Books Australia

Hunting for bogeymen

18 July 2013

1:00 PM

18 July 2013

1:00 PM

Here is how you make a conspiracy theory: take a couple of facts, stir in a few assumptions, then add a heroic victim and plenty of villains. And — this part is very important — simply leave out anything that doesn’t fit your preconceptions. A good conspiracy theory will elevate its hero to the status of a saint, or a martyr, or, best of all, both.

This is the recipe for these two books about Julia Gillard, which were completed shortly before she was displaced as prime minister by Kevin Rudd. Both The Misogyny Factor and The Stalking of Julia Gillard are built around the theme that it was Gillard’s gender that was the dominant factor in her defeat, although each takes a different tack.

Summers acknowledges that her concept of misogyny has little to do with the commonly understood meaning of the word. Indeed, her interpretation appears to broaden as the book progresses, although a key assertion is that people on the conservative side of politics — which she seems to define as everyone not specifically allied with the ALP — saw Gillard’s government as delegitimate because of her gender. Most men just can’t cope with the idea of a woman in charge, she says.

This is merely silly. On the conservative side of politics, the idea of women in leadership positions has not been an issue since May 1979, when Margaret Thatcher rendered the debate moot. The criticism of the legitimacy of the Gillard government, following the election of 2010, related not to Gillard but to Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott, who had previously said that they would abide by the wishes of their electorates but manifestly did not.

Summers is, of course, entirely correct in saying that Gillard copped a lot of criticism. She sees this as clear evidence of sexism, not just in politics but everywhere. She accepts that other prime ministers have been attacked but none so much as Gillard. Really? One thinks, for example, of the Rock Against Howard CD (endorsed by then ALP President Carmen Lawrence,) which included songs like ‘John Howard is a Filthy Slut’ and ‘Gun Him Down’. Indeed, the level of hatred directed at Howard reached irrational, even bizarre levels.

Or one might consider the barrage of criticism directed at Tony Abbott. Whole books have been written — step forward, Susan Mitchell and David Marr — intending to show what a nasty fellow he is. On the other hand, Jacqueline Kent’s The Making of Julia Gillard is essentially hagiographic.

Undoubtedly, there are blogs that were vicious about Gillard. So what? There are plenty about Abbott, too. Welcome to the digital age, Dr Summers, where anyone can shout about anything while representing no one but themselves. Is a selection of blogs really supposed to prove that misogyny is a core, defining trait of our culture? Well, Summers also cites a second-hand comment from a taxi driver in Darwin, and the opinions of some of her friends.

And, yes, some of the criticism had a crudely sexual tone. Gosh, some of it was almost as bad as when the ABC’s Marieke Hardy tweeted: ‘Tony Abbott, I hope your cock drops off and falls down a plughole.’ Or when ‘comedian’ Josh Thomas made a sexual joke about Abbott’s mother.

The point is that the Left has long been willing to play the vilification game. To claim to be the victim when it comes back to them is simply hypocrisy. For her part, Gillard was always adept with the bucket, and her supporters applauded her for it.

The search for misogyny takes Summers to some strange places. She notes, for example, that Gillard was sometimes called Julia, which she characterises as disrespectful. But during the 2010 campaign Gillard re-launched herself as ‘the real Julia’, so presumably she herself didn’t see it as a problem. Indeed, Gillard and her circle were very willing to use Abbott’s name as a weapon, referring to him as ‘phony Tony’ and ‘troppo Tony’. (Honestly, if they had spent less time thinking up playground insults and more time governing, they might still be in the big chairs.)

But Summers is determined to pin the misogyny tag onto Abbott. She sees evidence of it in the fact that he sometimes — she calls him ‘a serial offender’ — referred to Gillard as ‘she’. Huh? Is this what it has come to? Referring to a woman as ‘she’ is now some sort of insult? This is Alice through the Looking Glass territory, with words meaning whatever Summers chooses them to mean.

This is not to say that Abbott cannot be pugilistic. But Summers refuses to see anything else. For example, his parliamentary remarks to Gillard on the occasion of her father’s death were gracious and heartfelt, and he has been active in personally raising funds for a range of women’s causes. All of this is ignored: it wouldn’t fit the conspiracy paradigm.

If Summers tries for a more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger tone, Walsh is in the game boots and all, kicking everyone within range. She worked in the Press Gallery for a long time, but as she now has a consulting firm she obviously feels no need to even attempt journalistic fairness. Like Summers, she sees Gillard as a leader whose ideas were all wonderful — even the Malaysian Solution — but who was constantly undermined by others, especially Rudd, who never accepted that he had been rejected.

Walsh lambasts Team Rudd for a stream of leaks and under-the-counter comments, and the ALP seems to be not so much a party as a snake-pit. It all becomes tiring and repetitive, as Walsh happily wades through the muck. Insiders like Walsh might be endlessly fascinated by the ructions and machinations of the ALP but the rest of us, at some point, find the subject becoming rather tedious.

Walsh rightly points to the media as pushing the conflict along. But she does not really want even-handedness. She describes the Press Gallery as ‘fawning’ in the days after Gillard became PM: Walsh’s problem is that the fawning ceased. Part of the shift was due to the declining opinion polls, which went into a downward spiral. Walsh sees the decline as due entirely to the leaks and in-fighting; the possibility that the poll results were due to bad policy decisions rather than negative media coverage does not seem to occur to her. She sees the constant stream of polls as corrosive and damaging, although presumably she did not have a problem when her former boss, Bob Hawke, used polling data to knock over Bill Hayden.

While Walsh has an insult for almost everyone — calling Robert McClelland a ‘venomous grumbler’ is a personal favourite — she sometimes splutters with rage when discussing Abbott. She runs out of ways to express her disdain for Rudd, eventually deferring to a professional psychologist who describes the once-and-now PM as ‘close to delusional’, which is pretty similar to what some of his colleagues have said.

While these two books are very different, the common thread is that neither Summers nor Walsh are willing to accept that Gillard was anything other than a great leader, an outstanding reformer, a shining moral light, a brave class warrior and an altogether wonderful human being. Just misunderstood, and ultimately betrayed. Both books are, in their different ways, strident and intolerant, as conspiracy theories usually are. Think of them as the first attempts to create the myth of Saint Julia.

This is a pity, because there are real issues of gender inequality that need to be addressed, as well as a host of other important problems. Summers mentions some of them but her focus on Gillard turns the book into a partisan, personal polemic, a hunt for bogeymen rather than a work of research. There is a sense that both Summers and Walsh are fundamentally missing the point, preferring to fiddle while Rome burns. This, though: they do not know that they fiddle, and they do not care that Rome burns.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Show comments