WHEN Julia Gillard announces the date for next year's federal poll, Australia's female Prime Minister will be fighting not just for the Labor government's survival but also the first serious gender election in our history.

WHEN Julia Gillard announces the date for next year's federal poll, Australia's female Prime Minister will be fighting not just for the Labor government's survival but also the first serious gender election in our history. One of many things for which this extraordinary political year will be remembered is the virulent "gender war". It is a new phenomenon in federal politics, partly a function of having a woman prime minister, but by no means totally explained by that.

To have the full-scale gender conflict that we've seen, we needed not just a Julia Gillard but a Tony Abbott as well.

Imagine if Malcolm Turnbull had been leading the Coalition. The sexist campaign some critics have waged against Gillard might still have run, but Labor wouldn't have been able to turn it back on the Opposition Leader.

Abbott has all the attributes to be easily cast as "the enemy" for gender purposes. His slightly sinister manner of walking - square-gaiting, as the Nationals' Barnaby Joyce calls it. His colourful university past, which resurfaced this year, with the claim he had punched a wall beside the head of a woman who'd beaten him in a student election. His youthful intolerance of feminists. His views and record on abortion, including his ill-judged, unsuccessful battle as health minister to keep control over the importation of RU486 - when it was said that, as a result, some Liberal women MPs would never vote for him in a leadership contest.

In this gender war, it is not quite clear who is now the victim: Gillard, who has been subjected to some unfair and on occasion disgusting treatment, or Abbott, trussed up by the government as a caricature of himself.

Gillard does not have a history in the feminist movement. In her tough, determined climb to the top she did not identify herself as a strong "genderist" politician. She shared the values and was supportive, but she did not make women's issues a priority in her own political agenda. In this she was different from the likes of Carmen Lawrence, Tanya Plibersek and Natasha Stott Despoja.

But Gillard becoming prime minister was a victory for Australian feminism and, as she has come under extreme attack, key sisterhood figures have circled her wagon.

Abbott, with the help of a no-nonsense wife and three daughters has, for the most part, grown out of the sexism of his young self, though he still has lapses of language and sensibility. But he's too good a target for Labor strategists to allow him to convince women he is rehabilitated.

Gender - but not a gender war - was a factor in the August 2010 election. Australian National University academic Marian Sawer has written that gender was a "significant undercurrent", reflected in voting intentions - with its management more of a problem for Abbott than Gillard. Abbott's "portrayal of invincibility and invulnerability did not work in his favour, at least among women". Just before the election Labor's primary vote in the Nielsen poll was 36 per cent among men and 41 per cent among women.

Sawer wrote that the leak (from the Rudd camp) revealing Gillard had opposed paid parental leave and the rise in the age pension looked like "an attempt to counter Gillard's advantage among women voters".

For Gillard, her gender is two-edged politically. Anne Summers, introducing her lecture "Her rights at work: the political persecution of Australia's first female prime minister", argued that Gillard "is subjected to far worse than mere double-standards. There is an entire industry of vilification, much of it sexually crude, all of it offensive and designed to undermine her authority." Some of the material is so appalling that Summers presented "vanilla" and "R-rated" versions of her address.

Labor senator Claire Moore says attacking emails coming in have a particular "flavour" to them, with frequent use of terms such as "the Red Bitch", "the Red Queen". The senders include some women. "The carbon pricing got them going," Moore says.

At the same time Gillard, guided by key strategist John McTernan, formerly of Tony Blair's staff, who joined her a year ago, and others in Labor's backroom, has increasingly exploited her gender as a political weapon.

This has happened at two levels, the tactical (which has various fronts) and the emotional.

Her recent function at Kirribilli House for women who reach big online female audiences (including the so-called mummy bloggers) and a similar one earlier in the year were about direct targeting. Eden Riley, who attended the drinks, likens Gillard's seeking out women online to a variant of door-knocking. "Gender politics are being played out online," she says. "The online world has exploded in Australia this year, and women are spearheading the way." There's a contrast here. "I don't see men in Australia building communities [online] in the way women are. There are very few daddy bloggers."

At a policy level, this year's federal budget had a distinct gender pitch, with its schoolkids bonus and tax relief that especially helped low-income and part-time workers.

But what became known as the "misogyny" speech - Gillard's dramatic October 9 shout to women, opening with the arresting declaration "I will not be lectured about sexism and misogyny by this man" - connected in quite another way, surprising even her. Canberra commentators judged it as a political defence in a debate about speaker Peter Slipper (who was forced to resign later in the day) after the revelation of his sexist text messaging.

Many women in the community (even overseas, for it went viral internationally) heard something quite else: a woman hitting out at the perceived bad behaviour towards her of a man. Abbott became a surrogate for the males in their life against whom they had grudges, major or minor.

Lawrence, former federal Labor minister and one-time West Australian premier, believes one reason the speech touched such a chord is that things aren't as good for Australian women as often thought. "The assumption seems to have been made for 10 or 20 years that it was all over, that women had achieved equality. But there are still people out there with pretty unreconstructed views about women's role and women's capacity."

In fact, Lawrence believes attitudes have got worse in the past two decades. "In the '80s people were making an effort. There was much greater willingness to name problems." She points to the small proportion of women on boards. "The level of participation in senior decision-making roles is pretty bloody small - despite having a woman Prime Minister".

And then there is the general struggle in the workplace. The young academic women Lawrence mixes with - she has a professorship at the University of WA - make it "very clear their lives are tougher than those of their male colleagues. And that there are attitudes out there which are derogatory and destructive."

The misogyny address will go down as a landmark political speech; some claim it was for women what Paul Keating's Redfern address was for indigenous Australians. Jennifer Peck, lecturer in linguistics at Macquarie University labels it the "We are Offended" speech. "Fifteen times Julia Gillard referred to being offended, personally or on behalf of women in the wider Australian society. I think that was the key point - that resonated with the women I was speaking to," she says. "Gillard has highlighted gender inequality and foregrounded sexist discourse. In future, gender-biased remarks will be noticed more and tolerated less."

The speech landed a thumping blow on Abbott. The experienced pugilist knew he had been knocked to the mat. He'd get up, but he would carry the injury right up to next year's election campaign. His line to a WA audience in late November that "Never, ever will I attempt to say that, as a man, I have been the victim of powerful forces beyond my control, and how dare any Prime Minister of Australia play the victim card" was really about feeling a victim himself.

When in the final parliamentary week the opposition went all out against Gillard over the 1990s AWU corruption affair involving the PM's then boyfriend, Bruce Wilson, Deputy Opposition Leader Julie Bishop led the attack. Abbott wanted to avoid reinforcing his negative image but also, directly facing off against Gillard had become risky. Better to have woman against woman, though not even a female shield offered safety - Nielsen polling indicated the AWU affair backfired on Abbott.

While the misogyny address had a significant element of spontaneity - asked at the women bloggers function whether she'd intended to make that speech, Gillard said no - the government had been assiduously working up its gender attack against Abbott for a long time.

The Opposition Leader played into Labor's hands when in March 2011 he was pictured at an anti-carbon tax demonstration in front of sexist placards that screamed "JULIAR . . . BOB BROWNS BITCH" and "DITCH THE WITCH". A while later, after Tasmanian Liberal senator David Bushby made a cat noise at Finance Minister Penny Wong, government ministers were quick to tag it to alleged Abbott sexism.

As they go into election year, strategists on both sides are preoccupied with their respective gender challenges: Abbott's women problem, Gillard's man difficulties.

The standard Abbott camp response on the gender front has been to bring out the family (fortunately well stocked with daughters and sisters) and stress how many women surround him, including a formidable female chief of staff, Peta Credlin. The "family card" softens his negatives, and contrasts with a childless opponent. As the Liberals felt the gender assault this year, a Margie Abbott blitz included a testimony to "The Joy of an Ordinary Life". She did well - but then came the misogyny speech.

The Abbott camp now outlines a five-pronged fightback strategy. First, promote the policies attractive to women. His kit includes the generous parental leave scheme, and asking the Productivity Commission to look at childcare, including funding "nannies". Second, stress unity and accuse Labor of promoting division, whether class or gender.

Third: hit back with the rapid response. After Plibersek's article on Wednesday on women's blog Mamamia stirring the abortion/RU486 issue, Bishop (who is pro-choice) had a Thursday article on the site declaring Abbott's "consistent position" has been that the Therapeutic Goods Administration has sole responsibility for RU486 "and he has confirmed that he will not change that arrangement in government".

Fourth: provide reassurance. Abbott will take opportunities personally to try to put some of his past behind him. Fifth: invoke the positives of his record as health minister, and deploy the Abbottesses.

Nevertheless, Abbott's image is ingrained. He's never going to be popular among women. The Liberals are about trying to limit his unpopularity. Liberal strategists also say that out in the key marginals, where it counts, the nuts and bolts issues, such as cost of living, overpower gender concerns. Nevertheless there is an alert-and-alarmed quality to the Liberals' careful watch on what the ALP is up to.

Labor feels that it's on the "side of the wave" with the women's vote. It's encouraged by President Barack Obama's success, to which women were crucial. Women are increasing their influence in the community. The big question has now become whether Labor can build further its support among them.

Then there are the men. Like Abbott with women, Gillard will never be a hit with the guys - it's a matter of attempting some improvement. (Although on preferred PM, the December Nielsen poll has her leading Abbott 47-44 per cent among men.) The carbon tax might have faded as an issue but Labor still picks up that it is costing support among males. Older men with jobs in manufacturing are fearful about the future.

Among the ALP election planners there is a debate about how to balance the pursuit of the female and male votes. Given a current five-point gender gap in Labor's support (Nielsen has the ALP at 32 per cent among men and 37 per cent among women), one school of Labor thought goes so far as to claim gender will be the primary structural feature of next year's campaign - the election will actually be gender-driven. Gillard is seen as mainly connecting with and talking to women, with the ability to garner even more of their votes. Lock in the female support, then sweep up what male voters you can get. On this view, pursuing the females - where Labor already has "cut through connectivity" - is the broad strategic objective, while strengthening the position with men is regarded as more tactical, the detail to differ from state to state.

The nature of some key 2013 election issues plays to the women strategy, including disability insurance (overwhelmingly carers are female) and education. Nielsen polling found 24 per cent of women chose education when asked which of several issues would most influence their vote, compared with 15 per cent of men.

Others in Labor are strongly focused on cultivating the female vote but say the key is to put it into a wider frame of "families" and "modern Australia". What concerns women concerns aspirational families - those dads are worried about childcare too. Labor's attack on Abbott as a misogynist broadens into painting him as old-fashioned, not a "modern" man, despite his latter-day embrace of policies such as paid parental leave.

Then there are those who want to maximise the female vote but are becoming heavily focused on the males. The men are particularly Industry Minister Greg Combet's challenge - there will be an industry package early next year.

Julia Baird, author of Media Tarts: How the Australian Press Frames Female Politicians, is fascinated by the unfolding battle. "Most women have thought that to play the gender card would count against them. Gillard's using gender to her advantage. She's accusing her opponent of sexism, which works for her.

"Without that speech I don't think gender would be playing out so forcefully," says Baird, describing the address as "almost like a dog whistle for women".

"This is an important debate to have, and the fact that Gillard pulled herself up in the polls as a result is an extraordinary achievement," Baird says. But she warns that the ALP will have to be careful it doesn't over-extend, risking its strategy being seen as a cynical political ploy, because gender is "an unpredictable, volatile issue in the electorate".

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