With startling speed the Labor Party has removed its previous leader, Kevin Rudd, replacing him with Deputy Prime Minister, Julia Gillard. Politics being what they are - all about pragmatism and winning elections - it's not surprising that they decided he had to go but it is an extraordinary event in Australian political history for several reasons.
Firstly, Prime Ministers do not usually get dumped in their first term. It's an indication of how far Rudd was perceived to be out of favour with the electorate. It's easy to see why his popularity had declined. He came to office promising reforms and, in fact, had delivered on many. For example under his government Australia weathered the financial crisis far better than most other countries. However he fell down on communicating his government's achievements to the voters. Then he failed to deliver on two big issues - the emissions trading scheme and the very emotive issue of taking Japan to the International Court over its so-called scientific whaling program. Added to this the badly planned home insulation program, which was good in theory but, due to inadequate preparation and supervision, resulted in a number of deaths, the rise in illegal asylum seekers (for reasons quite external to Australia and out of the government's control), the mining super tax and a perception (fostered by his wordy, obscure use of language) that the Prime Minister was unwilling to compromise all led to a questioning of his leadership. With the increasing popularity of Tony Abbott in the news polls, the ALP power brokers decided they had to act. The interesting question, from an outside observer's perspective, is if Rudd had shown some of the emotion and sincerity he did in his final press conference would he have retained the support of the party and the electorate? We'll never know, of course, and now we have a new Prime Minister.
This change is an historic one. In Julia Gillard, Australia has its first female Prime Minister. Since Australia was one of the first places to grant women the vote it is astonishing that we have had so few women in political positions of power. There have been a few women State Premiers and the Australian Democrats had several women as their party leader but these have the exceptions. Until the appointment of Quentin Bryce we had never had a female governor General either. There have been women Cabinet ministers in both major parties but they have been a definite minority (although there has been a slow increase in both those and the number of women entering Parliament). With the last election both parties opted for women as their deputy leaders, in itself a step forward, although now we have a female Prime Minister with a male deputy, which makes for a nice change.
Alarmingly, I notice that there is already the usual silly focus on appearance in some of the media. In Friday's edition of The West Australian a photo of the Governor General, Quentin Bryce, and newly appointed Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, sitting opposite one another after her swearing in had the fatuous headline 'Australia's top women get off on the right foot'. Reporter Yuko Narushima followed this by 'Two pairs of black stilettos pointed towards each other under the desk where history was made at Government House in Canberra yesterday'. If it had been two men facing each other would we have told 'two pairs of shiny black dress shoes pointed towards each other'? I don't think so.
As a woman I am delighted to see an intelligent, competent woman as our Prime Minister. I do not care if she has red or blonde hair, whether she wears stilettos or flat shoes, whether she has or doesn't have children. In short, while I'm pleased to see the majority group in the population finally in positions of authority - and think it long overdue - what I want from my Prime Minister is the ability to do the job. Let's hope this silly obsession with a woman's appearance disappears and instead the media focusses instead on what is important whatever the gender of the leader of the country.