Some Thoughts About Australia’s New PM, Julia Gillard

On 24 June 2010, the Hon Julia Gillard MP was sworn in as Prime Minister of Australia by Her Excellency Ms Quentin Bryce, the Governor-General of Australia. And when that happened, she made history. She became the first female prime minister, and the first PM born outside Australia since 1915 (Bill Hughes, who was born in London). She’s the first unmarried PM, although other PM’s have been widowers at the time of office. She’s childless (although a recent letter to The Age stressed we should call her “child-free”, as she hasn’t lost any children) and openly atheist. So what does this all mean?

The Woman Thing.

In 1960, Sirimavo Bandaranaike became the first female Prime Minister in modern times when she was elected PM of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). Since then there have been 87 female heads of government, from Indira Gandhi (India, 1966) to Margaret Thatcher (UK, 1979), from Benazir Bhutto (Pakistan, 1993) to Helen Clark (New Zealand, 1999). Who’s to say why it’s taken fifty years for Australia to catch up, but I’m glad it has.

While I don’t see it as quite the fulfilment of the “feminist’s dream” Caroline Overington laudes it as, I do recognise Gillard’s appointment is a symbol of hope. It’s a symbol that says to young Australian women that they really can work at any level in workforce.

The Ranga Thing.

“First woman, first redhead,” joked Julia when asked by journalists about the significance of her gender. It should be noted, however, that she’s not the first redheaded Prime Minister. That honour goes to James “Jim” Scullin, in 1929. Two days after he was sworn in Wall Street crashed, and the next year Australia was in the midst of the Great Depression. Good thing we’ve already put our GFC behind us – although Scullin didn’t have a cashed-up mining industry to draw upon.

The De Facto Thing.

There are some wackos, like Bettina Arndt, who think Gillard is a “bad influence for women” because she’s not married. This is a statement that makes absolutely no sense to me. Last I checked marriage wasn’t a club where you can just apply for a membership – it generally takes two people to get married and they both have to want it. Getting married when you don’t want to, however, THAT I can understand as being a bad rolemodel. In fact so much of Bettina’s article is twisted and illogical that I almost don’t really know how to respond to it. Luckily Mia Freedman and Catherine Deveny have both done exactly that, and done a far better job than I could. Fortunately too, the comments on that article itself – not to mention throughout the blogosphere – demonstrate that Ardnt is well and truly in the minority on this.

And fair enough, too. After all, why should it matter? We’ve had 109 years of married prime ministers, was that the cornerstone of our country? Is that the reason for our success? Of course not. Are there any other jobs where someone’s marital status is subject to such scrutiny? I can think of only one – that of a Catholic priest.

Which is a beautiful segue-way to…

The Religion Thing

“I am not going to pretend a faith I don’t feel,” Gillard told ABC Radio’s Jon Faine. “I am what I am and people will judge that.”

Wonderful to hear. I am so sick of politicians who profess their strong religious beliefs like it makes them better people. Not believing in an invisible spaceman doesn’t make me any more or less moral than someone who does. It certainly doesn’t guarantee perfection, or even good judgement. So why should it matter what a person’s religion is? It shouldn’t.

That said, it DOES bother me when politicians base policy on their religious beliefs. I don’t want creationists, for example, anywhere near education policy. I want policy to be based on scientific facts, not faith-based ‘beliefs’.

But not everyone shares this view with me. Julia’s revelation about her atheism did upset a lot of people. I think I’ll leave the last word on religion and politics to Senator Arnold Vinick, from the sixth season of The West Wing: “I don’t see how we can have a separation of church and state in this government if you have to have a religious test, to get into this government.”

It should be noted, of course, that Gillard is not Australia’s first PM with religious doubts. Bob Hawke, the son of a Congregationalist minister, was agnostic when he went into politics. Surely a politician’s religious status isn’t as important to Australian voters as some people claim, otherwise he wouldn’t have become the longest serving Labor prime minister.

It’s not surprising, I suppose, that people will look for any fault they can find on a politician. Particularly one that enjoys such popularity. But come on, is this the best they can come up with? Complaints about her gender, hair colour, marital status and religion? Disagree with her policies, by all means. Draw attention to her political positions you think are wrong or ill-advised (I’m very disappointed at her stance on gay marriage, for example). But attacking the messenger, rather than the message, is low and grubby.