Chimera

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Just weeks before Rudd’s restoration, the internal polling for Labor was doom-heavy: zero seats returned in WA, Queensland gruesome and even Bill Shorten’s Melbourne seat of Maribyrnong threatened. And so the long reluctance to reinstall Rudd finally melted and a moral hazard was born—caucus had rewarded a slow campaign of sabotage.

This story—at once exhilarating and banal—is ultimately about the convulsions of the party. A party wracked by ambition and the chimerical relationship between voters and their anointed. But not everyone saw it this way. Gillard’s ousting was quickly seized by feminist commentators as proof of misogyny. As political commentators, they made great activists.

I can’t see how caucus members balefully staring at their polling, then apologetically drifting towards Contemptible Tintin, is sexist. And in calling it sexist, were we not guilelessly arguing for some inverted sexism? That Gillard could commit regicide, but never be subject herself?

There’s no misogyny to be found amongst caucus, so let’s change angle. What about the polls themselves? The polls had forced Gillard out—were those polls poisoned by prejudice? And if so, had Labor then not granted de facto endorsement of sexism by choosing Australia’s demented id as their Northern Star?

We can’t definitively say. We can’t psychologically profile those polls. We can’t fully rule one thing in or out—which makes our discussions elliptical and tiresome. It’s a fire we can’t fully put out.

But here’s something the feminist commentators could try to answer: if those rotten polls were the product of misogyny, if Australia is blackened by this pathology, why was the Gillard-led government returned in 2010? It was tight, yes, but Gillard would have been comfortably returned were it not for those cabinet leaks—Labor had been polling well prior. And don’t tell me that “we don’t directly vote for the PM”. The leader is, for most voters, their “cognitive handle” for politics. If misogynistic hatred of Gillard was so great, it would have flowed to the local member.

We can be guided here by Gillard herself. In a clean, graceful concession speech, Gillard said that her sex was “not everything, but it was not nothing”. Indeed. I am not suggesting that there aren’t homunculus cretins out there spastic with loathing. And they deserve our ire. I am suggesting that the howling of misogyny was disproportionate.

Julia Gillard had a deeply dysfunctional relationship with voters. If my experience has told me anything, that was because of multiple—often competing—reasons. You would be mad to completely rule out sexism. But you would be stupid to embrace sexism as the cause at the cost of everything else.

Gillard was a woman who—friends who have worked with her tell me—was warm, witty and respectful. Frustratingly, she could not seem to transpose those gifts publically when she became PM. Despite impressive legislative achievements, the communication of them was stillborn—cold, awkward, platitudinous. The “we are us” keynote was emblematic of her torturous speech. It infuriated me. The colourful register available to her as Deputy was gone.

There were also the conditions of her ascension. That weird and brutal night in 2010 was not explained to voters. It could not be explained because to do so would be to reveal the genial nerd Australians had so rapturously welcomed in ’07 as a lonely tyrant, his inner dysfunction splashing outwards and jamming the levers of governance. Interestingly, for all of Rudd’s vision and intellect, it was the humbler, more stable Gillard who achieved much more and with much less—except the trust of the people, of course.

Meanwhile, the World Health Organisation (WHO) recently released its findings of 141 studies on violence against women. The results are nauseating: 1 in 3 women have been sexually or physically assaulted. Here in Australia, domestic violence is rampant. Last financial year the Women’s Domestic Violence Crisis Service received 50,000 calls to its hotline. As I’ve written before, the casual molestation of women is a dark stain.

So it’s not as if there isn’t a problem—but half-baked disquisitions on Gillard or the scatology of Russell Brand is just dumb. Half of what passes as feminist writing is aloof, indulgent and pedantic. And it’s often poor analysis, riven by ferocity or self-consciousness. Gillard, as Prime Minister, could not function as a meaningful proxy for all women. And if you think you can parse the morality of calling Gillard a “witch” and John Howard a “turd” then, well, good luck to you.

Joan Didion once wrote of feminist literary critics “that fiction has certain irreducible ambiguities seemed never to occur to these women” and I’d say the same of today’s feminist political commentary. When you look at those WHO figures, ferocity and ideology is understandable. But just remember that that ferocity lays waste to suppleness, proportion and a sense of those irreducible ambiguities.

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