Bernard Keane, Crikey Canberra correspondent
Social media are rarely kind to the Canberra press gallery but this week there’s been one of those periodic outbursts of fury. Only, unlike the 2010 election campaign or the Labor leadership spill early this year, this one has a strong element of gender to it.
The gallery stands accused of entirely missing the significance of Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s speech on Tuesday, which sent Twitter and Facebook into overdrive and was quickly picked up by major international websites.
Peter Hartcher, in particular, copped a savaging for his ‘we expected more of Gillard’ piece. And Fairfax’s own Piers Akerman, Paul ‘Magic Water’ Sheehan, copped a bucketing for his attack on the prime minister, which included a snide reference to her childlessness, one later removed by a Fairfax editor without explanation and, until prompted by Mark Colvin, any acknowledgment.
So – clueless, don’t-get-it (male-dominated) press gallery or lefty echo-chamber Twitterati?
The first thing to note is the two are talking about different things and, to some extent, at cross-purposes. The press gallery doesn’t see its job as analysing the social significance of politics. Its focus is on political tactics – what works politically, what doesn’t, what impact political performances will have on the functionality of the government in the short term and, over the longer term, its prospects for re-election. The gallery also focused on the wider context for the speech, which was the government defending the wretched Peter Slipper. Criticising the gallery for ‘not getting it’ misses that what they’re supposed to be getting isn’t necessarily in their job description.
Countering that is the insistence this was a key political moment, that voters, especially but not only female voters, will respond positively to the prime minister’s speech, that they’ll be pleased a female prime minister has pulled such an important issue to them out into the open.
That’s entirely possible, but gallery journalists are no better placed to make that assessment than anyone else – indeed, worse placed, if they’re based in Canberra, which offers a distorted view of the world. Nor, it must be said, are social-media users well placed to make such an assessment. Twitter, even if 10 per cent of Australians are said to use it, is unrepresentative of all voters, and most likely skewed to the politically engaged anyway; Facebook is a more representative platform because it is much more widely used, but in both cases selection bias is a problem, because both allow us to shape what we see. And merely because large foreign websites are carrying it doesn’t mean it will resonate with Australian voters.
Where the ‘don’t get it’ criticism of the gallery may have more substance is that a key moment arrived in political debate without being heralded or particularly noticed. The issue of gender in politics has been simmering since Julia Gillard become PM. The misogynist abuse of her from sections of the Right outside parliament, whipped along by shock jocks and sections of News Ltd, has drawn increasing attention. But in recent weeks the issue has erupted into a storm, particularly after Alan Jones’s ‘destroying the joint’ comments. Tony Abbott’s decision – yet again showing he refuses to be hobbled by his own previous comments on any issue – to attack the prime minister was always going to create a tipping point.
Never before have gender issues been at the centre of political debate like this. Indeed, the Canberra tradition is to resolutely ignore such issues. Female politicians have, usually silently, endured double standards in how the press treats them. Both sides of politics consigned women to ‘soft’ portfolios involving welfare and social services, with the silent assumption they were incapable of the hard stuff of government, good only for doling out money. Male politicians arrogantly assumed the right to dictate women’s reproductive choices. Attempts to lift the representation of women in parliament were dismissed as ‘patronising’.
Suddenly that’s over. A female prime minister has directly, fiercely, attacked her opponent for misogyny, in a way, clearly, that no male politician could ever have done.
Women understood this as an important moment better than men. We come back to that significant gender gap I’ve mentioned several times, how over 60 per cent of women voters think the prime minister, and all female politicians, cop criticism that male politicians do not, while only 40 per cent of men do. That 61 per cent shows it’s not just Labor- and Greens-voting women who feel this way, but many Liberal-voting women as well, women who are prepared to back the coalition even with Abbott leading it.
This was a political moment most of the gallery, focused on the tactical battle of day-to-day politics, missed.
But that doesn’t resolve the issue of the extent to which the events of Tuesday resonated with most voters, who unlike either the press gallery or social media users, have little interest in politics. Time and polling will give us some clues as to the wider impact, if any.