Prime ministerial perceptions and the gender agenda

Article by Lauren Rosewarne /
ABC The Drum /
February 23, 2012 /

Click here to view original /

My feminism isn’t of the paranoid ilk. I’ve never been interested in picking scabs until a gender issue bleeds: serious stuff should most definitely get spotlighted, but I’m happy to leave the long bows on the shelf.

But gender is an issue in the current leadership stoush. Gender remains on the agenda because it explains both Julia’s lack of popularity and fickle voters’ contemporary love of Kevin. Gender remains an issue because throughout this 20-month drama Kevin has looked like the normal, the standard and the status quo and has rendered Julia looking like the outlier, like a fraud and like a failed experiment.

Because a man can look presidential and a woman can’t.

The very best thing about Julia’s rise to the top job was for her to exist as proof that a different kind of leadership is possible. To teach us all that the prime ministership isn’t naturally a man’s job. In theory, her ascension was to normalise that leadership comes in all sizes, styles, haircuts and heal-heights and to remind schoolgirls that aspiring to the top job is every bit the possibility.

In practice this didn’t work, but that was certainly the theory.

It didn’t work because of Kevin (bloody) Rudd. It didn’t work because of Julia’s fatal mistake of granting an ousted – and once incredibly popular leader – an incredibly high-profile job. It didn’t work because for all his swearing and control freakery and general jerkiness, Kevin looked the part. He spoke the way we all expect a PM to speak, looked the way we expect a PM to look, and throughout her leadership hovered as a reminder of a time when things were normal.

Kevin already had the job. By staying close, by looking over Julia’s shoulder, he consistently conveyed the oh-so-subtle impression of dad giving his daughter a laughable go at changing the tyre herself. Hardly working to normalise the notion of a female PM. Most definitely working to paint Rudd as the reasonable option.

Rudd’s 2010 resignation speech was fantastic, quite possibly one of the best he’d ever given. So much so that the very second he gave it, we all started to miss him. Voters forgot why we’d been telling pollsters that we’d stopped loving him; all was suddenly forgiven. And from that very moment, Rudd planted the seeds of doubt about whether the female experiment could work.

And he did it all again from Washington last night, in typical elder statesman fashion. Again reminding us that the Julia trial was a blip, was poor judgment and that it’s now time we all wake up to ourselves.

Rudd, by virtue of a penis, by virtue of a short-back-and-sides haircut and by virtue of the deeper voice, can get behind a lectern and look presidential in a way that Julia has never been able to. In an ideal world – in my ideal world – picturing a PM would be akin to picturing a singer or a small business operator and would be completely disconnected from gender. But Julia failed to neutralise the top job gender and so we all default to wanting our old normal.

Whether Rudd gets up matters little, the damage has been done to Julia and to the popular palatability of a female PM. Calls for calmer heads and for stable leadership are just a politically correct way of calling for a bloke back. Because voters like clean and voters like normal.

© Lauren Rosewarne