Overreach in Gillard's gender speech

Yesterday was the moment Julia Gillard's 'gender card' became a liability rather than an asset, as she herself turned women's health into a political plaything.

Watching the epic election campaign unfold in recent months, many commentators have scratched their heads and wondered, “where’s the strategy?”

Could the chaotic policy and political messaging of Labor have some unifying plan behind it? Is there some golden thread tying the disjointed communications disasters together so that, as with watching Nicole Kidman in ‘The Others', the audience lets out a giant ‘Aaaaah!’ just before the end of this drawn-out show? (Without wishing to spoil that film, its plot fools the audience until the last minute, at which point the inversion of what is ‘real’ is breathtaking.)

One likely scenario in the communication strategy devised by former Tony Blair adviser John McTernan is that some of the killer punches of the campaign are held in reserve until the right moment nearer to the election.

But yesterday one of those punches was thrown, and thrown badly. Julia Gillard played the ‘gender card’, but the media coaching and preparation for this part of the campaign strategy seems to have been very badly fluffed.

At the launch of the ‘Women for Gillard’ group, which aims to raise money to fund the PM’s re-election pitch, Gillard said: “On that day, 14 September, we are going to make a big decision as a nation. It’s a decision about whether, once again, we will banish women’s voices from our political life.

“I invite you to imagine it. A prime minister – a man in a blue tie – who goes on holidays to be replaced by a man in a blue tie. A treasurer, who delivers a budget wearing a blue tie, to be supported by a finance minister – another man in a blue tie. Women once again banished from the centre of Australia’s political life.”

Now let me make one thing crystal clear. As a bloke, I think up to that point that Gillard was politically on the money. There has been far too little comment in the press, from men or women, about the huge symbolic significance of our first female PM.

Julie Bishop, who was incensed by Gillard’s comments yesterday, may be deputy leader of the Coalition, but shouldn’t she have been in the frame as a potential Treasurer, or leader of her party too?

Why not? The widely held view that Treasurer-in-waiting Joe Hockey has come a long way in the past 18 months in his grasp of economics begs the question, why wasn’t the deputy leader given that same opportunity? And when will the Coalition be led by a woman?

So for Gillard to throw out a few lines about men in blue ties is fair enough (even if Wayne Swan also wore a blue tie for this year’s budget address).

But then at the end of the speech, surrounded by true believers, Gillard also said: “We don’t want to live in an Australia where abortion again becomes the political plaything of men who think they know better.” And that’s the moment at which the ‘gender card’ becomes a strategic liability rather than an asset. 

This columnist does not think that he knows better than women on this most difficult of issues. However, the balance of legislation that exists in states and territories around the country has only been achieved by long political struggles. That balance, though upsetting to people of both sides of the debate, is valuable and should not be tinkered with lightly.

That is why the Coalition is resisting pressure from right-leaning lobby groups to tighten laws. That is, the Abbott-led Coalition has no plans to push for any changes to abortion laws – which, anyway, would involve very difficult negotiations over what is constitutionally a matter for the states.

So why put it into a speech? Why whip up a frenzy of passion over balanced laws that were so hard to arrive at in the first place?

If it is for the cynical intent of inciting public protests from both sides to embarrass Abbott, whose late 1990s gaffes on the issue are well known, then it is truly putting the reproductive health of women second to the needs of the ALP to avoid decimation at the September 14 election.

Whichever strategist worked the word ‘plaything’ into the speech, or included the issue at all without acknowledging that the major parties largely agree on this issue, has done the Gillard campaign a great disservice.

Gillard must now downplay this incendiary topic and hope that she can still find traction in the raft of important gender-based issues that can actually deliver better outcomes to the women of Australia, and thereby, to Australia itself. 

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