Australia has recently won a place at the top table; a two-year term as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council. Since ex-PM Kevin Rudd first suggested it five years ago, $25 million dollars have been spent on diplomatic whizzing and lobbying. (The irony of chocolate koalas in goodie bags is not lost on me!) Australia yearns to be an important player on the world stage and, more importantly, be recognised as such.
But their Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, has done more for Australia's international reputation in the last few weeks than networking diplomats, although you'd never know it from the media here. She voiced what hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of women have been thinking but didn't like to say: that sexism is alive and kicking in Australia, especially in politics and the media. Australia has been lauded in countries far and wide; not as a military ally, or a carbon-pricing example-setter, or even a sometimes sporting giant, but for speaking out against an 'entrenched prejudice against women' – the new definition of misogyny. Who would have thought that Julia Gillard, who'd finally maxed out on sexist bullying by the Federal Opposition, would have struck a chord that reverberated around the world?
The details of exactly how Ms Gillard's outburst was triggered on the day hardly seem relevant. And whether or not you like her or her government's policies are side issues. She has been on the receiving end of sexist comments – some trivial, some cutting deep – since she became Labor leader. I come from a country where pollies describe their combatants as being 'economical with the truth' rather than liars. I was shocked and appalled in 2011 when Opposition Leader Tony Abbott appeared in front of television cameras at an anti-carbon-pricing rally with a placard behind him describing the Prime Minister as 'Bob Brown's bitch' (Bob Brown was leader of the Greens, who support Gillard's minority government).
Fellow Parliamentarians, political and other commentators, and ill-mannered LNP supporters phoning talkback radio have commented ad nauseam about the fact that Julia Gillard is not married, has no children and lives with a hairdresser; they deride the cut of her jacket, the size of her bottom, and her voice. Her ousting of Kevin Rudd and her carbon pricing U-turn have not been tolerated as they would have been under her male predecessors. After she lost her father a few weeks ago, a right-wing shock-jock proclaimed that he'd died of shame. On the day of Ms Gillard's sexism 'rant', Tony Abbott came within a whisker of the same degree of bad taste.
In fact, it's much much worse than any of this: see http://annesummers.com.au/speeches/her-rights-at-work-r-rated.
The moment Ms Gillard finally had enough ricocheted around the world. The Guardian in the UK featured the implications of the event for a couple of weeks, including an editorial. It took the Australian media the same amount of time to realise they'd completely underestimated its impact. Polls since have recorded an increase in the PM's popularity, although Labor would not be re-elected if there was an election tomorrow. I have heard Australian women say that they will now vote for Gillard as a direct result of what she said. But there are women who have been well schooled by their Aussie men folk and think they should quietly get on with their lives as wives and mothers rather than shouting about inequality and sexism.
I recently learned that only in 1970 were women no longer excluded from drinking in public bars in Queensland. And only in 1969 was the ban on married women working in the Queensland State public sector lifted. Progress in some areas of women's rights therefore came very late, it's worth remembering.
I think Julia Gillard was entitled to hit back at her sexist detractors. And maybe she's made a good few women think about issues they've been sweeping under the carpet for too long; and not just here in Australia. Good onya, girl.