In the swamps of offended opinion the question of authority took on a dark and gendered blaze as those crude signs were held high, capturing the camera and intruding into public consciousness through television. If decent Australians felt a line had been crossed in the vitriol of this political contest, most stayed silent.
Gillard herself was taken aback. She had thought about it deeply and in the calm of her private suite, cups of peppermint tea in Wedgwood china before us, she told me frankly:
The anti-carbon tax campaign very visibly brought together images of women and misogyny ‘nut jobs’ with a community campaign. Abbott was appealing to absolutely mainstream instincts about your cost of living under pressure, you could lose your job and she didn’t tell you the truth about it. Mainstream things and a political attack around them that would’ve happened to a man in my position.
But it got locked in, as he called for a people’s revolt, it got locked in to this really visceral, ugly anti-woman fringe thing, which ended up with ‘Ditch the Witch’ and all the rest of it.
‘Were you shocked by that?’ I asked her. ‘Yeah I was a bit.’
Julia Gillard shifted in her easy chair and her voice softened. She had never revealed this before. Here in her private suite the pause seemed to echo. This topic was edging perilously close to the personal, a place Julia Gillard PM usually steered away from. The black handbag and spare pair of heels sitting on the carpet next to the big desk spoke of a different form of leadership, definitely lonelier. I was wondering about the bruises those crude placards had left on the woman, but the prime minister protected herself with analysis.
‘I wasn’t shocked that some people had those sentiments, not shocked by that, but shocked that it was so visibly called forth into the public debate and that it didn’t get the sort of odium from mainstream commentators that it should have,’ she said.
I was nodding vigorously, feeling a reprise of the astonishment and anger that Australians put up with this smut in public with little more than a nervous murmur.
It got some criticism but not the blitzkrieg that it should have. If you put it in the context of race, if I’d been the first Indigenous person to do this job and Tony Abbott stood in front of signs saying, ‘Ditch the Black Bastard’ I think that would have been the end of Tony Abbott as a viable candidate in public life and it would be the subject of community outrage that would have lasted for months and months. Yet it didn’t have that same effect.
Her voice was as even as her neat jacket, betraying no hurt, though her response to my next question revealed an injury.
When I asked was she surprised that women politicians (Liberals Bronwyn Bishop and Sophie Mirabella) stood on the podium with Abbott in front of those signs, her answer was firm and fast ‘NO’ accompanied by a low, hard laugh.
Running through anti-carbon tax rallies and other campaigns—including the lurid allegations that as a solicitor two decades prior she was involved in an Australian Workers Union slush fund organised by a former lover—was the implied smear that she was an illegitimate prime minister, that she had no morality and somehow her immorality was linked to her gender.
Lancing a leader by calling her a liar is designed to destroy trust. Trust is crucial currency for any politician. ‘Liar’ is regarded as such a damaging word that its use is forbidden in parliament.
Gravity: Inside the PM’s office during her last year and final days by Mary Delahunty (Hardie Grant) is available now through all good bookstores and online.