Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Women Down Under

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BRISBANE -- Australians are routinely accused of being racist, sexist and chauvinist, but misogynist is a recent addition to our list of alleged character flaws ending in I-S-T.

That the accusation has been made by our own prime minister only sharpens the insult to many men who would readily admit to a host of personal failings, but never to hating women.

The gender divide has never been so graphically illustrated in this country as its first female prime minister, Julia Gillard, frames increasingly strident attacks on her character as proof of an ugly strain of misogyny running through the nation.

Gillard took office in 2010 after a party coup ousted the Labor leader Kevin Rudd. She won the subsequent federal election with a wafer-thin majority provided by independents.

The party room coup, which followed a few months of poor polling for the previously popular Rudd, stunned a nation that normally accepts the sort of bare-knuckle politics that allow honourable members to call each other "grubs" in the federal parliament.

The entire episode never sat well with Australians, who pride themselves on the notion of fair play. "Give us a fair go" is a national cry on sporting fields and workplaces that everyone recognizes as a call for even-handed treatment.

Next week, Gillard will be under extraordinary pressure, with predictions Rudd will make a return to his throne as the behest of Labor Party chiefs who recognize her poor polling will not execute a miraculous U-turn before the Sept. 14 election.

But the PM shows no signs of standing aside. The woman who won global praise for her spirited parliamentary attack on "misogynist" Opposition Leader Tony Abbott last October has stepped up the rhetoric against what she sees as unfair personal attacks, made purely on the basis of gender.

That the PM is subject to unfair and at times almost bizarre scrutiny -- a disc jockey recently asked her if her live-in male partner is gay -- is not disputed.

Many Australians are offended by the rude and off-handed manner the office of prime minister is treated with, with signs suggesting our leader is a "bitch'' rolled out at one protest.

But anyone older than 40 can remember prime ministers being called far worse while being openly ridiculed for everything from wearing Zenga suits to having bushy eyebrows, or not being tall enough for someone's liking. "Little Johnny'' was the cruel taunt often aimed at former Conservative PM John Howard.

Retiring Labor MP and front-bencher Nicola Roxon appeared to agree the public attitude toward the PM goes beyond the normal rough and tumble expected in a vibrant democracy in a nation that started life as an open-air jail.

In her farewell speech to parliament this week, Roxon said Australian had got itself a "capable, tough, smart, determined woman'' as its prime minister.

"But she has been subjected to some of the most crass, silly, petty, sexist and just plain rude behaviour for years,'' Roxon said.

The former lawyer said she had a particular interest and understanding of the treatment of women in the workplace during her previous professional life.

"These latest events show us there is a dangerous underbelly still compromising women in Australia and that the feminist cause is just as urgent as before,'' she said.

Allen Arthur, a letter-to-the-editor writer in the national broadsheet The Australian, had an opposing view, shared by many.

"Does Roxon remember how Gillard became PM -- you know, the knife in the back job?'' he asked.

"Acknowledging this is the first step to understanding how Gillard and her government have become unpopular with the electorate.''


Michael Madigan is the Winnipeg Free Press correspondent in Australia. He writes for the Brisbane-based Courier Mail.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 21, 2013 A13

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