With an election looming this year, political pundits predict that gender will be a key battleground, one that could determine if Julia Gillard manages to win a second term. Kathy Marks reports from Sydney
Gillard, Abbott set to square off in Australia's first 'gender election'
SYDNEY // Julia Gillard became a YouTube star and a feminist torchbearer around the world when she launched a devastating attack on Australia's opposition leader, Tony Abbott, accusing him of sexism and misogyny.
Now she has to win an uphill battle for re-election.
With an election looming this year, political pundits are predicting that gender will be a key battleground, one that could determined if Ms Gillard manages to win a second term.
Ms Gillard and her ruling Labor Party spent 2012 languishing well behind Mr Abbott's Liberal-National Party Coalition in the opinion polls. However, her personal ratings improved following her famous parliamentary speech in October, and the first poll of 2013 conducted by Newspolls recorded a six-point rise in support for Labor, putting it only two points behind the conservative coalition.
Yet, her government is unpopular for introducing a carbon tax on industrial polluters. Scandals rippled through her administration: a Labor MP, Craig Thomson, was suspended from the party over allegations of misusing trade union funds while the parliamentary speaker, Peter Slipper, was forced to resign for exchanging offensive text messages with a former aide.
It was the Slipper affair that prompted her blistering speech, in which she denounced Mr Abbott for sexism and misogyny, citing - among numerous other examples - his call for her to "make an honest woman of herself". Ms Gillard is unmarried and lives with her partner. Mr Abbott went on to describe abortion as "the easy way out", and his characterisation of Australian women as "housewives … [who] do the ironing".
Ms Gillard's speech won her plaudits from world leaders including Barack Obama. It also touched a raw nerve in the opposition. For although it may be ahead in the polls, Mr Abbott's personal ratings are low - and that is attributed partly to him being distrusted by women. A staunch Roman Catholic and social conservative, he is seen as a "man's man", with an inability to connect with women and take them seriously.
With an election expected by the fall, the opposition leader began his campaign at Christmas, when he dispatched cards bearing a photograph of himself with his wife, Margie, and their three adult daughters. The message was clear: Tony Abbott knows and understands women.
Then, three weeks ago, the women's magazine Marie Claire and a clutch of high-circulation Sunday newspapers carried interviews with Peta Credlin, Mr Abbott's chief of staff, in which she revealed that he had supported her during her (ultimately fruitless) attempts to conceive via in vitro fertilisation (IVF), even offering to store her fertility drugs in his parliamentary fridge.
While her story was moving, her decision to tell it to a mass audience was clearly aimed at overturning perceptions that Mr Abbott disapproves of IVF. Ms Credlin also insisted that her boss supports contraception and has no wish to ban or limit abortion.
Labor strategists, meanwhile, are determined to capitalise on Ms Gillard's enhanced standing among women. In recent weeks, the prime minister has invited influential female bloggers to receptions at her Sydney residence, and vowed to rid Australia of the practice of female genital mutilation. Thus the stage is set for what Michelle Grattan, the veteran political editor of The Age, has forecast will be "the first serious gender election in our history".
Since she replaced Kevin Rudd in 2010, Australia's first female prime minister has been subjected to a constant stream of remarks about her clothes, hairstyle, figure and even her accent. Cartoons featuring degrading and obscene images of her have been widely circulated in chain emails.
One of the country's leading feminists, the author and journalist Anne Summers, delivered an excoriating lecture last August in which she outlined, in forensic detail, how Ms Gillard has been "attacked, vilified and demeaned in ways that are specifically related to her … gender" by opposition politicians, commentators, cartoonists and bloggers.
John Wanna, a politics professor at the Australian National University, agrees that "a lot of Australians are having difficulty with the notion of a woman in charge". But he believes that other factors - including that she is unmarried, has no children and is an avowed atheist - "make her a very challenging person" for voters to accept.
While the "misogyny speech" stirred debate about inequalities in Australian society - like a 17.5 per cent pay gap between men and women - Ms Gillard's critics say she has done little to improve the lot of women. Single mothers recently had their state benefits cut by about 100 Australian dollars (Dh382) a week.
Mr Abbott has made much of the fact that Ms Gillard pledged, before the last election, that she would not introduce a carbon tax - then became the latest in a long line of politicians to break an election promise. He branded her "a liar", a term that has stuck.
Antony Green, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's election analyst, says female politicians are judged far more harshly than their male counterparts, because "people expect male politicians to lie and bend the truth" but expect women to behave better.
He doubts that gender-related issues will play a significant part in whether Labor is returned to power. "Maybe I'm old fashioned, but I still think that attitudes to the economy decide elections."