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Accessions to power: are women prime ministers different?

By Jocelynne Scutt - posted Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Leadership challenges - federal, state and territory - are hardly foreign to Australian politics. Throughout the 1980s, the Liberal Party harboured continuing rivalry between Andrew Peacock and John Howard, turn and turn about being opposition leader. Following stable leadership from Don Chipp then Janine Haines, Australian Democrats swapped leaders – Michael Macklin, Janet Powell, John Coulter, Cheryl Kernot, then Meg Lees, Natasha Stott Despoja, Andrew Bartlett and Lynne Alison. On average, a new leader every two years, election by party membership not obviating dissension in parliamentary ranks. Meanwhile, the Australian Labor Party has had its leadership challenges.

Sniping from those seeing themselves as 'rightful' leaders yet being deposed or not having attained the position happens, too. Generally the media moves on, those wishing to maintain media coverage of their ambitions being disappointed. Before too long, they lack traction, being seen, if at all, as 'whingers', MPs unable to extract the baton from the knapsack.

Between elections, every Prime Minister remains so (absent misfortune as with Harold Holt or resignation as with Robert Menzies) through party room (L-NP coalition) or caucus (ALP) support. Neither party room nor caucus members are 'faceless'. They are seen and heard almost daily on Senate and House of Representatives broadcasts. Many (some may believe too many) are seen, heard or read about in other media coverage.


When a leadership ballot occurs, having gained the majority of votes in the party room or caucus the winner is accepted by media and public as 'the leader'. Where numbers are close, the media speculates on possible future challenges and comments on the possible 'lame duck' status of the incumbent. Where numbers confirm a significant win, the media acknowledges the leader as secure and the challenger as losing through a legitimate process.

Except where the Prime Minister is Julia Gillard.

Why the failure of media critique, in assertions that 'dismal polling' on the part of the Prime Minister reflects 'questions about her political legitimacy' arising out of her replacing Kevin Rudd? Why no critique of the contention that by her accession to power, the Prime Minister has relinquished 'trust'? Why the implication that the Prime Minister's position is 'suspect' because the caucus majority voted for her, not her challenger who is said to be 'preferred' by the public? What gives fuel to the notion that the Prime Minister's position is untenable, when she won the caucus vote in June 2010 and February 2012 'fair and square', as Prime Minister (re)won her seat at the 2010 election, and led the ALP to power as a minority government, through negotiation with non-party Members of Parliament?

When it comes to Prime Ministers, only once has a woman held the top job. Concentration upon her accession to power and remaining there is inexplicable if one accepts that no distinction is being made between her and previous holders of the Prime Ministership. Yet to assert there is no difference, that the treatment of the Prime Minister today is no different from that of past Prime Ministers, runs against the evidence.

When Harold Holt disappeared into the sea at Portsea, his replacement by Jack McEwan through party room vote was taken by media and public as resolution by accepted process: it was the party room's role to decide who would fill the Prime Minister's post. This, despite William McMahon's having held his seat in Parliament as Deputy Prime Minister: the Country Party's antagonism to McMahon (and McEwan's reported 'distrust' of him) prevailed, 'voter's choice' or 'pubic popularity' irrelevant.

When John Gorton succeeded McEwan as Prime Minister, moving from Senate to House of Representatives to do so, a party room vote gained him top spot. Sixty-eight per cent of Higgins' electors won him his lower house seat. But they did not vote him in as Prime Minister. The party room did. This was accepted as the L-CP coalition's method of choosing its leader and, being in government, thus the Prime Minister.


In a later party room ballot, McMahon won, becoming Prime Minster with Gorton his deputy. The Australian public and 'popularity' did not make the decision. The party room did – most particularly the CP in renouncing McEwan's 'veto' against McMahon. No allegation that McMahon held the post 'illegitimately' because he did so through a party room vote ensued. More attention was paid to Gorton's principal private secretary, Anslie Gotto, as Gorton's (alleged) 'nemesis' through her apparent control of who would and wouldn't be allowed access to her boss, and when.

Upon the Whitlam Government's 1974 re-election, Malcolm Fraser challenged Billy Snedden for opposition leadership. Support by the conservative faction of the Parliamentary party not giving him the numbers, he lost. When in March 1975 at his second challenge Fraser won, he won in the party room through a majority of MPs votes. Later, his Prime Ministership was not challenged on the basis that he came to the office 'illegitimately' because he gained leadership of the Liberal-National Party coalition through a party room vote. Challenges to his status as Prime Minister arose from the Governor-General's dismissal of Gough Whitlam.

When Bob Hawke challenged Bill Hayden and won, shortly thereafter becoming Prime Minister, he was memorably charged with 'blood on his hands'. The ABC's Richard Carleton was condemned for this but the allegation did not dog Hawke's days in the job. Referred to over the years, it held a prime place in Carleton's obituaries. Yet it did not figure prominently, as a constant reminder, in Hawke's Prime Ministership. Hawke was not tarred with contentions of his Prime Ministership as 'illegitimate' because he'd dislodged Hayden as Opposition Leader by caucus vote.

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About the Author

Dr Jocelynne A. Scutt is a Barrister and Human Rights Lawyer in Mellbourne and Sydney. Her web site is here. She is also chair of Women Worldwide Advancing Freedom and Dignity.

She is also Visiting Fellow, Lucy Cavendish College, University of Cambridge.

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All articles by Jocelynne Scutt

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