The Prime Minister has an serious issue: how to get the support of Australian men, especially older men.
Gillard obviously doesn’t have enough men in her life. She is surrounded by a cabinet dominated by females, most of those carried into positions of power by the insidious Emily’s list, a gender aligned organisation with one single-minded goal, to remove men from positions of power, and replace them with women.
We’ve heard a lot about Tony Abbott’s problem with women voters – the polls document it and MPs report it from their electorates.
So what about the Julia story with men and her long reported affiliation with anti-male feminist doctrines?
Surely if Mr Abbott can be accused as being a misogynist, one should look more carefully at the the often referred to Misandry of the Prime Minister herself, which according to many account dwarfs to alleged antics of the Opposition leader.
However, let’s first take a look at the historical leanings of the genders, and perhaps it would give us an insight into how Australian men of today will react to the ascorbic references to gender, that Gillard is making her mainstay and is turning ugly politics into an artform, for her benefit alone.
Since the 2010 election, according to Nielsen polling, Labor’s primary vote has been 3 points higher, on average, among women than among men (32 to 29 per cent). The Coalition primary vote has been 3 points higher among men than women (48 to 45 per cent).
Gillard’s approval has been an average of 7 points lower among men than women (36 to 43 per cent). Her man problem also comes through when people are asked who they prefer as Labor leader out of Gillard and Kevin Rudd: in September, Gillard’s rating among men was 31 per cent compared with 42 per cent among women, while Rudd was supported by 60 per cent of men and 49 per cent of women.
The gender gap in voting is especially interesting on two fronts. Gillard is the country’s first female PM. And her arrival in power saw the re-emergence, in different form, of a gender divide that had disappeared.
The gender story is told in Ian McAllister’s The Australian Voter (2011). Historically, women were more conservative than men in their voting, but that changed as their life experiences altered.
From the 1970s, the gender gap started to close. In 1967, it was 9 percentage points – meaning women were 9 per cent less likely than men to vote Labor.
By the 1990 election (Bob Hawke versus Andrew Peacock), it was only 2 points, having declined steadily over the two decades. But then along came PM Paul Keating and it jumped to 6 per cent in 1993 and 5 per cent in 1996.
When you bracket Abbott and Keating together, it is easy to see what turns off some women voters – aggression. Keating was loved by the cognoscenti as a great practitioner of political theatre. But out in the lounge rooms of the nation, those high octane lines just sounded feral.
Once Keating had been dispatched, the gender gap fell to 2 per cent in the Coalition’s favour in the 1998 election, and then declined to nothing in 2001, 2004 and 2007. In 2010, it opened up again – to 7 per cent – but now it was in Labor’s favour, the first time that had happened in Australian federal elections.
Rebecca Huntley is a director of Ipsos, which undertakes qualitative social research. She also did her PhD on the gender gap in the 1983 and 1993 elections.
In focus groups ”older men are more uncomfortable with her [Gillard] than younger men”, she says. Men in their 20s, 30s and 40s are more likely to have had working mothers, women bosses, a woman in authority in their office team, than men in their 50s, 60s and 70s.
”The older men have been known to describe Gillard ‘like a school mistress telling me off’,” Huntley says.
She wonders whether some of the gender gap is policy driven. ”Do her policies appeal more to women than men?”
One big issue coming through from males in the groups is the two-speed economy, and whether enough help is being given to sectors that are suffering, especially manufacturing.
The carbon tax also might be more off-putting to men, she says. (Carbon questions in the July Nielsen poll showed men only very slightly more likely to be concerned than women.)
In general, Huntley says, it is hard to disentangle attitudes to Gillard as a female prime minister from people’s disappointment in the Labor government. The former emerged as a negative only after people felt she was not doing a good job.
Strategists on both sides will be anxiously waiting for the polling evidence about the effect of Gillard’s fighting speech last week labelling Abbott a misogynist. While it has been received with enthusiasm by some women, what will men feel about it?
Social researcher Hugh Mackay predicts that men who haven’t signed up to the ”gender revolution” of the past 40 years and still have the attitude of ”Why can’t blokes be in charge?” will be infuriated by it. But younger men and men influenced by their relationships with women are likely to be impressed, Mackay believes.
Tactically, Gillard is caught between the merits of adopting what might be dubbed a ”masculine” style (slug it to them) or taking a more ”feminine” consensual approach. Last week she went for the former. There was a certain irony in this, given that she was talking gender issues. When she gets into full fighting mode, Gillard has a touch of the Keating about her, which has its dangers but has appealed to feminist supporters.
One point is worth remembering in the debate about gender politics and the differences in gender support for the two leaders. There is cross-gender agreement among voters that they don’t much like either of the present leaders.