Australia is not ready for a female prime minister

IT IS now five days since Australia went to the polls to elect a new government for the three years to 2013 – and the results are not known. It looks very likely that the end result will be both the major parties – Labor and the Liberal/National coalition – ending up with less than the 76 seats required to rule.

What is remarkable is that in 2010, votes are still being tallied – and this is a country with just 14 million eligible voters (where voting is compulsory). Counting is done in the old way, with people being involved; the type of thinking that permeates the corridors of power and led to this situation is a reflection of why we are in this situation at all.

A couple of months before the election, the Labor party, in what can only be described as a political assassination, dumped its prime minister. Kevin Rudd, and installed a woman, Julia Gilliard, as leader instead. The reason the powerbrokers sent the PM packing was because his poll numbers were dropping; the woman deputy was considered a much better option of retaining power. Australia would have had to go the polls before February 2011 at the latest; the last government was elected in November 2007 and for a period of three years.

But the Labor powerbrokers, who indulge in ruthless culling, with the only criterion being feedback from focus groups, calculated without the conservative Australian population. Exactly how many people would vote for an unmarried red-head who openly declared she was an atheist? A woman who was “living in sin” and flaunting it? A woman who had no children? A woman who had the communication skills to openly taunt the male leader of the Opposition and leave him with egg on his face more often than not?

Strangely, in the post-election analysis, one cannot find even a mention of the female factor; admittedly it wouldn’t look too good if one were to raise this issue as Australia’s much smaller neighbour, New Zealand, has already had two women as prime minister, from either side of politics.

Only one political writer raised the issue and that was three weeks before polling day. He pointed to statistics, showing that among men over 65, only 35 percent approved of having a woman as PM. Fifty-eight percent disapproved. Male voters above the age of 45 strongly approved of her male rival.

Australia is a deeply conservative country. It may not appear that way to those who move around in cosmopolitan cities like Sydney and Melbourne, among educated people, among those who have had the chance to travel and see a little more of the world. The fact that Sydney organises one of the better known Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras parades every year probably gives a false idea about the deep-rooted conservative beliefs which a large number of the Australian populace cling to.

In the 1960s and 70s, women came to power because they had famous males behind them. Sirima Bandaranaike, the first woman prime minister of Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) built her career on the ashes of her illustrious husband, Solomon, who was assassinated by a Buddhist monk. Indira Gandhi of India traded on her father’s reputation. Golda Meir is the only one who came to power on her own merit – and she was said to have more balls than the average man in her cabinet, which included the dashing Moshe Dayan.

In Asia, this trend continued into the 80s and 90s. Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan traded on the fame of her father; she was a singular failure as prime minister. Khaleda Zia and Hasina Wajed of Bangladesh rode on their respective husbands’ coattails.

Of course, there have been women who have taken power on their own and done a marvellous job; I have provided these examples to show that women often do need a leg-up from a male. It never happens the other way round.

After the Australian election, there have been any number of theories offered to explain the fact that the Labor party did not get a majority – the reaction by the people of the state of Queensland, from where the knifed PM hails, the reaction by the population at large to the dropping of a plan for an emissions trading scheme which Labor made a central plank of its winning 2007 campaign, the lack of any serious policy debate during the campaign and so on. All excuses that painted the Australian masses as a thinking, reasoning lot.

Anyone who has travelled around the country knows better. Ignorance reigns, people are poorly educated, and more prone to accept one-liners as an explanation rather than any detailed, well thought-out reasoning. Australia is run, in the main, by middle-aged and old white men whose thinking harks back to the 1950s. And the wives of these men are also as conservative and one cannot imagine any of them voting for Gillard. That is why a man like John Howard, who made race a central feature of his insidious political campaigns, was able to rule the country from 1996-2007.

In this respect, Australia resembles America – the US gave an idiot like George W. Bush eight years in power but looks unlikely to give his predecessor, Barack Obama, more than one term.