Right: it has been pointed out that male politicians, too, are targeted by gossip mongers and that past claims around Tony Abbott and Peter Costello's wives are typical.
Arguments suggesting Australian politics is not prejudiced against women
1. There are significant numbers of women in Australian parliaments, including in leadership positions
In March 2012, a parliamentary background note was produced outlining the state of the representation of women in Australian parliaments. It found every state and territory except South Australia has had a woman premier or chief minister. As at 1 January 2012, three of the eight state and territory leaders were women-Anna Bligh in Queensland, Lara Giddings in Tasmania, and Katy Gallagher in the Australian Capital Territory. The Northern Territory had a female Deputy Chief Minister (Delia Lawrie). Of the state and territory parliaments the Australian Capital Territory has had the highest number of female leaders of all the states and territories, with Rosemary Follett (1989, 1991-1995), Kate Carnell (1995-2000), and Katy Gallagher (2011-).
Three women have served in the role of Deputy Opposition Leader in the Commonwealth Parliament. Jenny Macklin (ALP) was elected unopposed as deputy leader in 2001 and held the position until 2006. She was succeeded by Julia Gillard (ALP) who held the position until 2007 when she was appointed Deputy Prime Minister. Following the 2007 election, Julie Bishop (LIB) became the third female Deputy Opposition Leader. At the end of 2011, South Australia was the only state/territory to have a woman Opposition Leader (Isobel Redmond), while New South Wales and the Northern Territory each had a woman in the position of Deputy Opposition Leader.
Six of the eight state and territory parliaments have had at least one female presiding officer including the current incumbents the Hon Shelley Hancock (Speaker, NSW Legislative Assembly), the Hon Lynette Breuer (Speaker, SA House of Assembly), the Hon Sue Smith (President, Tasmanian Legislative Council), and the Hon Jane Aagaard (Speaker, Northern Territory Legislative Assembly).
As at 1 January 2012, women comprised 23.3 per cent of the Commonwealth ministry. This included 22.7 per cent in the Cabinet (or inner ministry) and 25 per cent in the outer ministry. In the Commonwealth Opposition shadow ministry, women comprised 18.8 per cent of the overall ministry, with 10 per cent in the 'shadow' Cabinet and 33.3 per cent (or one-third) in the outer ministry.
2. Many women are pre-selected to contest elections and some parties have policies in place to increase the number of women in parliament
An analysis of Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) data for Senate candidates between the 1983 and 2010 Commonwealth elections indicates that the proportion of nominations by female candidates generally increased at each election from 19.2 per cent in 1983 to a high of 36.8 per cent in 2007, with a slight fall to 35.5 per cent in 2010. The major parties (ALP and Liberal/Nationals Coalition) showed a generally upward trend in female candidates. The highest proportions were attained in 2007 with more than half (55.5 per cent) of the ALP's candidates, and 40 per cent of the Liberal Party's candidates being women. The use of proportional representation for Senate elections has been more favourable to minor parties than the majoritarian system used for the House of Representatives.
Both of the larger minor parties (Australian Democrats and Australian Greens) have consistently had a high proportion of women candidates in those elections contested. The Democrats had the highest number of female candidates for that party in 2004 with 63.6 per cent or nearly two-thirds of their candidates being women, whilst the Greens reached a record high for any party in 2010, with women comprising 71.4 per cent or more than two-thirds of their total candidates.
The Labor Party has an affirmative action policy, which aims to preselect women as candidates for a minimum of 40% of 'winnable' seats. The aim of this policy is to increase female representation by ensuring that women are not disproportionately preselected for seats they are unlikely to win. The Greens state in their official charter that they will 'provide affirmative action to eliminate discrimination based on gender'. By this they mean that they will seek to have equal numbers of male and female candidates.
3. Women in politics receive no more abuse than men and both are judged on their performance
It has been argued that although much of the attention directed at Julia Gillard as prime minister has been crude and offensive, it was no worse than the type of attention given male political leaders.
David Penberthy in an opinion piece published in The Punch on September 18, 2011, noted, 'Julia Gillard has been the subject of much public debate and media scrutiny over her appearance, her voice, her de facto relationship, her lack of children, her disinterest in domestic affairs.
Some of this debate has been quite rugged and quite insulting... It is often cruel but I would dispute whether it is any more cruel than the type of scrutiny and indeed ridicule which past prime ministers have faced over their appearance.'
Penberthy then went on to refer to the way in which former prime minister John Howard was described, 'John Howard was often depicted as Little Johnny Howard, as a four-eyed Thunderbird with his dated glasses. He was also teased over the whininess of his voice. When he underwent a full makeover ahead of the 1996 election campaign, switching his old Dave Clarke Five specs for some lighter steel-rimmed bifocals, plenty of column inches were devoted to his new look.'
A similar point was made by Herald Sun columnist, Andrew Bolt, on June 19, 2013. Andrew Bolt wrote, 'The Age writer Stephanie Peatling ...asked whether any male leader had suffered the intrusive questioning Ms Gillard got last week from the clown radio broadcaster who asked if her partner was gay.
"Was (former prime minister John) Howard ever asked about the intimate details of his marriage?" she fumed.
Er, yes. Mr Howard in 1998 had to deny rumours he'd had an affair with the then Sex Discrimination Commissioner - rumours which former Labor leader Mark Latham again referred to in 2005.
Worse, Labor speech writer Bob Ellis published defamatory claims about the sex lives of Mr Abbott and former Liberal treasurer Peter Costello, for which he was successfully sued.'
Critics have also argued that Julia Gillard's poor poll ratings were more the fault of her mixed political performance and her failure to communicate than they were of her gender.
On June 30, 2013, Eilis O'Hanlon argued in The Irish Independent, 'The feminist attitude seems to be that electing a female leader isn't enough. Voters then have to suspend normal critical judgement and apply a different set of criteria when judging her performance, or else be accused of more sexism.'
O'Hanlon went on to explain, 'Gillard's problem was that she couldn't sustain that boost because voters were still worried about the economy and annoyed about broken promises...
Gillard's ultimate failing seems to have been a failure to communicate. When she managed it, in attacking Abbott, she was popular. When she didn't, by failing to make a strong case for her government's achievements, she stumbled.'
This view was also put by Andrew Bolt in an opinion piece published in The Herald Sun on June 27, 2013.
Andrew Bolt stated, '[E]veryone in politics gets abused. Only two days ago your Ministers abused the Opposition Leader as a "drunk" who "didn't care" when boat people drowned.
You lost your job not for what you are but what you've done: your broken promises, your blown budgets, your open borders, your politics of division.
Please now consider the young women who dream to be leaders, too. Don't preach defeat. Don't tell them a lie - that sexist men will drag down even a good woman. Even a Prime Minister.
Sexism did not stop you becoming Prime Minister, and sexism did not now take that job from you. Your failure is your own. You were given a chance and you blew it.'
4. Australian political parties adopt policies and Australian parliaments enact legislation that address the particular needs of women
It is argued that Australian legislatures have acted on issues that are of particular concern to women and that as a consequence of this Australian women have a better standard of living than their sisters in many other countries.
In October 2013 a global survey reported that Australian women are the most economically empowered in the world
Helen Conway, director of the federal government's Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency, said the report reflected that Australian women were among the best educated in the world and had access to a national paid parental leave scheme.
The report ranked Australia ahead of three Scandinavian countries - Norway, Sweden and Finland. New Zealand was fifth. At the bottom of the list were Yemen, Pakistan, Sudan and Chad.
Workplace Relations Minister Bill Shorten said the report showed Australia was doing 'more than most' to maximise the full potential of women.
The 2011 passing of paid parental leave legislation has been seen as an example the Australian parliament responding to the needs of women.
Another recent example of legislation that has been of particular advantage to women has been the establishment of a national disability insurance scheme. Given that a majority of carers for those with disabilities are women, this scheme gives increased peace of mind and security to this group.
5. Women in Australian parliaments have co-operated across party lines to implement policies that advantage women
It has also been noted that female politicians in Australia have begun to develop a gender consciousness to the point where they will act across party lines to advance policies that benefit other women.
Senator Kate Lundy has observed, 'More than ever before, the ability of women in parliament to influence the agenda is now being demonstrated whenever there are conscience votes on matters affecting particularly women or only women. One example was the repeal of the ministerial responsibility for the approval of RU486 [an abortion-inducing drug] in 2005.
Women senators representing the Australian Democrats and the Liberal, National and Labor parties-Senators Moore, Allison, Troeth and Nash-jointly sponsored the Therapeutic Goods Amendment (Repeal of Ministerial responsibility for approval of RU486) Bill 2005 , removing what in my opinion was an incredibly undemocratic power wielded until then by the insensitive Mr Tony Abbott.'
The private members bill was passed and responsibility for approving the drug was taken from the hands of one minister.
Lundy concluded, 'As we have already seen in Federal Parliament we can achieve an across-party unity of women promoting and voting on issues important to women.'