Leo D'Angelo Fisher Columnist

Leo covers management and leadership issues, business trends and corporate strategy. He is a former senior business writer at The Bulletin and a former host of The Business Hour on 3AW.

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Julia Gillard’s knitting photo follows a pattern, and it was a mistake

Published 25 June 2013 11:54, Updated 26 June 2013 14:29

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Julia Gillard’s knitting photo follows a pattern, and it was a mistake

This photo of Julia Gillard has been overlayed with the politics of the day.

It was hard not to notice the photograph of Prime Minister Julia Gillard on the front page of The Australian: sitting in a stylish armchair, knitting a toy kangaroo for the royal baby due in July, surrounded by her knitting needles and balls of yarn, her dog Reuben at her feet. It is a charming and warming photo. But it was a mistake.

As a leader, Gillard would know – should know – that image is not black and white. It comes with many overlays and constructs. It is subject to context and open to invites, interpretation and even cynicism. Image can be defining, but when that image is deemed inauthentic, inconsistent or out of sync with people’s perceptions, it can be mocking.

Gillard admits the photo shoot was “slightly absurd”, but she explains that it was not a flight of fancy. She wanted to demonstrate – in particular to other women – that there’s more to public life than the bear pit of parliamentary politics.

“If there is something I hope I have done for the image of women in public life [it] is that we can go into an adversarial environment like Parliament and we can dominate it, make it our own, and conquer it. I don’t shy away from that. But that’s not all of me,” she tells the Australian Women’s Weekly.

The PM’s objective is commendable, but her judgment, once again, has failed her. Her attempt at communicating a message, again not for the first time, has misfired.

The photo captures everything so many Australians were hoping of Gillard when she became Prime Minister just over three years ago: warm, confident and a good sport. But the photo, more in sorrow than in anger, also begs the question that sums up the last three years, “What were you thinking?”

No more goodwill

With the best will in the world – and unfortunately Gillard has exhausted most of the goodwill that accompanied her ascension to the prime ministership – the photo is going to be judged on the politics of the day, and in particular the Prime Minister’s controversial, contrived and divisive pronouncements on gender.

Suddenly, the fearless general who has been prosecuting the gender wars appears on the front page of a national daily newspaper knitting a woollen kangaroo, a gift for the child of Prince William and the Duchess of Cambridge. Quite apart from confusing signals about her republican views, the photo is a jarring and perplexing interlude to the bitter gender politics of recent weeks and months.

In more benign times, in a political climate in which the Prime Minister was not under a constant state of siege, including from within her own party, the photo would be seen in an entirely different light.

But what Gillard has misjudged is that in the political climate of the day, the photo could not possibly be taken at face value, could not possibly convey the message that Gillard intended. What it conveyed was confusion, inconsistency and, albeit unintentionally, self-mockery.

Gender wars

If Gillard and her advisers weighed up the pros and cons of the photo shoot, one can only conclude that the dangers were not foreseen. Indeed, according to The Australian’s report, the idea, if not from Gillard herself, came from her office. As communications director John McTernan explains of the decision, “It was a no-brainer”. Well, the less said about McTernan’s no-brainers since joining Gillard’s office, the better.

The most overpowering impulse on seeing the photo is to bring to mind Gillard’s “misogyny speech” of October 2012, in which she takes to task “this man”, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott, for his misogyny and sexism; or more recently, the “men in blue ties” speech. And then comes this photo of Julia-the-knitting-PM.

What’s wrong with that? Of itself nothing. But Gillard is a leader on the ropes, her government paralysed by bitter infighting, her grasp on the prime ministership never more tenuous: this is not the time for Gillard to be sending conflicting messages.

And if proof were needed of the unnecessary risk that Gillard took with her Women’s Weekly photo shoot, it was there to be seen on the front page of The Australian on June 25: surrounding the photo of the PM with her knitting needles, was the day’s lead story with the banner headline: “Gender war misfires for PM”, cataloguing the loss of support among voters, especially men, in response to her attempts to wage a gender war against Abbott.

Voters don’t like Gillard’s ploy to make gender a vote winner. They are even less likely to applaud a leader who sends inconsistent or confusing messages on the very same issue. “Is she taking the piss or what?” might be the question on some lips.

Fair or just politics

Now, is this fair? Is the photo of a relaxed PM with her knitting really so offensive? In itself, the photo was perfectly fine and reasonable. But that is not the consideration that Gillard and her advisers needed to weigh up. What they needed to consider was the likely reaction in the political circumstances; what a so-called master media strategist such as McTernan should have envisaged was the very front page on which the photo appeared.

The other question is, of course, is this a gender thing? Would Abbott be subjected to the same scrutiny?

Abbott is very fond of the manufactured photo opportunity and 10-second TV grab – preferably involving an orange fluoro jacket and hard hat, or better still, to be filmed and photographed resplendent in his Speedos or Lycra.

People understand these are self-serving and not especially edifying images, but nobody’s fussed with Abbott’s PR stunts. These photo opportunities are neither clever nor effective, but nobody cares. He’s going to be PM after September 14, so there’s no need to lose any sleep over his fatuous media moments. But his time will come.

As I wrote earlier this year in “A Brief History of Leaders in Lycra: why Tony Abbott should be careful of his man-of-action persona”, what voters tolerate or even admire today can easily become grist for the anger mill.

“[O]ne thing is certain: when voters are looking for reasons to dislike, ridicule and turn against Prime Minister Abbott, he will emerge from the sea in his undies at his peril.”

Perhaps there is nothing that Gillard can do to save her prime ministership, a prime ministership conducted in the most toxic political climate experienced since the rancour of the Whitlam years. One suspects that history will remember Gillard and her achievements more kindly than current-day pundits and voters. And perhaps, when that time of kinder and more considered judgment comes, the photo of Julia Gillard knitting a toy for a new royal will be seen in an entirely different and more loving light.

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