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John Pilger: Julia Gillard’s rise marks the triumph of machine politics over feminism

As commentators from Germaine Greer to Anne Summers fawn over the hawkish prime minister, John Pilger in Sydney wonders what happened to sisterly solidarity.

In 1963, a senior Australian government official, A R Taysom, deliberated on the wisdom of deploying women as trade representatives. "Such an appointee would not stay young and attractive for ever [because a] spinster lady can, and very often does, turn into something of a battleaxe with the passing years [whereas] a man usually mellows."

On International Women's Day 2012, such primitive views are worth recalling; but what has happened to modern feminism? Why is it so bereft of its political, indeed socialist roots, that any woman who "achieves" within an immoral system is to be admired? Take the rise of Julia Gillard as Australia's first female prime minister, so celebrated by leading feminists such as the writer Anne Summers and Germaine Greer. Both are unstinting in their applause for Gillard, the "remarkable woman" who on 27 February saw off a challenge from Kevin Rudd, the former Labor prime minister she deposed in a secretive, essentially macho back-room coup in 2010.

Greer wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald of 3 March that she "fell in love with" the "matter-of-fact" Gillard long ago. Omitting Gillard's politics entirely, she asked: "What's not to like? That she's a woman, that's what. An unmarried, middle-aged woman in power - any man's and many women's nightmare."

Addicted to vanity

That Gillard might be a nightmare to the Aboriginal women, men and children whom this quintessential machine politician has abused and blamed for their impoverishment, while implementing punitive and racist measures against their communities in defiance of international law, is apparently not relevant. That Gillard might be a nightmare to refugees detained behind razor wire, children included, in places that are a huge "generator of mental illness", according to Australia's ombudsman, is of no interest.

That Gillard has been determined to keep Australian soldiers in Afghanistan and that the overwhelming majority of Australian casualties in that country have been killed or wounded during her period as prime minister are beside the point. Her feminist distinction, perversely, is her removal of gender discrimination in combat roles in the Australian army. Thanks to her, women are now liberated to kill Afghans and others who offer no threat to Australia, just like their comrades in the "hunter-killer" units currently accused of massacring civilians. In ending the "cultural and other taboos that have kept women from combat roles in the past", wrote Summers, Gillard has ensured that "Australia will again lead the world in a major reform".

The devotion of this new "feminist icon" to imperial war is impressive, if strange. Referring to the despatch of Australian colonial troops to Sudan in 1885 to avenge a popular uprising against the British, she described the forgotten farce as "not only a test of wartime courage, but a test of character that has helped define our nation and create the sense of who we are". Invariably flanked by flags, she makes her point well.

And the point is that celebration of this kind of politician, regardless of gender, has nothing to do with feminism. On the contrary, it is complicity in some of the wickedest crimes of our age. It was Margaret Thatcher who ordered the sinking of the Belgrano, with the loss of 323 young Argentinian conscripts, and rejoiced. It was the outspoken British feminist MP Harriet Harman, along with other Labour feminists known as Blair's Babes, who supported the invasion of Iraq and stood cheering one of its principal war criminals.

In the west, "glass ceilings" remain the issue of choice of bourgeois feminism. How many women who "make it" in politics speak out against the machine, reaching down to women left behind? How many resist the addiction of vanity to power and the media? How many use their platforms to analyse and expose the psychopathic militarism and its industries of death and lies that contaminate our political, cultural and media life and are the source of so much violence against women in stricken, faraway countries, if not against women at home? Who spoke out against Gillard's junket to Israel in the wake of the massacre of 1,400 people in Gaza, mostly women and children, and her unctuous support for their killers? Where in the coverage of politics are the principled voices of women such as Medea Benjamin, Arundhati Roy and the bravehearts of Rawa
in Afghanistan?

Hillary Clinton was applauded by renowned feminists supporting the west's invasion of Afghanistan to "liberate women from the Taliban". No matter that this was never the reason; no matter that tens of thousands were killed as a consequence. In her 2008 campaign for the White House, Clinton, supported by feminists such as Anne Summers, boasted that she was prepared to "annihilate" Iran.

Blood vote

Here in Australia, familiar distractions apply: the same insidious corporate PR aimed at women and the young that says personal identity is the limit of politics; the same organised forgetting of people's history and any notion of class and our servitude to an undemocratic elite. Yet Australian feminism has an especially proud past.

With New Zealanders, Australian women led the world in winning the vote. During the slaughter of the First World War, Australian women mounted a uniquely successful campaign against a vote for conscription. A poster declared illegal in several states was headlined "The Blood Vote" and showed a defiant woman placing her vote in the ballot box rather than "that I doomed a man to death".

On polling day all but one of Australia's political leaders urged a Yes vote. They lost. Most followed the women. Such is true feminism.

John Pilger, renowned investigative journalist and documentary film-maker, is one of only two to have twice won British journalism's top award; his documentaries have won academy awards in both the UK and the US. In a New Statesman survey of the 50 heroes of our time, Pilger came fourth behind Aung San Suu Kyi and Nelson Mandela. "John Pilger," wrote Harold Pinter, "unearths, with steely attention facts, the filthy truth. I salute him."

This article first appeared in the 12 March 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The weaker sex

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David Cameron’s speech: a hymn to liberalism from a liberated PM

The Prime Minister spoke with the confidence of a man who finally has a full mandate for his approach. 

At every one of his previous nine Conservative conference speeches, David Cameron has had to confront the doubters. Those Tories who rejected his modernisation of the party from the start. Those who judged it to have failed when he fell short of a majority in 2010. Those, including many in his own party, who doubted that he could improve on this performance in 2015. Today, rather than confronting the doubters, he was able to greet the grateful. As the first majority Conservative prime minister for 18 years, he rightly savoured his moment. "Why did all the pollsters and pundits get it so wrong?" he asked. "Because, fundamentally, they didn't understand the people who make up our country. The vast majority of people aren't obsessives, arguing at the extremes of the debate. Let me put it as simply as I can: Britain and Twitter are not the same thing." Labour should pin that line to its profile. 

With a full mandate for his approach, Cameron went on to deliver his most unashamedly liberal speech to date. Early on in his address, he spoke with pride of how "social justice, equality for gay people, tackling climate change, and helping the world's poorest" were now "at the centre of the Conservative Party's mission". A lengthy section on diversity, lamenting how "people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names", was greeted with a standing ovation. Proof, if needed, of how Cameron has changed his party beyond recognition. The former special adviser to Michael Howard, who avowed that "prison works", told his audience that prison too often did not. "The system is still not working ... We have got to get away from the sterile lock-em-up or let-em-out debate, and get smart about this." From now on, he declared, the system, would "treat their [prisoners'] problems, educate them, put them to work." 

There were, of course, oversights and lacuna. Cameron reaffirmed his commitment to a budget surplus but glossed over the unprecedented, and many believe undeliverable, cuts that will be required to achieve it (and which may fail to do so). He hailed the new "national living wage" with no mention of the tax credit cuts that will leave the same "strivers" worse off. His "affordable" starter homes will be unaffordable for average-earning families in 58 per cent of local areas. But it is a mark of Cameron's political abilities that it was easy to forget much of this as he spoke. Like George Osborne, he deftly appropriated the language of the left ("social justice", "opportunity", "diversity", "equality") to describe the policies of the right. Cameron is on a mission to claim ownership of almost every concept associated with Labour. The opposition should not sleep easily as he does so. 

There was little mention of Labour in the speech, and no mention of Jeremy Corbyn by name. But when the attack came, it was ruthlessly delivered. "Thousands of words have been delivered about the new Labour leader. But you only really need to know one thing: he thinks the death of Osama bin Laden was a 'tragedy'". The description of Corbyn as the "new Labour leader" shows the Tories' ambition to permanently contaminate the party, rather than merely the man.

There are plenty of potential landmines ahead for Cameron. The comically lukewarm applause for his defence of EU membership was a reminder of how divided his party is on this issue. But today, he spoke as a man liberated. Liberated by winning a majority. Liberated by not having to fight an election again. Like a second-term US president, he was able to speak of how he was entering "the second half of my time in this job". Tributes to Osborne (the "Iron Chancellor) and Boris Johnson (greeted with a remarkable standing ovation) alluded to the contest to come. But whoever succeeds him can be confident of assuming a party in good health - and more at ease with the modern world than many ever thought possible. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.