Bill Heffernan's comments about Julia Gillard's alleged unfitness for public office because of being "deliberately barren" are - exactly what? Kevin Rudd quickly came up with "positively outlandish" as a response, which pretty much hits the bullseye. And from the target in question, Gillard herself: "Mr Heffernan's a man of the past, with very old-fashioned views."
This isn't the first time Gillard's been whacked ad feminem in relation to the state of her domestic interior life - no bananas on that kitchen sideboard, no baby puke crusting that neatly striped lapel. By now she probably has all the responses down pat - maybe memorised with appropriate variants of emphasis according to news outlet - and is possibly not as riled as she justifiably could be.
Whatever anyone may say about Julia Gillard, unprofessional and unprepared are not among the slurs that stick. The challenges of her industrial relations portfolio should never be underestimated, including issues such as Australian Workplace Agreements meeting Western Australia's mining boom, and managing the volatile combination of seriously big-gun stakeholders such as BHP Billiton, the trade union movement and Labor factional warlords.
Very high stakes and very big boys. Next to all of that, Heffernan looks like - well, you fill in that blank.
If that truth comes to shove, Senator Heffernan's Bulletin blurt probably came as a welcome relief to Gillard. It was getting pretty hot in her kitchen (industrial relations, remember?) for a minute there. It may do so again, but Heffernan has handed her and her leader, Kevin Rudd, a handy breathing space to regroup. Worse than that, from the Coalition's perspective, Heffernan's thrown his own boss on to the ropes, by revisiting the brutal socio-biological fact that Howard, too, is starting to look like a man of the past.
Howard can't help nudging 70 years of age, of course. But as prime minister, and one not averse to wielding the disciplinary lash when backbenchers go on frolics of their own of which he does not disapprove, he is responsible for his deliberately chosen responses when they do.
"Bill is a very good friend of mine and he remains a very dear friend of mine" is not the best opening line here, Mr Howard, even if you do point out he's not speaking for you or the government. Nor is this a great closer: "People say funny things all the time and the question of whether they apologise for them is a matter for them. If she wants to take that up with him, well, look, she can."
Translation (undented by Heffernan's apology much later in a long political day): Defend your own honour, girlie, I won't do it for you. Take-out message: I'm old-fashioned, too - but not up for chivalry.
Of course, it's a modern world, and a childless professional woman well knows how to look after herself in a range of bearpits. If she does need sisterly solace on this front, Gillard should take heart from the recent example of Vanessa Goodwin, the federal Liberal candidate for the Tasmanian seat of Franklin. During preselection Goodwin was the subject of a smear campaign from what Liberal insiders aptly call their ugly faction. Aspersions were cast on her appreciation of family values, hung on the hook of the facts that she is unmarried and childless. Goodwin won that day, and Gillard won this.
And at the end of the much bigger day of election 2007, it will be what voting Australians - including women and men a lot more switched on than Heffernan - think of Gillard, and of Goodwin for that matter, which will help deliver the verdict that matters.
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