As soon as she took office, Julia Gillard signalled that she intended to take a hard line on the off shore processing of asylum seekers who arrive here by boat. The new Prime Minister announced a processing centre (sounds a bit like a fish canning enterprise) in East Timor without, it subsequently emerged, first having properly consulted with that country as to its willingness to partner with Australia in the venture.
As we know, the East Timor proposition came to nought, and served to position the new Prime Minister as a woman who perhaps spoke too soon, and incautiously. This cast early doubt on her capacity for tough. She’s had to work hard to dispel this initial doubt because everyone knows a woman who seeks high political office has to be twice as tough, twice as hard and twice as mean as any man. Unless she wants stay on the backbench for her entire career and be of no interest to anyone other than her electorate.
The Malaysian “solution” has also thus far come to nought, not because that country declined to co-operate with Gillard’s tough plans to expel boat arrivals including unaccompanied children, a new benchmark in tough that left me gob smacked and tearful, how female of me, but because the High Court of Australia found the current Migration Act incompatible with the government’s tough policy. In a
After having petulantly (unwise choice, petulance erodes tough) attacked the full bench as activist judges who were missing an opportunity to stop the boats (an ignorant response from a lawyer: as if it is the High Court’s job to stop the boats) Gillard has now proposed amendments to the Act that will grant an immigration minister unfettered control over the expulsion of asylum seekers to any country he or she decides is suitable, should he or she deem that to be in the national interest. The amendment will ensure there can be no further legal challenges to such a ministerial declaration.
Never underestimate the power of a woman.
Theoretically, this amendment could lead to asylum seekers being refouled, that is sent back to the countries from which they have fled. The UN Refugee Convention proscribes this course of action. The Convention does allow us to relocate asylum seekers to a third country for assessment, however that third country ideally would also be a signatory, and certainly would offer protection of asylum seekers’ human rights, including non refoulement.
We have now strayed so far from the Convention that the only reasons for us to continue as signatories are that we would look like very bad (if tough) international citizens if we withdrew, and withdrawal would undoubtedly put the kybosh on our aspirations to a seat on the UN Security Council. So we will maintain our status as signatories, whilst abandoning pretence to anything other than minimal observance of the Convention. Amending the Migration Act will legitimise our hypocrisy. Not only has a woman proved she is better at tough than the men, she’s also surpassed them in the hypocrisy stakes.
Qué viva liberación de la mujer!
I just love how that sounds in Spanish.
I am woman hear me roar
The fact that Gillard chose to announce her East Timor “solution” hours after taking office indicates that she was determined to position herself from the start as a woman who is capable of great tough, especially on asylum seekers, that hapless and motley collection of human vulnerability who, one could be forgiven for concluding, exist primarily for Australian politicians to use as a yardstick for their implacability capability. Tough implacability apparently being the sole measure of strength in this brutalized country’s brutalized politics, formerly epitomized by Liberals John Howard, Philip Ruddock, Peter Reith, Alexander Downer, et al.
In a bold and successful tilt at gender equality, Gillard has now proved beyond question that a woman can be much better at tough than a man. We have the extraordinary vision of Abbott refusing to co-operate with Gillard’s proposed amendment on the grounds that it strips asylum seekers of all human rights protections, including those written into the Act by his predecessor John Howard who we thought was tough at the time, but who now looks like a little bitty pussycat.
In other words, Abbott has voluntarily relinquished his inherited title of sovereign head of the continent of Tough to Gillard, because worrying about asylum seekers’ human rights is so not tough that he might find he’s stranded himself off shore in the very leaky boat of mercurial public opinion. It could viciously turn, public opinion could, and drive Tony, soon to be despised as a bleeding heart if he’s not careful, past the shores of need to the reefs of greed, through the squalls of hate.* Who knows where he might make landfall? Maybe Malaysia.
Who would ever have thought it?
Gillard’s off shore processing stance was adopted in response to focus groups who want rid of boat arrivals like a good householder wants rid of rats and cockroaches, having learned from Pauline Hanson and John Howard that asylum seekers are a threat to the very fabric of the Australian way of life, and quite likely terrorists to boot. Focus groups aren’t going to put their weight behind any politician who can’t show them some tough, and kick the bastard refugees out as soon as they disembark from their bastard cobbled-together boats. If they sink and die it serves the importunate bastards right, is pretty much the attitude of focus groups the government consults.
The people of the focus groups found their natural leader in Gillard. She, like Pauline Hanson, validated them and gave them a voice. You aren’t racists, she told them. If you worry about border security and our nation’s sovereignty you are not racists, and their hearts swelled with gratitude at this Prime Ministerial liberation from the burdensome slur of bogan racism laid upon them by middle class tosser academics, soy milk latte sipping left wing inner city über cool arty farty wankers, and maybe that nerdy egg head Kevin Rudd as well, even if he did try to hide it. Julia speaks their language, she has the right accent; she makes it OK to hate boat arrivals and call it border protection, and she’s tough. What more could a focus group want?
A victory for women
Julia Gillard is unquestionably the mistress of the politics of tough, and the blokes she’s bulldozed in her single-minded pursuit of the title can only lie trashed and spent in the gutter, marvelling at her prodigious talent. In the patriarchal culture of hegemonic masculinity Gillard has proved herself to be more skilled and adept than any bloke. Suck it up, chaps. You should have tried harder to keep us pregnant and barefoot.
Julia is a role model for our female young, demonstrating how a woman can indeed be harder, more mean, and infinitely more tough than a man by honing her skills on powerless asylum seekers. There’s no issue in Australian politics that comes anywhere near providing the same opportunities for the performance of tough. Climate change you might protest, but that doesn’t yet have the human element essential to modelling first class tough. Derogatory remarks about the legitimacy of a photograph of one polar bear looking desperate on a melting ice floe can’t compare with the opportunity to send unaccompanied minors to a country where they might get caned, just for being in it.
Here’s the rub
However. Here’s the rub. If it was your desire to see a change in the monotonous political culture of “how thoroughly can I trash somebody to show how tough hard and mean I am,” if it was your hope that women might introduce an alternative to the tough, hard and mean meme that can only ever be maintained at the expense of others because it is founded on being tough hard and mean to somebody, you’re likely to be feeling a bit disillusioned.
If women in high political office are going to be the same as men and worse, why do we want them there, you might be asking? Why do we need anymore mean tough and hard politicians, and especially why do we need women politicians who think they have to up the stakes and be even meaner, tougher and harder than the men?
Why do we value and reward the mean, the tough and the hard in politics above all other characteristics in the first place, whether they manifest in a man or a woman?
Julia Gillard is living proof that the qualities required for political office in Australia are un-gendered. She is the living proof that women can do anything a man can do and more, in that world. She’s living proof that women are capable of the same oppressive and repressive patriarchal attitudes and behaviours that in other contexts feminists have vigorously protested and fought to liberate us from for decades, only to have our first female leader head right back into the brutal bloodied heart of the patriarchy’s savaging body, and prove that not only can we equal them in their dark arts, we can outdo them.
Woman up, Ms Gillard, and stop copying the blokes. It’s not yet too late. Things can’t get much worse for you, so if you’re going down, do it in a blaze of female glory by being tough enough to change your mind, because very soon Tony Abbott’s going to start looking better at pretending to be humane than you are, and that’s just going to mess with everybody’s heads, possibly terminally. Then you’ll find yourself and your party cast into the wilderness for a good few decades, while the rest of us have to find ways of staying alive under a coalition government led by a failed seminarian who likes going round mostly naked, and has a bad and unreconstructed attitude to women.
From one woman to another this heartfelt plea: have mercy, Julia. Have mercy.
*Leonard Cohen, Democracy.
- Gillard, Abbott asylum meeting lasts just 15 minutes (theage.com.au)
- Stalemate over Australia asylum (bbc.co.uk)
- Coalition sinks PM’s boat plan (theage.com.au)
- Gillard faces internal revolt (theage.com.au)
- Gillard sinks to new low – Newspoll (heraldsun.com.au)