Prime Ministering while female

So, Australia’s Foreign Minister resigned yesterday. He resigned at 1am yesterday at a hastily-convened press conference in Washington, DC, in the middle of a trip.

A little background, for those of you who aren’t Australian. Australia’s until-recently Foreign Minister is a man by the name of Kevin Rudd. In 2007, the Australian Labor Party swept into office, largely thanks to the energy created by the prospect of having Rudd as head of the party and therefore as Prime Minister. Rudd’s Deputy PM, Julia Gillard, was the first woman to serve as Deputy PM. And then, in 2010, after months of rumours of intraparty conflict and leadership struggles, the ALP booted Rudd and replaced him with Gillard.

Gillard became Australia’s first ever woman Prime Minister, and Rudd became her foreign minister, pledging his loyalty to Gillard and to the party. Since that time, there have been periodic rumblings about Rudd challenging Gillard for leadership of the party, and corresponding rumblings about Rudd’s lack of loyalty. But in the last few weeks, the drama has reached a fever pitch, and yesterday, amid speculating that Gillard was simply going to fire Rudd, he resigned. Now, Gillard has announced an internal party ballot to settle the question of who should be in charge. The ballot is scheduled for Monday, and it’s not clear yet if Rudd will contest. If he does, Gillard has powerful supporters within the ALP, but public opinion polls position Rudd as the popular choice to run the party.

Gillard’s time at the helm of the Labor Party has been marked with such incidents. Given the chance to run for election in September 2010, the ALP squeaked out a win only by forming a Coalition, which was formed after three weeks of a hung Parliament, during which time Australians had no idea who would be running their country. The way Gillard came to be PM was less than smooth, too: the perception of her takeover is that it involved backstabbing, back-room deals, and not a little bitchiness.

That Gillard has had a rocky run as PM is not in itself what concerns me. What concerns me is that, because she is Australia’s first woman PM, there is a risk that Gillard’s rocky run could make both parties, and the public, gun-shy on the question of voting for another woman as party leader or as PM.

This is not fair to Gillard, of course, but it is the burden that is borne by first-anythings and by tokens; they are taken as representative of an entire group. Just as Barack Obama’s performance as President carries extra weight and significance for the leadership prospects of African Americans, so does Julia Gillard run the risk of “ruining it” for any woman who comes after her. It’s an unfair burden – running a country is quite enough to be getting on with – but that is how these things tend to work.

I am concerned – and I’m sure I’m not the only one – that Australian politics is currently so rife with leadership struggles, that no ALP leader is given time to get his or her legs in party leadership before rumours about replacing them begin, and that such a party has a slim chance of maintaining the public’s confidence come election time. But my greater concern is that Gillard’s particularly choppy time in leadership will be remembered by the Australian people and taken as representative of what things are like when a woman is in charge – and that as a result, our second woman Prime Minister will be a long time coming.

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One Comment

  1. Posted February 25, 2012 at 2:31 am | Permalink

    Are we forgetting that Rudd himself didn’t exactly have a rosy time in the Prime Minister’s seat?

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