Wednesday 14 September 2011

Janet Albrechtsen | Opinion

Don't blame sexism for the PM's woes
At Home with Julia
Actors Amanda Bishop and Phil Lloyd play Julia Gillard and partner Tim Mathieson in the ABC comedy At Home With Julia. Source: Supplied

SEXISM again? Think again.

Tonight, our national broadcaster will air the second of a four-part comedy series called At Home with Julia. When the first episode screened last week, immediately we heard the whispering lament of sexism at work. The Prime Minister is being mocked and ridiculed because she is a woman. Alas, as with most claims of sexism used in the same sentence as Gillard, this one is also off the mark.

Before it becomes part of the political orthodoxy, take a closer look at Aunty's new political sitcom. Described by Radio National's Fran Kelly as part of "the great tradition of Australian political satire", At Home with Julia is far less political than it is personal. But it's certainly not sexist. The real problem is that the comedy invades a private space that even our most public figures deserve to keep to themselves.

But again and again, sexism rears its outdated head as the knee-jerk reaction to so much about Julia Gillard's travails. Indeed, from the moment she became Prime Minister, sexism claims have been fast and furious. Each claim is a diversion from the main event, a refusal to take the analysis a little deeper.

Take this from independent MP Rob Oakeshott. Trying to extend his moment in the political sun by skating over the real problems of minority government, he tried to explain Gillard's woes on the basis that "Australians are still trying to come to terms with the fact that they have a female leader".

Ditto, some in the media. In a radio interview, The Sydney Morning Herald's Phillip Coorey put the vocal unhappiness of a female voter down to "a large element of misogyny because the Prime Minister is a woman, people feel they can go harder at her than if she was a bloke and treat her with less respect". More again from Fairfax when The Age's Shaun Carney explained Gillard's fall from political grace on the basis of sexism.

Even the international press has climbed aboard the sexism train, with Chloe Angyal in Slate accusing the Australian media of hitting "all the sexist notes about Gillard", reserving a "special level of censure for ambitious, high-achieving women". Apparently, Australian voters are a bunch of "pearl clutching" conservatives who cannot cope with a single woman in a de facto relationship setting up house in the Lodge.

A more intellectually curious look at the waning popularity of Gillard points to a realisation in the electorate that the PM has failed to put a stamp of authority on her prime ministership.
From her history of opportunistic factional twists, to policy backflips and failed policies, Gillard simply lacks legitimacy and credibility as a leader. Her lack of convictions, not her gender, is the reason voters have turned away.

Yet the more unpopular Gillard grows, the louder are the claims that sexism is bringing down and denigrating our first female Prime Minister. A few weeks ago, on ABC1's Q&A program, Graham Richardson described the tendency to refer to the PM as Julia as appalling. And "Yes, I do think it's because we haven't had a woman prime minister before."

Once again, the sexism charge is too shallow. Even a cursory look at Gillard's own campaign strategy - when she unveiled "the real Julia" - reveals that the PM invited us to think of her as Julia. Just as Kevin Rudd said, "My name is Kevin and I'm here to help", at his first ALP national conference as opposition leader and then went on to become Kevin07. There is a reason John Howard was not known in the electorate as John and it has nothing to do with gender or sexism.

Neither does sexism explain ABC1's At Home with Julia. Yet we seem to have reached a point where any strident commentary or even comic send-up of the PM is now sexist just because the PM is a woman. The national broadcaster's latest foray into political satire is hardly sexist when tested against the torrent of political send-ups aimed at former prime minister Howard.

Count the weeks that comedy duo on the then 7.30 Report, John Clarke and Brian Dawe, aimed their Friday night fire at Howard. It became tiresomely predictable. What marks out At Home with Julia as different from previous satires is that it intrudes into a private arena that is, to be blunt, none of our business. By focusing its lens, even a comical one, on the private lives of Gillard and her partner, Tim Mathieson, the show crosses the privacy line. Even politicians are entitled to a private life and the partners of politicians are especially entitled to be spared such intrusions.

Satirising private moments between "Jugs" and "Teacup" may amuse some by exploiting our natural inclination to treat comedy as just that. Inevitably, critics will be seen as humourless killjoys. In fact, the ABC's At Home with Julia is not a clever political satire in the league of the BBC's 1980s classic Yes, Minister and later, Yes, Prime Minister. That series was clever because it was generic. Parodying the political class as a whole, the British sitcom will stand the test of time.

By contrast, by poking its nose into even a fictional lounge room of Gillard and Mathieson, At Home with Julia is a series of short-term gags that offends an important principle best described by former PM Paul Keating.

Speaking at the Centre for Advanced Journalism at the University of Melbourne last year about privacy and the media, Keating said "the social contract we are subject to involves the surrender of certain rights in exchange for other societal benefits and protections. But at the core of that contract there must never be derogations such that the notion of individuality is materially or permanently compromised. The essence of the dignity of each of us goes to our individuality and our primary need to be ourselves."

Yet, even here, one has to ask, have our politicians, particularly Gillard, invited the intrusion that breaches a contract that should allow politicians to be themselves away from prying, prurient eyes?

From dressing up for a glossy spread in Women's Weekly to giggling for the 60 Minutes cameras outside Mathieson's shed at the Lodge, Gillard has encouraged a level of voyeurism into her private life that does nothing to educate or inform us about the things that really matter. Gillard is not alone here. By trying to manage the media with carefully controlled puff pieces about their private lives, politicians invariably fuel intrusions that may not be so carefully controlled.

And therein lies the reason the ABC is now screening At Home with Julia. If you invite the cameras into your private life, don't be surprised when the cameras also appear without an invitation. The shame is that our politicians are not more careful to guard their privacy. We might respect them more if they did.

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