WORDS Olivia Whenman
No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.
– Winston Churchill 1874-1965
History books will always refer to Julia Gillard as Australia’s first female Prime Minister. Her name will be added to the list that already includes Edith Cowan (Australia’s first female parliamentarian), Suzanne Baker (Australia’s first female Academy Award winner), Elizabeth Blackburn (Australia’s first female Nobel Prize laureate) and Nova Peris OAM (first female Aboriginal Australian to win an Olympic gold medal). All their names have been added to this list in the last 100 years. This couldn’t have happened without democracy.
This precise democracy started in Australia at the start of the 20th century with the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act (1900). Since then many events have shaped Australia including:Women were given the right to vote in Australia in 1902, Australia deployed troops in World War I in 1914 and World War II in 1939, Aboriginal Australians were no longer classified as flora and fauna in 1967, The White Australia policy was implemented in 1975, Australia became independent of the British parliament and legal system in 1986, The Bali Bombings happened in 2002 while the Cronulla Riots occurred in 2005, The Australian government apologised to the ‘Stolen Generation’ in 2008, Julia Gillard became the first female Prime Minister of Australia in 2010 and then Kevin Rudd became the second Prime Minister to return to office in 2013.
All of these events have impacted Australia and Australian’s significantly culturally, politically and/or economically. It’s apparent, as a nation Australia has overcome many barriers in 100 years. There is an increasing worry that we are actually going backwards, and not in the cool moonwalking (circa 1983) way.
This is why Mary Crooks of the Victorian Women’s Trust wrote A Switch in Time – restoring respect to Australian politics last year, in a bid to address the holes in democratic Australia. She feels sexism, misogyny, and a lack of focus on global science and policy, and media ‘group think’ our sending Australia back to the Dark Ages. She’s not alone. This year The Irish Times openly remarked, “How does Gillard engender such naked, visceral hatred? It is a hatred remarkable even for a country that sometimes seems to be the land that political correctness forgot.”
Now last time I checked, Australia was considered a modern country. It’s international articles like the one from The Irish Times that make me question that maybe we really are losing touch. In her book, Crooks’ suggests our frequent cries for an immediate government re-election is already a reflection of our national regression. She asserts that, “According to the Westminster system, a fresh election is…not brought on because some aggrieved people and/or influential lobby groups want one.
“It is instructive to recall that the majority of Australians opposed the invasion of Iraq under the Howard Liberal/National Party Coalition. Although protests were strong, a fresh election was not called for.”
Currently, the Australian government is a minority government. A minority government according to the Oxford dictionary is “a government in which the governing party has most seats but still less than half the total.” Crooks says that the Australian public is unsettled because we have been led to believe that the minority government “is illegitimate and, by definition, less capable than either a Liberal/National Coalition Government or a Labor Government governing in its own right.”
But isn’t that the problem in itself? That a minority is always seen as having less legitimacy, less of a say, less of voice than the majority because clearly they can’t simply do what the majority can? Minority groups in Australia have more in common with the Australian government more than ever.
Giving Minorities a ‘Fair Go’
Women, as a political minority group, often have to reinforce their position in society. Senator Bill Heffernan called Former Prime Minister, Julia Gillard “deliberately barren” in 2007 because of her lack of children. So clearly he knows how female biology works and the fact that in Australia the pill has been available to women since 1961 (this doesn’t actually make you barren), and that also nearly one in six couples experience infertility (and hence they are “barren” but not by choice). Heffernan’s criticism of Julia Gillard was uncouth at best and misogynistic at worst. And it doesn’t end there.
Just this year, the embarrassing restaurant menu gaffe, which referred to Gillard as “Julia Gillard Kentucky Fried Quail – Small Breasts, Huge Thighs and a Big Red Box” at a Liberal Party function, was leaked. As Crook’s mentions, “Cartoons take the ‘mickey’ out of a male Opposition leader who chooses to emphasise his ageless, alpha maleness by wearing ‘budgie smugglers’.
What is important is that depictions such as these are not sexist. They highlight some personality characteristics but they are not demeaning the subject’s maleness and, crucially, they do not translate to negative judgements of their political skill, political authority and capability. Indeed, rather than diminish public perceptions of strengths or capacity, the outcome can sometimes be an increase in popularity.”
So was the restaurant menu trying to highlight Julia Gillard’s personality? Well, no. If Julia Gillard breasts and vagina were her personality and not biological manifestations of her sex, then yeah, that restaurant menu wouldn’t be sexist. In terms of democracy all this means is that people like Tony Abbott, Alan Jones and Howard Sattler, men from a majority group (i.e. white men) need to stop take onboard the wise words of Mark Twain and remember, “Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.”
[quote]Just like feminism fights against a society that has told women and still tells women they don’t deserve the right to vote, the Australian government has to fight against a society that tells them they aren’t capable because they are a minority.[/quote]
In the case of Julia Gillard, Australia turned to petty and nonsensical bullying, as if the two minority situations were one and the same. In A Switch in Time, Crooks believes the Australian public has been subjected to ‘group think’ and therefore are reflecting a majority discourse that conveys a minority government just can’t work. This has come about because it “suits the interests of some to do so.” Just like feminism fights against a society that has told women, and still tells women, that they don’t deserve the right to vote, the Australian government has to fight against a society that tells them they aren’t capable because they are a minority. Just recently, the Australian government introduced the National Disability Insurance Scheme, a great step towards addressing the rights of many Australians. A minority government was capable of creating a new system that would benefit thousands of people around the country.
Rights are something democracy fights for every day. The current government knows this more than ever as they are constantly fighting for their own rights in the public domain. It is because of this they are in a unique position whereby just by being a minority government they inadvertently reflect the issues of minority groups by sheer association. The sexist and misogynist comments towards Julia Gillard reflect this. The racism and discrimination directed towards Ed Husic reflects this. Whatever happened to a fair go?