There were a few types of people that went to hear Julia Gillard speak in Melbourne last week: your student feminists who are members of Young UN Women, the 50-something women who started out the same way but have since bought in Carlton North and now vote Green, clean-cut boys who wear glasses and ‘get’ gender stuff, and, of course, the Labor party faithful. Looking around the opulent room, I wondered where the ‘little people’ were. Would the folk Labor claim to understand and stand up for be given their chance to take the floor and ask the tough questions?
The answer was no. They would not be amongst the audience gathered in the sumptuous gilt and carpets of Melbourne Town Hall on Tuesday night. I doubt they were sitting in the surrounds of the Sydney Opera House the night before. Because, let’s face it, what woman on Newstart could shell out 45 bucks for a ticket to come and hear Ms Gillard tell her the reason she got kicked off the single parent pension is because our former Prime Minister believes in the dignity of hard work. Asylum seekers on bridging visas were also out of luck. When you’re not allowed to work until you’re considered a legit refugee, tickets to public forums are not really an option.
Perhaps having these people in the audience would have made the event too uncomfortable for everyone who was there anyway. The educated, middle class, overwhelmingly white audience members were Julia acolytes. They leaped to their feet when she entered the room, raising their hands over their heads and clapping while Katy Perry played in the background, cheering on the woman they felt had been wronged by the twin machinery of politics and mass media. They were, unquestionably, on Julia’s side and they were not there to have their progressive idol held up to the light. But what ‘side’ were they really on?
Was it the side that forced single mothers on to the poverty line by shifting them on to a lower Centrelink payment virtually overnight? Or the side that had continued the ghastly Northern Territory Intervention that the Howard Government started? Or perhaps it was the side that did not see any way to make room for asylum seekers to settle in our prosperous country.
In fact, it was all of these and together they form a significant part of Julia Gillard’s political make-up. They sit alongside Ms Gillard’s other policies and beliefs in an implausible arrangement that is presented as the well-reasoned arguments of a progressive woman who cares about the little people. On Tuesday night in Melbourne, her supporters appeared to accept this explanation without question. While she was Prime Minister, it was this disingenuous public persona that drove voters towards the Greens, seeking ‘true’ progressive politicians. Did anyone in the audience on Tuesday vote Greens for that very reason? Most likely. But on this particular night, they were willing to forgive and forget all of Julia’s sins and shower her with the treatment worthy of a progressive martyr.
The people who had borne the brunt of the Gillard Government’s move to the Right were noticeably absent in a crowd of self-declared believers, craning their heads to catch every word, clap with approval and raucously laugh at Julia’s in-jokes. Anne Summers was (unsurprisingly) soft. She was there to ensure a progressive sanctuary for Julia and the starry-eyed audience dutifully played their part, willfully buying the heartfelt justifications for frankly regressive policies that almost everyone around me disagreed with.
The tough questions were not a part of the dialogue Labor voters wanted to have with and about Julia Gillard, now that she is a former holder of public office. It was not a part of Julia Gillard the person that her supporters wanted to accept. However, just as most progressive-leaning people like to point out the admirable DisabilityCare, Gonski reforms and carbon tax implemented by JG, they cannot sidestep the unsettling reality that their first female prime minister was not, by default, a saint of minority groups and in fact did quite a few things that left these people worse off. The total picture is one of a flawed yet savvy leader, a political animal who knew the game and the risks involved, and gambled on the silence of the groups her policies were most disastrous for.
Those who flocked to hear Julia Gillard speak and hang off her every word were reenacting the Labor Party’s self-imposed tunnel vision, where merely repeating the mantra of ‘people’s party’ has replaced the activity of being a party about people, especially those on the margins who can’t speak up for themselves. Progressive is now just a way of saying you hate Tony Abbott and the mainstream media but you haven’t really got a clue about what happens to the people languishing in offshore detention without a visa, or the thousands that are still on the poverty line after 6 disappointing years of ‘socially conscious’ government.
Instead of getting caught up in self-evident discussions about the injustices faced by female politicians, the left-leaning public must face up to the true injustices that are being lived, every day, by people who were not in that room with Julia Gillard last week and probably never will be, such is the lot that they have been left with. Serious inequities are on the horizon for Australia. The left needs to emerge from the twilight zone if is going to remain relevant.