millions watched on YouTube, American feminists lauded her as a 'badass woman'. Something shifted in Australian civic sensitivity.

Yet the press gallery missed it. The mainly older men and women of the old media were busily, myopically dissecting political tactics, while over their heads around the nation the cri de coeur was causing an emotional tsunami.

Enduring political speeches connect a truth like a ripcord from the mouth of the speaker to the heart of the listener. Gillard's misogyny mantra hit the same sweet spot of knowing as Robert Menzies' Forgotten People oration, Gough Whitlam's It's Time launch, Paul Keating's Redfern and Kevin Rudd's Sorry speeches.

In this country, power has a male face. Women may be accepted as equal partners in politics but not yet equal partners in power. With this speech, the ground began to shift. Win or lose, Julia Eileen Gillard has made a difference to her adopted country. The cultural adjustment is being hard fought. The old media of the press gallery are trying to catch the reverberations and the trolls of the new media are flailing with fury. Gillard is even trying to turn this to advantage. Like Barack Obama, she is taking the political conversation directly to women in open media and chat rooms. She has found her own voice and legitimised theirs.

On that Sunday October morning in Canberra, my daughter congratulated the Prime Minister on her speech. The sun had warmed the eucalyptus in the gum trees and seemed to hold the air still. The PM thanked her, paused, and with the authority of her office and the steely realism of a political warrior acknowledging how much more there was to be done by the next generation, told my daughter, 'Now it's your turn.'


From Griffith Review Edition 40: WOMEN & POWER © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

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