With the election, early this week, of Lara Giddings as Tasmanian Premier on the retirement of David Bartlett, Australia now has four women as heads of Australian governments. Four women leaders, all ALP, out of nine governments is a statistic not lost on Emily’s List, which has been assisting ALP women to enter politics since 1996.
When Dame Enid Lyons became the first woman elected to the House of Representatives,
Prime Minister John Curtin, described her as “a bird of paradise among the carrion crows”, and promptly appointed her to a cabinet position. She had no actual portfolio but poured the tea for her male colleagues. That was 1943.
The first woman to lead an Australian government was Rosemary Follett (ALP), elected as inaugural Chief Minister of the Australian Capital Territory in 1989. The following year Carmen Lawrence (ALP) became Premier of Western Australia when her predecessor, Peter Dowding, was forced to resign amid the stench of corruption emanating from Brian Burke’s premiership. The entire government was on the nose and Lawrence was thrust into a freefalling situation that could not be recovered. Six months after Lawrence was handed the poison chalice of WA, Joan Kirner (ALP) became Premier of Victoria as the state faced down an economic crisis. Her predecessor, John Cain, resigned after public support for the government collapsed and, like Lawrence, Kirner’s elevation was meant to simply hold off the inevitable election defeat.
The current Premier of New South Wales, Kristina Keneally, must be acutely aware that her position is much like those of Lawrence and Kirner. She inherited an unpopular government, beset by allegations of, if not corruption, then corruptibility at best. Keneally is the third premier since the retirement of Bob Carr who led the state from 1995 to 2005. The first two, Iemma and Rees, were summarily dumped when they failed to stall the sliding polls. Keneally’s positive personal image has not rubbed off on her government which appears too far gone for help. Could it be that women are cynically elected to lead dying governments to either restore confidence with the voters or go down with the ship?
Anna Bligh (ALP) and Lara Giddings (ALP), the Premiers of Queensland and Tasmania respectively, were both elected unopposed by their colleagues on the retirement of popular predecessors. Bligh is the only female state premier to have led a government to re-election as Premier. The current term of the Queensland government has polls pointing to almost certain defeat at the next election, although, as noted previously in this blog, Bligh’s leadership through the flood crisis may yet see her government survive. Giddings, having been in the job less than a week, is yet to make her mark.
The territory governments have proven solid ground for women leaders. The only non-ALP woman to have been elected to the leadership of an Australian government is the former ACT Chief Minister, Kate Carnell (Lib) who led the territory from 1995-2000, through two elections. She resigned after a series of scandals damaged both her own credibility and that of her government – the latter fatally. Carnell and Clare Martin (ALP), former Chief Minister of the Northern Territory, are the only women to have become heads of government from the position of opposition leader. Martin served as Chief Minister for six years before both she and her Deputy, Syd Stirling, resigned in protest at the Howard Government’s intervention program.
Which brings us to the ascension of Julia Gillard as PM. The Labor government under Kevin Rudd had enjoyed two years of poll buoyancy but when things started to go pear-shaped at the beginning of 2010, they went very bad, very fast. Rudd’s micro-managing style left many members of the caucus, and indeed the cabinet, feeling sidelined, disillusioned and uneasy. Rudd was not a team player and cared little for the finer points of maintaining party unity, but to dump him while the polls were good served no purpose. As soon as the government’s approval in the polls slipped, however, the party made its move and Gillard, who had consistently dismissed any leadership speculation, found herself between the proverbial rock and a hard place. Was she to lead the posse to lynch the PM and attempt to save the government but at the same time be seen to have blood on her hands, or simply stand back and let the government go down with the leader? The media image of her as political assassin belies both her support within the party and the decision she faced.
Are women political scapegoats who are thrust into leadership with little or no chance of electoral survival only to be blamed for defeat? In the cases of Lawrence and Kirner, and probably Keneally (although to be fair, the NSW election is still two months away), it would seem so. However, the majority of women who have led Australian governments have been elected as leaders of successful governments or have led oppositions to victory.
In considering the equality of women in Australian politics generally, however, it is not just a question of numbers. I am reminded of the opening address given by former Senator Amanda Vanstone to the Women’s Constitutional Convention in 2002. Vanstone, talking about gender equality in Australian parliaments noted that there were many hard-working and effective women in public office making a real difference. She went on to say, however, that we won’t have true equality until we have as many duds as the blokes have. “Think of the most useless politician you know,” she said, “when we can get women as useless as that elected, we’ll know we have real equality.”
Cartoon by Judy Horacek