During the August 2010 election, Australia’s political focus shifted from policies and agendas to petticoats and perms. Unlike the coverage of previous elections, news reports of verbal sparring between party opponents, heated exchanges in the chamber and cheap pot-shots at the opposition during press conferences on the steps of parliament took a back seat to the fact that the leader of one of the political parties, a candidate for Prime Minister, was a woman, Julia Gillard.
Never before has political reporting I have witnessed involved a timeline depicting the changing hairstyles or evolving fashion sense of a nation’s leader. The closest Australia’s press had ever come to any form of fashion reporting was making fun of the tracksuits our former PM John Howard would don for his regular walks around Kirribilli House. It was a different story for Ms Gillard though. Not only is she a woman, she is an unmarried, childless woman living with her male partner (who is a hairdresser), a self-declared atheist and a redhead to boot. Her male opponent – new Coalition leader Tony Abbott – was a Catholic former seminarian, a father of three, and a conservative. The press had a field day.
I don’t want to get into politics, but rather how the election triggered an almost primitive response in voters and commentators alike. Labor versus Liberal became man versus woman (or beast if you’ve seen Tony Abbott’s ears). Though neither Gillard nor Abbott inspired much faith in voters or commentators, Abbott was crucified or congratulated for his policy, Gillard for her Prada. Did the focus on Gillard’s gender detract from the conviction of her political standpoint? Maybe not – she was elected after all (though a marginal number of votes decided a hung parliament). Will the focus on her fashion trivialise her new position of power? That remains to be seen.
In the interest of full disclosure, Abbott didn’t manage to completely avoid peoples’ fashion radar, although that may have been his own doing…or should I say daring…