Famed for its soap opera’s; Home and Away and Neighbours have been enthralling viewers round the world for years but beyond Australian TV it is the national politics of Australia that has really caught the attention of the world’s media. The ousting of Prime Minister Julia Gillard this week was arguably the series finale after a season of toxic exchanges and political scandals, rarely seen within the modern democracies of the world.
Act I: ‘The End of Kevin Rudd’
It all started in 2010. Kevin Rudd had been the man who brought the Australian Labour Party to victory in 2007 but despite endearing himself to many within the Australian public, there were those who questioned his ability to lead not only the party but also the country. Many criticised his leadership style and his ability to work with colleagues. However, following a series of political failures on the part of Kevin Rudd, this questioning tone became aggressive and in June 2010 Rudd’s deputy Julia Gillard announced her intention to challenge his leadership. The stage was now set for an epic battle between two leading figures of the Labour Party, but only hours before the vote was to commence Rudd resigned his position as leader realising he did not have the support of the party.
With that Gillard has secured her position as Australia’s Prime Minister; the first woman to hold this position, but having ousted a previously popular leader she had alienated many within the Australian public. In the soap opera of Australian politics she was portrayed as the ruthless female lead who had launched a brutal attack to achieve political power. But despite the detractors her position as Australia’s first female leader was lauded around the world and many believed that after political stagnation under Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard would reinvigorate Australian politics.
However, despite achieving power, Gillard quickly came under fire from the opposition. In the 2010 election the Labour Party was hit hard by the political infighting and Australia was pushed into its first hung parliament since the 1940’s. Many thought Gillard’s political coup had been a short-lived phenomenon and that the Liberals were preparing to take back control of the government, but Gillard used her skill at political maneuvering to secure a Labour victory. She could now move forward and cement her victory, pushing for the new Australia she had envisaged when launching her political coup.
Act II: “A Sexist, A Misogynist, A Hypocrite”
However although the opening exchanges had seen big political attacks, it was the protracted and heated scandals of the Gillard administration that shocked the world’s media so thoroughly. Here the script writer would introduce Tony Abbot as the Opposition Leader and leader of the Australian Liberal Party. Now that the infighting within Labour had been resolved, Abbot was promoted to a series regular and he along with many within right-wing Australia began a brutal assault on Prime Minister Gillard.
Opposition MP’s have referred to Australia’s first female Prime Minister as a “bitch”, a “witch”, “deliberately barren” and Gillard has frequently had to defend herself against the scrutiny and jibes that arguably only a female politician would have to endure. Her most famous rebuttal was against Tony Abbot himself, who has long been noted for his controversial conservative politics and his inability to connect with female voters. Gillard denounced the opposition leader as a sexist misogynist declaring:
“I say to the Leader of the Opposition I will not be lectured about sexism and misogyny by this man. I will not…if he wants to know what misogyny looks like in modern Australia, he doesn’t need a motion in the House of Representatives, he needs a mirror…I was also very offended on behalf of the women of Australia when in the course of this carbon pricing campaign, the Leader of the Opposition said “What the housewives of Australia need to understand as they do the ironing…” Thank you for that painting of women’s roles in modern Australia…I was offended when the Leader of the Opposition stood next to a sign that described me as a man’s bitch. I was offended by those things. Misogyny, sexism, every day from this Leader of the Opposition.”
– Julia Gillard, Speech to Parliament, October, 2012
This speech demonstrated the degeneration of Australian politics. In the 21st century Gillard was forced to defend herself and her sex from repeated attacks by other politicians, who are themselves seeking to govern one of the world’s largest democracies. In soap opera terms this speech was the impassioned moment where the TV villain (in this case Tony Abbott) is confronted by the other characters and it proved to be a ratings hit around the world.
Act III: ‘Gillard is Worn Down’
However Gillard’s much applauded speech did not cement her position as a the Australian leader or as a female icon. She has continued to fend off repeated personal attacks throughout her leadership and in recent months more occurrences of sexism have blighted the Gillard administration. Firstly there was the scandal caused by a menu at a dinner for a Liberal Party candidate. At the fundraiser the menu offered a ‘Julia Gillard quail’ with “small breasts, huge thighs and a big red box”. This sexist attack on the Prime Minister’s appearance was widely criticised by both sides of the political spectrum but it confirmed how embattled Gillard’s position had become. More personal attacks, including questions of her partner’s sexuality from one of Australia’s many shock-and-awe radio personalities, have only put more pressure on the Prime Minister.
This barrage came to a climax in 2013 when Kevin Rudd began his mission to gain back his position at the top of Australian politics. Gillard rebuffed one challenge to her leadership but eventually, in June, gave in and declared that a leadership contest would take place. The powerful female lead would take on the maligned and angry character, desperately seeking revenge. In the end Gillard was pushed aside by Kevin Rudd and he managed to once again establish himself as Australia’s leader. The finale to the soap opera was both dramatic and shocking; a story-line that pitched two political giants in Australia against each other.
Epilogue: ‘A Look to the Next Series’
Now that the dust is beginning to settle; now that viewers can come to terms with the shocking twist on this Australian political soap we can reflect on the events that occurred. Although it is easy to vilify Australia’s male politicians we must be careful not to perceive Gillard’s eventual ousting as an overwhelming attack on an innocent bystander. In the end Gillard has fallen foul of a leader who she herself had outed only several years before; who she had gone for and who many argued had stabbed in the back. But she may have been able to defend effectively against Kevin Rudd had it not been for the personal persona she had created. Although Australians praised her strong and effective politics and her ability to stand against political sexism she was never seen as a warm or friendly leader. Her often cold and official approach to public relations made her the ‘Ice Queen’ of this Australian soap and was surely a factor in her downfall.
However, despite her personal manner, the shocking nature of Australian politics during her period as leader should not be overlooked. Gillard faced sexism and entrenched and outdated thinking on a daily basis. The Labour party tore themselves apart in order to elect her and they tore themselves apart again to remove her from office and meanwhile the Liberal Party had been the dogged opposition always seeking to rip apart Australia’s first female Prime Minister. With a media that has increasingly relied upon shock-and-awe tactics to further inflate political scandals and disagreements this political drama has become a full blown soap opera.
With the next general election looming very close for Australian politicians the country is left on the edge of its seat as viewers wait eagerly for the next series. With all the drama of these episodes the public are left wondering what is next for Australia. Will viewers be enthralled by a political death or be heartbroken by an MP’s descent into alcoholism/drug abuse/domestic violence/prostitution or will we see another dramatic return of a politician who we had all previously thought to have died a great political death.
With Gillard exiting stage left there is an opening for a new female lead but after the nation’s response to the first female Prime Minister it may be some time till one is brave enough to step into the role and take on the soap opera of Australian politics.
By Peter Banham