I had spent a pleasant, newsless Wednesday glued to a magnificent book that examined comprehensively the Paula Yates–Michael Hutchence–Bob Geldof love triangle, and so was astonished when I saw the papers on Thursday and learned that Julia Gillard was going to challenge Kevin Rudd for the leadership of the Labor Party. I spent the early part of the morning comfortably opining that he couldn’t possibly lose, largely because it felt as though it were only about a month ago that he stormed to the prime ministership, heralded by highly futuristic television graphics depicting ‘the Ruddslide’.
At least I wasn’t alone in my totally wrongheaded views. In the lift that morning, I had heard a white-bearded man state confidently that Gillard would be defeated because ‘Australia’s not ready for a female prime minister’. I thought that this was a ludicrous comment until, after Gillard’s victory, I heard one woman declare that it was a great day for the country and a great day for the Labor Party, and another reply with the words, ‘Are you into Women’s Lib?’, as though we were all in a scene from hairy chested Australian seventies film classic Petersen.
Now, I’ve always been perplexed by the theory that female voters will vote for a female politician merely due to her sex, as with the notion that the prospect of Sarah Palin in the White House would be an enormous attraction for women who had been intending to vote for Hillary Clinton. However, I have to say that as a woman myself, I’m finding that Gillard’s being female did make a difference to my reaction to her ascendancy to the highest office in the land, and it wasn’t merely to do with my – regrettably, realised – fear of Kathy Lette weighing in on the matter, and managing to break out elderly jokes about Australian men’s attitude to foreplay, from 10,000 miles away.
I had very little emotion invested in Kevin Rudd, if you don’t count my gratitude that he wasn’t John Howard, even though, of course, essentially he actually was. Now, though, simply because Gillard is a woman, I somehow feel more responsible for what she does, and have the same kind of disproportionate level of nerves as I do when I’ve been the person to choose the restaurant or what movie to see. In contrast, the mothers of everyone I know have suddenly mutated into June Dally-Watkins, condemning her as unfit for office merely on the basis that her speaking voice doesn’t sound as though it’s been piped in from The Good Life. So, it pleases me that Gillard at the very least seems to have way too much horse sense to, for example, pose for a women’s magazine wearing a scarlet evening dress and feather boa, and in doing so look like either a massive idiot or an employee of the Golden Garter theatre restaurant; aside from anything, I’m sure she’s sufficiently on the ball to realise that this outfit would clash with her hair. I know that if I, on the other hand, held a position of high office, I would rapidly destroy my own career through either sloth or greed. I’ve never had the faintest difficulty envisaging myself opting for a dinner at a celebrated ‘gastro pub’ and having a haircut in preference to spending time in the office, or trying to yank the wool over a customs officer’s eyes regarding a colour television set or a Paddington bear.
I can recognise that there are benefits to being in politics, such as business class flights and attractive superannuation packages. However, to my mind, such things would comprehensively be outweighed by the nightmare of dealing with constituents, and, worst of all, the horror of cocking something up hugely and then being faced with Kerry O’Brien pointing his pen and laughing derisively. I have to wonder if Kevin Rudd, despite all his personal sturm und drang at the moment, doesn’t have a sneaking sense of relief at no longer having to be prime minister. Certainly, if there’s one thing I relish, it’s resigning from a job and having my work-related problems magically become someone else’s. If I had my way, my entire working life would consist of that glorious period after I’ve given notice. All of Rudd’s crushing disappointment and humiliation aside, his abruptly no longer having to think about the resource super profits tax must be that same sensation but to the power of about one hundred million.
Too, a vile aspect of being involved in politics is, I imagine, the degree to which you have to endure so much in the service of people whom it is impossible to please anyway. By and large, the only thing many voters seem to have straight in their heads is that they hate politicians, and that they find having to leave their houses to vote about once every two years an intolerable burden, often making angry calls to talkback radio whenever they think they will have to face an especially large ballot paper. A friend of mine had the experience several years ago of handing out ‘How to Vote’s. One voter into whose hand she managed to thrust the printed instructions seemed to think there was some kind of law in existence that dictated that, having taken it, he had to vote exactly as it recommended or he would be heavily penalised. In a similar vein, a woman took one and asked uneasily, ‘Now, I don’t have to vote Labor, do I?’ I’m happy to say that my friend’s fellow ‘How to Vote’ worker had the wit to reply, ‘Yes, you do.’ In the most recent Good Weekend, in the ‘Upfront’ section, foot juggler Hazel Bock in answer to what she doesn’t find amusing, replies, ‘…the political system. It’s ridiculous.’ And this from a woman who is pictured lying on her back with her arms and legs in the air, polka-dotted dress pulled back to reveal frilly bloomers, and making a zany face. This is on whose behalf the average politician is ageing prematurely.
I have to say, I was always quite sorry that Mark Latham never got any closer than he did to the ‘top job’. Whatever you think of the man’s policies, life always seemed a little more worth living when reading reports of ‘Latho’ breaking a cab driver’s arm; assaulting a photographer in a Hungry Jack’s car park; or best of all, having an effigy resembling the Ayatollah Khomeini mysteriously appearing in his driveway. At the other end of the spectrum, I also used to enjoy the dilettantish figure of Andrew Peacock, especially watching him trying to look interested while talking to old age pensioners. While I never would have voted for him myself, I wish quite often that someone else had. Still, while we’re not going to have these kinds of big personalities at the next federal election, just as we didn’t have them at the last one, at least we’ll see imaginations exercised by trying to manipulate the words ‘Gillard’ and ‘Abbott’ into something as haunting as ‘Ruddslide’.