x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Australia: a look in the mirror produces 'an ugly reflection'

Vilification of the country's female prime minister, demeaning treatment of women in the military and an apparent tolerance of racism bode badly for a supposedly progressive society. Kathy Marks reports from Sydney

SYDNEY // When Julia Gillard warned recently that defeat for her ruling Labor Party would lead to women being banished from political life, she was accused of playing the "gender card". Less than 24 hours later, graphic evidence emerged of the sexism and misogyny which have dogged her since she became Australia's first female prime minister.

A menu prepared by a Brisbane restaurant for a fund-raising dinner in March for the opposition Liberal National Party, ahead of an election in September, featured a dish named "Julia Gillard Kentucky Fried Quail" and described Ms Gillard in crude sexual terms. Although the restaurant owner insisted that the menu - which came to light last Wednesday - was a joke and was never distributed, the prime minister claimed it was typical of the opposition party's attitude towards women.

The following day, Ms Gillard - who is facing almost certain defeat at the polls - was subjected to yet more humiliation, when a Perth talkback radio host, Howard Sattler, grilled her about the sexuality of her partner, Tim Mathieson, a hairdresser. The interview drew widespread condemnation, and led to Mr Sattler being suspended, then sacked.

Outside the political realm, meanwhile, the coach of the Australian football team, Holger Osieck, was caught on camera last week remarking during a post-match press conference that "women should shut up in public". And the Australian Army revealed it had suspended three officers and was investigating another 100 personnel over "demeaning and explicit" photographs and videos. It was the latest in a series of sex scandals to hit the Australian military.

All in all, said Norm Abjorensen, a political scientist at the Australian National University (ANU), "we're looking in the mirror and seeing a fairly ugly reflection of the nation at the moment". As well as the "rampant misogyny", he points to high rates of domestic violence in Australia, and the 17-year gap in life expectancy between Anglo-Australians and Aboriginal people.

Public debate has also focused, lately, on Australians' apparent tolerance of racism, following an incident last month in which an Aboriginal footballer, Adam Goodes, was called an "ape" by a young fan at a match. A few days later, a prominent media and sports personality, Eddie McGuire, suggested on national radio that Goodes could help publicise the new King Kong musical. He was merely reprimanded.

In relation to Ms Gillard, Dr Abjorensen says: "It's clear that a large segment of the Australian population still can't accept the idea of a woman as prime minister. She has put up with a degree of political vilification that we've never before seen in a leader in Australia … It's been a real eye-opener for me. We're not the liberal, progressive society that we've been telling ourselves we are."

The irony is that leading female commentators had condemned Ms Gillard's June 11 speech, in which she warned that women's voices would be silenced under a Liberal-National Party government. She also said government would be run by "men in blue ties", and warned that abortion rights would be curtailed.

Writing on the Crikey news website, Eva Cox, a veteran women's rights campaigner, described the speech as "a rather desperate attempt to exploit … gender tensions". She also said the prime minister's policies did not match her rhetoric. Single mothers recently had their state benefits reduced, and Ms Gillard has resisted calls to select a female candidate for a safe Labor seat.

Many observers saw the speech as an attempt to emulate a tirade which Ms Gillard delivered in parliament last year, in which she accused the opposition leader, Tony Abbott, of sexism and misogyny. That performance won plaudits from women worldwide and transformed her into a YouTube star.

Mr Abbott's deputy, Julie Bishop, called her latest speech "a crude political ploy from a desperate PM leading a bitterly divided party".

While the incidents involving the menu and radio interview won Ms Gillard some sympathy, they are unlikely to transform her political fortunes. With Labor at historic lows in the opinion polls, her MPs are increasingly restive, with many reportedly wanting Ms Gillard to be replaced by her predecessor, Kevin Rudd, whom she ousted three years ago.

Last week, as speculation mounted about a possible leadership challenge, Mr Rudd guaranteed himself a high profile by touring marginal seats in Victoria and western Sydney, where he was mobbed by voters. The polls suggest Labor would fare much better at the election under him, although he still might not win.

With parliament resuming this week for the final fortnight before a long recess, and then the election, political experts say Ms Gillard's own party may move to depose her. She has resisted calls to stand down.

John Wanna, a politics professor at the ANU, said: "I think the Labor Party are really spooked, and anything [such as another bad poll] might push them over the edge."