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24 June 2010updated 27 Sep 2015 2:18am

The Maggie Thatcher effect

Australia’s first female prime minister, Julia Gillard, is good news for the country -- but not nece

By Alyssa McDonald

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“Hard work”: two words that Australia’s new prime minister, Julia Gillard (pictured above left with the governor general of Australia, Quentin Bryce) managed to squeeze into her initial address five times.

Five times! No harm in being clear about things, though it seems fairly unlikely anyone had the country’s first female leader pegged as a slacker. In fact, with two biographies of the 48-year-old former deputy PM due out this year — the same number as appeared about Kevin Rudd in 2007 — you might suspect that some people saw her rise to power coming.

As far as Australia’s Labor Party is concerned, Gillard is A Really Good Thing, more or less: popular with voters and within her party, she also has union backing and she’s great at handling the media.

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She may not be Australia’s strongest politician when it comes to policy — the less reverential of her two biographers, Christine Wallace, points out that several of the Rudd government’s failings fall within Gillard’s (extensive) portfolio. And her defence of a 2009 Australian TV show featuring blackface was . . . utterly indefensible.

But there’s a general election due in a few months, and within hours of Gillard becoming prime minister, Labor had become the hot tip to win once again. And, casual acceptance of casual racism aside, the woman even appears to have a sense of humour:

At a shopping centre in Hoppers Crossing, I’m handing out stuff. I’m standing next to a board with my photograph on it. This old guy comes out of the supermarket, looks at me, looks at the photo, looks at me, then turns back to me and says, “Taken on a good day, wasn’t it, love?” I said, “And you’d be bloody Robert Redford, would you, mate?”

In the light of all this, it seems almost a shame to come back to Gillard’s woman-ness. But I’m going to do it anyway. Because, from a British perspective, it’s interesting how much she has in common with our Labour Party’s former deputy, now acting, leader, Harriet Harman, and how completely differently Harman is treated.

Both come from legal backgrounds, hold multiple political posts, have strong union connections, speak with distinctive voices and are always politically “on”. But while Gillard is popular and respected, Harman is often, very unfairly, spoken of as hectoring, dowdy and not very bright. Even before Gordon Brown’s departure, her chances of becoming Labour leader were the same as the number of forthcoming Harman biographies: zero.

Politically, there’s a glaring difference between Gillard and Harman. One has fought consistently for a feminist agenda, while the other has approached her political career with individualistic ambition. Not to do Gillard down — she’s very good at her job and she deserves her success — but her premiership isn’t necessarily any more of a great lunge forward for women than Margaret Thatcher’s was thirty years ago.

Meanwhile, Harman’s drive to push issues such as rape laws and the Equality Bill into the spotlight has undoubtedly been good for British women — and a huge contibuting factor to her unlovely public image.

Gillard’s success is still a symbolic step forward, signalling that the presence of women in Australian politics has become normal. And it looks likely to be good news for the country as a whole. But it’s not as if Australian women now have a Harman at the top to look out for their interests.