Gillard-Abbott ‘Gender War’ Flares as Sexist Menu Surfaces

Gender took center stage in Australia’s election campaign as the opposition accused Prime Minister Julia Gillard of politicizing abortion, then had to address sexism in its own ranks.

Gillard was stoking a “false gender war” by saying a defeat for her minority Labor government in the Sept. 14 poll would see abortion become a political plaything for male politicians, the Liberal-National opposition said. The coalition in turn found itself under fire as opposition leader Tony Abbott condemned a party fundraiser where the menu included sexually derogatory comments about the prime minister.

“It reminds me a bit of a Punch and Judy show,” Eva Cox, founder of the Women’s Economic Think Tank and author of “Leading Women,” told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. “Gillard knocks down Abbott, Abbott knocks down Gillard.”

The gender debate in Australia has simmered for months, with Gillard branding Abbott a misogynist and sexist, while contending with opposition supporters’ taunts that she’s childless and doesn’t understand family life. The issue erupted today as Gillard contends with renewed speculation she will be challenged for the Labor leadership as polls show her government is on track for a landslide defeat.

Gillard, at a fundraiser yesterday, said the elections will be a “decision about whether, once again, we will banish women’s voices from our political life.”

‘Political Plaything’

“We don’t want to live in an Australia where abortion again becomes the political plaything of men who think they know better,” said Gillard, who has previously described the ballot as a contest between “a strong feisty woman” and a “policy-weak man.”

The abortion comments were a “crude political ploy” from Gillard, Deputy Opposition leader Julie Bishop told ABC radio today.

“She’s clearly trying to distract attention from her own self-inflicted political woes,” Bishop said. “We would expect a PM to seek to unite the country, not divide it through some false gender war.”

Gillard’s comments were also challenged by women’s groups, before the debate switched to sexism within the coalition’s ranks.

The menu, posted on Twitter by a journalist, was from a fundraiser for Mal Brough, a minister in former Prime Minister John Howard’s government who is seeking to return to parliament under Abbott after losing his seat in 2007.

Fundraiser Menu

One of the dishes included “Julia Gillard Kentucky Fried Quail” -- with a description including derogatory sexual comments about the prime minister’s body.

“I condemn it, as Mal Brough has,” Abbott told journalists today. “I think we should all be bigger and better than that. Whether it is a tacky scatological menu out the front of a Liberal Party event, whether it is squalid jokes told at union conference dinners with ministers present.”

The wording on the menu was “grossly offensive,” Gillard told reporters today. “This is Tony Abbott’s Liberals, this is what they’re like,” she said. “We’d see this lack of respect for women littered throughout all of his government policy documents.”

Former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, campaigning in marginal Labor seats in western Sydney amid speculation he is seeking to return to the Labor leadership, said Brough “should be doing more than apologizing.” “Mr. Brough should be taking a long, hard look at himself because this sort of behavior is not appropriate in the 21st century,” he told reporters.

Brough’s office said it would release a statement later today.

Abortion Laws

Abortion is legal in Australia, though guidelines for when termination may take place vary between states. Bishop reiterated today the coalition would not make any changes to abortion laws if it wins government.

Abbott, 55, said in a speech in March 2004, when he was health minister, that abortion has been “reduced to a question of the mother’s convenience” and is “a national tragedy.”

He has distanced himself from those comments, saying in March he accepted “absolutely” that for any woman facing an unexpected pregnancy “the choices are tough.”

Gillard, 51, faced down her second Labor leadership vote in a year in March, winning uncontested. Labor hasn’t led in opinion polls for more than 18 months and was 16 percentage points behind the opposition on a two-party preferred basis in a Newspoll published in the Australian newspaper on June 4.

Parliament will sit for a final two weeks starting June 17, a danger zone for Gillard when her Labor colleagues will all be in Canberra, enabling a snap challenge.

Workplace Relations Minister Bill Shorten, a party powerbroker, reiterated his backing for the prime minister.

“I continue to support her,” he told reporters today. Responding to a question on whether she would lead Labor to the next election, Shorten said “yes, I believe so.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Michael Heath in Sydney at mheath1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Rosalind Mathieson at rmathieson3@bloomberg.net; Edward Johnson at ejohnson28@bloomberg.net

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