Legitimacy, lunacy and the gender agenda

Article by Lauren Rosewarne /
ABC The Drum /
September 13, 2010 /

Click here to view original /

The sad efforts made by TV news to gussy up coverage (cue clumsy visits to Gillard Street in Brighton East and Abbott Street in Gunnedah). And then there are all those bloody political illiterates.

Way back in July, back before the campaign started, back before voters used their ballot papers to kvetch, back before both sides were forced to listen to crackpot Katter with straight faces, the politically illiterate were bandying about words like legitimacy: just how legitimate a prime minister was Julia? Alarmingly, she feed this insanity herself by agreeing to wait before moving into the Lodge. To wait until she was voted in by the public.

How many times do political scientists have to repeat that Australia doesn’t have a presidential voting system? The vast majority of us didn’t see Tony or Julia’s name on our ballot papers because we simply don’t live in their electorates.

The media turn it into a two-horse race, parties themselves often play the same game, but this just isn’t how the system works. We vote in our local electorate, a party (God-willing) holds the majority and then the party chooses the PM.

I got a phone call a week or so ago from a journalist writing about gender and the election. She asked me whether I thought Julia’s gender was the reason behind the result. An interesting question; a question that was at the forefront of my mind throughout the campaign. In the wash-up however, I suspect gender played only the scantest of roles.

Way back in July there was much talk about whether Australia was ready for a female PM. Of course, those delightfully ordinary folk in Brighton East and Gunnedah weren’t musing about this, rather, it was journalists posing the question. Journalists put gender on the agenda, journalists asked whether we cared, and most of us, rightly, just shrugged and speculated that other issues were at hand.

As a political scientist, it was my job to watch the election. Closely. No, not a particularly enjoyable task, but the life of an academic is fraught. Indeed, early on and Julia’s dress sense was criticised. Early on and there was indeed stupid talk about a clothing allowance. Early on and her hairstyles were scrutinised, her lover was scrutinised, there was that inevitable Women’s Weekly spread sans boa. Do we blame this for Labor’s horrible result? No, much sadder factors explain the mess.

A couple of weeks before the election I went on a date with a lovely man who seemed to have absolutely no interest in politics. Not normally a problem: there are only a handful of times each decade when the issue would even come up; alas, that night was one of them. Over dinner, casually, I asked him who he planned to vote for. He was cagey but – after an extensive amount of prodding – I didn’t get the answer I wanted. Gently I tried to coerce him to explain himself; surely he had good reason (read: surely I could make him see the error of his ways). He ate a few more mouthfuls and then politely suggested we not talk about politics. Fair enough, fair enough. We only had that one date.

As someone disproportionately interested in politics, of course, I admit that part of me does believe that if people knew more about politics they’d never vote conservative. I know it’s arrogant; Liberal voters keep telling me it’s arrogant. On the flipside, as an academic, as a writer, I’m always very open to new ideas, to being corrected. A bloke voting Liberal on its own isn’t a deal breaker. It’s the voting Liberal and not being able to explain his vote that’s the problem.

It would be so much easier to blame the election result on a public not being ready for a female leader. To pretend that we don’t like em’ childless; don’t like em’ without the ring on the finger. It would be easy to pretend we’re all so easily wooed by images of Tony and daughter at the fish market re-enacting the knife-goes-in-guts-come-out scene from The Simpsons. Seduced by images of Tony and daughter walking down a staircase holding hands. That somehow crazy Mark Latham made us rethink our vote. Of course, I dare say we dramatically overestimate media effects.

What we dramatically underestimate however, is our broad lack of understanding about politics. People readily cast supposed protest votes without casting any thought to a) what they were protesting about and b) how the preferential voting system works. People spoke about voting for Abbott, voting for Gillard, without having any idea who their local member was. People voted Greens with negligible knowledge of Greens policies. Most disturbingly of all were those who spuriously voted to protect the honour of the former PM; a man who, pre-ousting polls, showed that they didn’t much care for. What’s going on here?

Our first female PM is an easy target. An easy target because of her gender, an easy target because of her messy July ascension and an easy target because her Tuesday “victory” again puts an asterisk against her prime ministership. An asterisk perhaps, but one that makes her prime ministership no less legitimate and certainly no less real than those that came before her.

© Lauren Rosewarne