Learning to love Julia Gillard

The Prime Minister's fiery takedown of Australia’s Opposition leader is changing hearts and minds

(Seth Perlman/AP Photo)

First, Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s fiery smackdown of Opposition Leader Tony Abbott, whom she branded a misogynist, became a YouTube sensation; now, it seems to have made Aussies love their unpopular leader—or at least hate her less.

It all started earlier this month when Gillard, noting that Abbott had once questioned whether women have the required temperament and physiology to lead, gave him a 15-minute dressing-down, labelling him a sexist and a hypocrite: “I was offended when the leader of the Opposition went outside in the front of Parliament and stood next to a sign that said, ‘ditch the witch.’ I was offended when the leader of the Opposition stood next to a sign that described me as a man’s bitch. Misogyny, sexism, every day from this leader of the Opposition. Every day in every way.” The video has since been viewed more than two million times, and comes at a pivotal moment for Gillard, who leads a minority government and is trying to push through unpopular spending cuts as the country’s mining boom cools.

Her approval rating jumped by five points in the wake of the incident, giving her a 10-point lead over Abbott, and it even prompted Australia’s Macquarie Dictionary to broaden its official definition of misogyny to include precisely the kind of sexist behaviour Gillard, the country’s first female leader, denounced in Parliament this month. (It is no longer limited to “pathological hatred” of women, but an “entrenched prejudice against women,” as well.)

Fiona Probyn-Rapsey, senior lecturer of gender and culture studies at the University of Sydney, says Gillard’s speech was a watershed moment in a country in which sexism is part of the cultural landscape. Gillard, once described as “barren” by a political opponent, has been “putting up with this sexist language for so long,” says Probyn-Rapsey, adding that Australia has “a profound anxiety when it comes to dealing with women in power.” She says that the Australian media was largely dismissive of Gillard’s speech—initially, the prime minister was accused of playing the “gender card”—until it gained positive attention outside the country. And then it gained traction inside the country. If polling trends continue, Gillard’s Labor party should win next year’s election. She is now seen as the preferred PM by 50 per cent of voters, while Abbott’s disapproval rating, now at 60 per cent, may climb after his latest gaffe. This week he said the government, which is cutting the baby bonus, wasn’t “experienced” about children—an apparent dig at Gillard, who is childless. Abbott’s woes are disappointing to John Winter, a 63-year-old Brisbane architect and Abbott supporter, who thinks Gillard’s status as feminist hero is “ridiculous.” He believes her speech was an opportunistic ploy, not unlike—in his opinion—her ascent to power. “She is poisonous,” says Winter, who accuses Gillard of attempting to “hitch up the sexism” to distract from political missteps like introducing a carbon tax when she promised she wouldn’t. To others, like Probyn-Rapsey, however, Gillard’s speech marks a significant moment—“when this woman stood up.”