The media forgets how it destroyed Julia Gillard

We should never underestimate the ability of the mainstream media to employ double standards, engage in collective amnesia, and paint a rosy picture of the conservative world, a world quite detached from reality.

Last Sunday, the Member of Higgins, Kelly O’Dwyer, announced her decision to not recontest the seat at the next federal election. The media quickly depicted her as a ‘trailblazer for women’ and someone who ‘stood up to men in her party’, without actually providing any evidence for how she trailblazed for the feminist movement, or which men in the Liberal Party she stood up to, or in which circumstances this occurred.

For sure, O’Dwyer achieved a great deal as the member for Higgins, a seat she claimed in a by-election in 2009, after the former Treasurer, Peter Costello, resigned. During her nine-year stint in Parliament, she became Minister for Women; Minister for Jobs and Industrial Relations; Minister for Revenue and Financial Services; Minister for Small Business; and Assistant Treasurer.

But instead of focusing on her time as in Parliament, the media diverted their attention towards the vitriol against O’Dwyer published on social media, and were quick to point out that it was “a disgrace and as bad at the abuse Julia Gillard had to deal with”.

O’Dwyer – or any other politician – shouldn’t have to put up with public vilification and online abuse, and definitely not to the hyper-level that was thrown at Gillard.

Comparisons of abuse of politicians by the media is always fraught, but there is no way known there is any equivalence between the media treatment of Kelly O’Dwyer and Julia Gillard, during her time in office.

Kelly O'Dwyer and Scott Morrison
Kelly O’Dwyer announces she will not re-contest the next federal election, in front of Prime Minister, Scott Morrison.

At the time of her resignation, the media rolled the red carpet of empathy for O’Dwyer, outlining the “very personal reason” behind her decision to leave Parliament – a miscarriage and the desire of her family to have another child.

Without question, a miscarriage at anytime of a woman’s life is distressing, and a desire to have another child is a question that many families around Australia would like to have positively answered. But I couldn’t help thinking: how would the media have reacted if this was Julia Gillard?

While there have been very derisive and appalling comments on social media about Kelly O’Dwyer (some have actually come from Unions Australia News, fake Twitter and Facebook accounts created by the Young Liberals to discredit unions), there has been nothing at all that comes close to the treatment meted out to Julia Gillard.

“Ju-liar”, “Ditch the Witch” and “Bob Brown’s Bitch”. These are the placards from the anti-carbon tax rally in front of Parliament House in March 2011. Did Kelly O’Dwyer ever have to endure anything like this?

Anti-carbon tax rally, Tony Abbott
Then Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott, addresses an anti-carbon tax rally, in front of offensive and sexist placards.

In September 2012, after Gillard’s father died suddenly, 2GB broadcaster Alan Jones said “the old man recently died a few weeks ago of shame, to think that he had a daughter who told lies every time she stood for parliament.” He then went on to say Gillard should be “put into a chaff bag and thrown into the sea”.

In June 2013, Liberal MP Steve Ciobo said many Labor members would welcome “the opportunity to slit Julia Gillard’s throat”. Liberal–National Party MP Mal Brough even went to the effort of creating a KFC poster, with the headline: “Julia Gillard Snack Pack – 2 Small Breasts, 2 Extra Large Thighs, 1 Red Box”.

Extending the food theme, Mal Brough also held a fundraising event in March 2013 and, on the published menu: “Julia Gillard Kentucky Fried Quail – Small Breasts, Huge Thighs & A Big Red Box”, as well as other references to her vagina and mussels.

Has anyone ever speculated on the sexuality of O’Dwyer’s husband, Jon Mant? In June 2013 on Perth radio, shock-jock Howard Sattler asked Julia Gillard about her partner, Tim Mathieson: “Tim’s gay? He must be gay, he’s a hairdresser. You can confirm that he’s not?”.

Julia Gillard with Howard Sattler
Then Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, during that interview with Howard Sattler.

This was quickly followed up with an appearance on ABC Insiders by News Limited journalist, Piers Akerman: “A lot of people in the Canberra gallery have been saying the same thing”.

And before her first child arrived, did anyone claim O’Dwyer was unfit for leadership because she was “deliberately barren”, as Liberal Senator Bill Heffernan claimed of Julia Gillard in 2007?

Did anyone ever throw a half-eaten Vegemite sandwich at O’Dwyer, like the one thrown at Gillard during her visit to Marsden State High School in Brisbane? Or did any television producer ever make an intrusive and derisory sit-com about her family, like the ABC-commissioned At Home With Julia?

Julia Gillard endured a great deal of public misogyny during her time as Prime Minister, encouraged and egged on by male-dominated media of all persuasions. It’s sickening to recount how unhinged the behaviour of the media was at that time.

But it’s the Labor women that bear the brunt of media derision and curiosity. Previously, we had Cheryl Kernot. In 2018, it was the Labor backbencher, Emma Husar.

Gillard was the true trailblazer for women in the Australian Parliament and while all of these attacks were taking place, Kelly O’Dwyer, as a parliamentarian, had a front-seat view of the events taking place in front of her, but never offered a public word of support to Gillard, or ‘stood up to the men’ in the Liberal Party, as claimed by Prime Minister Scott Morrison.

O’Dwyer is entitled to a retire from Parliament in peace and away from the media gaze (although I’m sure she’ll be offered a healthy sinecure with her former employer, NAB). But never let it be said she had to endure the same public treatment as Julia Gillard and we (and O’Dwyer) should be thankful that it never came to this.

Conflating the two experiences is a false equivalence, and the media has shown how short its memory really is.

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About Eddy Jokovich 62 Articles
Eddy Jokovich is a journalist, publisher, author, political analyst, campaigner, war correspondent, and lecturer in media studies at the University of Technology, Sydney and the University of Sydney; has a wide range of experience working in editorial and media production work and is Director of ARMEDIA, a publishing and communications company specialising in public interest media.