September 6, 2008
The Canberra Times

Women on top? Yup ‘ol daddy, the political props are moving

The use of women as a prime- prop-in-politics reached dizzying heights this week. And we’re still all starry eyed, wondering where it’s going to lead. If you happened to have been asleep for the past several decades and woke up yesterday, the world would look upside down. Suddenly women seem to be on top.

A beauty queen with a beehive, who shoots moose and stews ’em, is running the free world. Or so it would seem. And Miss Moose has cornered the media market – plastering her smile and her hairstyle on every front page, every news website, and every screen. Her twangy voice and charming laugh is playing on loop, like a new-age mantra. Now the whole world knows – except perhaps Belinda Neal – that lipstick is the only difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull. (Maybe Neal is allergic to lipstick.)

So what’s going on? And this is not just an American thing. Australia has caught the girly infection in the past few days too.

Just yesterday a woman took over as Governor-General, and another pinned on the deputy’s badge in our most populous state. It’s taken 107 years for women to rise to these roles. Which is not to say that they’ve been lying around, filing their nails or teasing their hair, while waiting for that call. Women have been amassing for decades and waiting in the wings.

But why the call to front of stage now? And what happens when the prop takes over and becomes the main headline act, as we’re witnessing in the USA?

To answer that, perhaps it’s easiest to deal with the Antipodes first.

Unlike Miss Moose, Quentin Bryce isn’t hogging someone else’s spotlight. As Governor-General she is the headline act. And an eminently deserving one. But there have been many similarly deserving and well- qualified women in the past who never made it onto the GG short list. The fact that a woman has finally been anointed says a lot about the needs of the man who put her there – Kevin Rudd.

The Prime Minister made a dreadful botch of his 2020 summit when he named only one woman among the 10 team leaders. Women were furious, and within an hour of that announcement a pulsating power list of over 400 women, who were equally or better qualified, was doing the rounds.

The fact that Rudd has four women in his cabinet is good. But they share that space with 17 men. And the fact that the PM’s own media team has been rebuked for its blokeyness and testosterone tempers has further endangered Rudd’s feminist credentials.

Put bluntly, Kevin Rudd needed to appoint a woman as the GG. He needed to be seen to at least try to even the score. Whilst the role is effectively powerless, and mostly decorative, and will probably be the last GG appointment anyway, it’s nevertheless great to see a skirt among the suits at last.

As for Carmel Tebbutt’s ascension to the role of Deputy Premier in New South Wales, we can’t ignore the eleventh-hour desperation in that appointment. Tebbutt is expertly qualified. But she has been lassoed off the backbench after demoting herself in order to bring more work- family balance into her life.

While spending time at home with her child, Tebbutt’s party has descended into a chaotic boys-own brawl, slugging it out in the so-called bull pit. Iemma desperately needed the smart sophistication and female respectability that Tebbutt represents. Now Nathan Rees needs it even more.

The pit is a mess, the boys are out of control, and a firm, feminine touch is perhaps all that might help restore the Government’s reputation in the eyes of an appalled public.

Women have been used as political props for a long time. They’ve been good wives; hard-working First Ladies; and glamour gals in side-split gowns that distract the press.

But in a week like this, you can’t help wondering if the props are hogging the limelight, shimmying to centre stage, and even gearing up to take control – God forbid.

And if John McCain is at all surprised that Sarah Palin has stolen his spotlight and his party’s heart, then he’s not showing it. A little like a tottering old grandpa, he gave her an awkward hug after her flawless speech at the Republican Convention on Wednesday. And a little like the teenage prom queen balancing her new crown, Palin didn’t take her eyes off the applauding audience at that moment. She hugged McCain like one would an estranged great uncle. His gesture was gratitude. Hers was like ”yup ol’ daddy, it’s fine, I’m here now”.

What a master stroke by the GOP to sign Palin as the old man’s running mate. In one endearing package she delivers all the things that McCain can’t: youth, beauty, femininity and infectious charm. But it’s her small-town values and uncomplicated view of the world that makes her utterly adorable to all those who fear God and fret about their neighbours. She may not know what a vice president does all day, but dead moose are proof she’s a better shot than Dick Cheney.

However, this master stroke could turn out to be a horrible joke. What a delicious bundle of contradictions Palin is proving to be. A fierce anti- abortionist who fought against sex education in schools. A loving mom who parades her pregnant teenage daughter – already flushed with guilt and embarrassment – before the world. And a caring parent who makes a freakish spectacle of her daughter’s hapless boyfriend.

It’s weird stuff. But wonderful media fodder. Stay tuned. The props are moving.

Virginia Haussegger is a Canberra journalist and director of the 50/50 by 2030 Foundation at the University of Canberra.

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