Australia Prime Minister Julia Gillard said a dishonest opposition using gender rhetoric intended to discredit the country’s first elected female leader won’t prevent her coming from behind to win the Sept. 14 national vote.
“There’s been a lot of white noise and a lot of atmospherics in Australian politics,” Gillard, 51, said in an interview at her Sydney office yesterday. A “bitter” campaign by Liberal-National chief Tony Abbott has deepened unease with the first minority government since World War II among voters unfamiliar with being led by a woman, she said.
Gillard’s Labor Party is battling to overcome 18 months of running behind the opposition in polls that now show at least a 10 percentage-point gap, even amid growth that’s the fastest among major advanced economies and an unemployment rate half that of Europe. Among forces arrayed against Gillard are radio-show hosts who call the prime minister by her first name, rather than using her title or surname.
“From some of our shock jocks and all the rest of it, it is about lack of respect and lack of acknowledgment of my legitimacy as prime minister,” Gillard said when asked about references to her as “Julia.” She said that “until we get a time when parliaments are half-half, when women leaders are as common as male leaders, then I think women will have some extra interest and perhaps extra weight on their shoulders.”
Beyond radio, some print media members have used the “Julia” moniker, including columnists in publications such as The Age and the Daily Telegraph, one of Australia’s most widely circulated newspapers.
“Some aspects of the media have had a grumbling disrespect for the prime minister that seems far more contemptuous than if she were a bloke,” said Eva Cox, founder of the Women’s Economic Think Tank and author of “Leading Women.”
“When you see ‘Julia’ used in headlines, the tone is more personal than you would expect for a national leader. There seems to be more than a usual amount of hostility directed at her because of her gender.”
Most of the time, people using the term “Julia” is a “reflection of Australian informality,” the prime minister said. Gillard has identified Abbott, 55, among the minority that uses gender rhetoric. The former labor lawyer in October stood up in Parliament and labeled him a sexist and misogynist in a speech that went viral on the Internet, garnering more than two million views on YouTube.
While Australia fielded its first female political candidate in 1897 and has had women leaders at a state level, including Anna Bligh in Queensland and Kristina Keneally in New South Wales, Gillard is the first to helm the federal government. There are four female ministers in the 20-strong Australian cabinet, including Gillard.
Gillard has five months to revive Labor’s popularity. The party rose 3 percentage points to 45 percent on a two-party preferred basis, while Abbott’s coalition fell 3 points to 55 percent, according to a Newspoll published on April 9. Gillard’s satisfaction level rose 2 points to 28 percent.
“I don’t comment on opinion polls but I am very clear-eyed about what the choice will be come September when people vote,” Gillard said yesterday. She said in Parliament March 19 that “it will be a contest, counter intuitive to those believing in gender stereotypes, but a contest between a strong feisty woman and a policy weak man, and I’ll win it.”
Gillard’s re-election chances have been undermined by coalition attacks on her integrity. To secure the support of the Australian Greens party and form a government after the closest election result in 70 years in August 2010, Gillard reneged on a pledge not to implement a carbon tax.
The policy-backflip criticism deepened a narrative of Gillard as untrustworthy that was sparked by her initial ascent to power on June 24, 2010, when she ousted then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, even after saying she wouldn’t contest her Labor colleague’s position.
“My ascension as prime minister was in extraordinary circumstance, there’s no doubt about that,” Gillard said yesterday. “The minority Parliament arising from the 2010 campaign I think is a reflection of how difficult an election campaign that was for us, for the Labor Party, with some internal issues playing out in the public domain.”
Labor infighting has continued, with two leadership ballots in just over a year. On March 21, Gillard’s predecessor Rudd declined to run against her after former party chief Simon Crean urged the prime minister to hold a so-called spill and Rudd to contest it.
“It’s been a pretty difficult political environment since the last election,” Cameron Clyne, chief executive officer of National Australia Bank Ltd., the country’s biggest lender by assets, said in an interview in Sydney yesterday. “You had the change of prime minister before the last election. That was an unusual event for people. Subsequent to that you have had a minority government. That’s a relatively new experience for Australia.”
Gillard has overcome the lack of a majority to enact legislation ranging from the carbon-tax measure to a levy on mining profits, plain packaging for cigarettes and an insurance program for disabled people.
“We’ve got legislation through but people haven’t felt like this is a normal parliamentary experience,” the prime minister said yesterday. “Of course it’s joined with a very bitter and negative campaign from the opposition.”
With the government scheduled to release its annual budget on May 14, the prime minister pledged to restrain spending, a move that allows room for the central bank to lower interest rates.
“We are keeping a limit on expenditure” and will move to a surplus over time, she said. “I don’t think our current fiscal position in any way reduces the scope” for the Reserve Bank of Australia to lower borrowing costs, she said.
Abbott’s coalition has criticized the government for failing to keep its promise to balance the budget in the year through June. The opposition has pledged to help businesses by getting rid of the carbon levy, in a campaign platform that includes expanded support for childcare.
Gillard faulted her opponents for their own failure to spell out their specific policy proposals. Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey said at the Bloomberg Australia Economic Summit two days ago that the true deficit will likely be wider than projected, making it impossible for him to commit to a time frame for achieving a fiscal surplus.
Abbott and his team “have not in any way advanced a plan for the nation, and in my view never will,” Gillard said.
The government will champion initiatives to help industrial companies strengthen innovation and productivity in the face of a “new normal” high exchange rate, the prime minister said. While Australia’s so-called two-speed economy has left the mining sector propelling growth, in time a swelling Asian middle class will allow the nation to diversify, she said.
“Our success as a resources economy, as an economy that’s emerged from the global financial crisis strong, has meant that our Australian dollar has been very high,” Gillard said hours after meeting with business leaders advising the government on its 2014 presidency of the Group of 20 nations. “It’s putting pressure on businesses in areas like manufacturing.”
Australia’s dollar has appreciated more than 74 percent against its U.S. counterpart since late October 2008. It was little changed at 1.0546 at 1:03 p.m. in Sydney today.
A government report released yesterday showed the nation’s unemployment rate unexpectedly rose to a three-year high of 5.6 percent. The data, showing that employers cut payrolls by 36,100 in March after a 74,000 increase in February, came days after General Motors Co.’s Holden division said it will cut about 500 positions in Australia.
While the benchmark stock index has risen 12 percent since Gillard took office, she recognized a disconnect with public perceptions.
“For many, while they understand intellectually that our economy has been more resilient than other parts of the world, in day to day life people are still feeling day to day pressures including cost-of-living pressures,” she said in the interview. “A second element is we’ve had a fast, furious and ultimately dishonest campaign against carbon pricing and what it would mean for cost of living pressures and for Australian jobs.”
People are “looking for a plan for the future and the determination to deliver, which is why I think on election day they will look at me and the government I lead and see a plan for the future and a determination to deliver it.”
Win or lose in September, Gillard said her legacy is secure after introducing a carbon price and improving education, which is “closest to my heart.”
“I believe this will be remembered as a time in which we got all the elements right to seize the opportunities of this century of change in the region,” Gillard said. “When I’m an older person and sitting back in the retirement home watching our nation, I will be seeing a stronger nation because we have done those things.”