First published by The Hoopla, 1 February 2015
If, as looks almost certain, Labor forms government in Queensland, Annastacia Palaszczuk will become Australia’s first female state opposition leader to take her party to victory.
Another glass ceiling will be smashed, another milestone notched up. Carmen Lawrence, Joan Kirner, Anna Bligh, Kristina Keneally and Lara Giddings all became premier when their parties were already in office, taking over from male leaders.
There’s a school of thought in politics that women only get tapped to become party leaders when things are so bad no man would want the job. A woman is brought in to do the dirty housekeeping work of cleaning up the mess the men have left behind.
And in the case of a number of Australia’s past five female premiers, this pattern seems to be true.
When Joan Kirner took over from John Cain in Victoria the state was a financial basket case. Both Carmen Lawrence and Kristina Keneally became premiers when their parties were reeking from the stench of corruption and riven by factional fighting.
While women are brought in to clean up the mess, there’s a related argument from political watchers that says men don’t want to waste political capital by leading governments seen to be in terminal decline. Lawrence was in office for the last three years of a decade of Labor rule in WA before losing the 1993 election. After 16 years of Labor government in NSW, Kristina Keneally had the unenviable task of seeing out Labor’s last 16 months in office, losing to Barry O’Farrell at the 2011 election. Giddings was in power for just over three years at the end of an almost 16 year stretch of Labor government in Tasmania.
Interestingly, it was also in Queensland – a state many of us like to believe lags a decade or so behind the rest of the country – which broke this pattern of female premiers seeing out the dying days of their party’s stint in power when, in 2009, Anna Bligh became Australia’s first female premier to lead her party to an election victory.
No other female premier has been able to match Bligh’s feat since.
Palaszczuk’s feat of simply bringing her party back from a “Tarago” team into a winning position is worth noting in itself. If there was any lingering belief that women can’t be trusted to lead parties to victory in Australian elections, it will be a hard position to maintain now.
Is it possible we’ll finally see a female premier at the start of a party’s long stint in office, not the end? Could it be that Palaszczuk only became leader because no-one seriously thought Labor could win, and the men didn’t want the job? And, though it seems almost ridiculously early to speculate, will the men in her party start pitching for the leadership now that she’s laid the groundwork and put her party in a winning position?
These questions will no doubt be answered in time. In the meantime, it’s the “optics” of the battle, as they say in politics, that’s almost as important as the outcome. And this time the optics showed a woman in a seemingly impossible position looking like she’s about to pull off the impossible.
On election night my normally politically switched on 10-year-old boy (he was live tweeting the last federal election result) wanted to turn the election coverage off to watch the soccer. But my four-year-old daughter was glued to the screen.
I like to think that in years to come she will remember the night she watched Annastacia Palaszczuk coming from way, way behind to seize power.