Labor women’s group EMILY’s List will double down in its bid to hold on to the female vote after the dumping of Julia Gillard, as Labor strategists look to cover all bases to steal victory from under Tony Abbott’s nose on election day.
Over her three years in office, Australia’s first female prime minister consistently achieved a higher ‘better PM’ rating among women than the opposition leader, whose track record on feminist issues formed a key part of the Gillard communication team’s political thrust. A resurgent Kevin Rudd will be hoping to sandbag that sentiment as the ALP’s national apparatus shifts to a pre-election war footing.
The move comes in the aftermath of the short-lived “Women for Gillard” initiative, launched in the dying days of Gillard’s government but slammed by some internal activists as window dressing compared to the main game of enlivening the party’s deep internal architecture fomented over decades.
EMILY’s List national co-convener Tanja Kovac says her group will soon conduct exclusive polling in marginal seats in the lead-up to election day, “of women, by women, for women — to assess public policy from a women’s perspective, making recommendations to the ALP about how to win the women’s vote”. In previous years the data has proven crucial in gauging which policies are likely to hit home.
Kovac told Crikey that “winning the women’s vote — which is what gender-based campaigning is all about — is an important aspect of any political campaign strategy. It is entirely foolish politics to ignore the policy and campaigning needs of 52% of the population.”
Abbott has consistently polled lower among women than men and Labor believes he remains vulnerable to a renewed assault on his gender credibility. The parliamentary leadership team is looking to install a women in Gillard’s seat of Lalor to counter the raft of men contesting preselection in newly vacated safe Labor seats and help resuscitate state-based affirmative action policies.
“Women for Gillard”, launched just four weeks ago, lampooned “men in blue ties” and re-raised the rolling issue of abortion in Australian life. It was headed by South Australian Labor identity and Canberra staffer Clarabella Burley and chaired by Chloe Bryce, the wife of Bill Shorten and daughter of Governor General Quentin Bryce. Burley’s Twitter account advises she remains a director of Women for Gillard precursor Women for Progress.
Gillard communications director John McTernan, who helped setup the group, penned a swingeing op-ed for the UK Telegraph two days after his boss’ sacking, claiming she was felled by a brutal culture of misogyny.
“When a speech launching a women’s group supporting a female Labor prime minister is rejected by EMILY’s List, it’s pretty obvious somebody screwed up terribly.”
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Rudd-supporting MPs, led by Stephen Jones and Ed Husic, had expressed surprise at the tactic. That was followed by a number of Labor Right-aligned women staffers, who made their feelings known in exclusive briefings provided to Crikey anonymously because their senior roles in Labor circles mean they are not authorised to speak on the matter. They said the initiative, had it been allowed to play out, would have led to a net political gain for the Coalition.
“Whatever your views on abortion it was blatantly clear that if you are the sort of man who has ever had the audacity to wear a suit, and match that suit with a blue tie, you were not welcome to vote Labor,” said one. And another: “In one fell swoop Tony Abbott was portrayed as an ordinary Australian, just like everyone else, united with nearly every other male in the country in being discouraged to support Labor. The PMO had achieved the opposite to what they were supposed to do.
“The polling crashed after Gillard’s ‘blue ties’ speech. Less well-documented is the fact that even the pro-choice women’s Labor group EMILY’S List was dismayed by the antics of Women for Gillard. When a speech launching a women’s group supporting a female Labor prime minister is rejected by EMILY’s List, it’s pretty obvious somebody screwed up terribly.”
Amanda Tattersall — a GetUp! and Sydney Alliance director and author of activism bible Power in Coalition — agrees a “sincere movement to combat s-xism is going to take more than five minutes and a new website. If you want to build a movement in any political party you’ve got to actually organise rather than send a few emails,” she said.
Kovac told Crikey that inauthentic appeals to women don’t hold up: “If your political appeal to women is not backed up with a history of achievement and commitment to the values of equality, reproductive rights and alleviating the work-life juggle struggle, then there will be a disconnect with women voters.
“This is why there is a long-term trend of poor polling with women for Opposition Leader Abbott. Despite many attempts by his minders to reimagine him as a SNAG, his historic undermining of gender equality makes these appeals seem superficial and unbelievable. If gender campaigning is not authentic, not built for and by women themselves, women won’t buy it.
“Progressives in the US, UK and Australia are only beginning to understand how to bring women and the issues that matter to them into the centre of campaigning.”