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Men, are they just too emotional to govern? Abbott and co are making a good case
Turnbull won’t be ‘provoked’ by Abbott
Maybe men are just too emotional to make good leaders: if the past week in politics is anything to go on, it seems they have difficulty mastering their anger, resentment and jealousy, and resisting the emotional surges that cause them to forget national interest in favour of self-interest.
Sound sexist? It is. It is also a line of argument female leaders have fought since the days of Joan of Arc.
A constant theme of my fellow columnist Julia Baird’s excellent biography of Queen Victoria is the certainty of the men around her that her fits of emotion, dubbed “combustibles” by her husband Albert, made her less than fit to govern.
The logic was that Victoria’s femininity, not to mention her frequent pregnancies, made her emotional and irrational – liabilities when the sober and hyper-rational business of government was at hand.
Our ideas about female leadership have evolved since the Victorian era, but our ideas about what it means to be “emotional” have not.
Since the Enlightenment, emotion has been seen as the polar opposite of reason, and primarily the domain of women.
Women cry, they express vulnerability, they make scenes, sometimes they snap.
Anger and professional jealousy, and the competitive spirit they fuel, are somehow not seen as emotional responses. It is no coincidence that these things are more strongly associated with male leaders, especially those who have lost power.
Of the past three prime ministers we have had – Tony Abbott, Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd – the men are the ones most ruled by emotion, and the ones who are having the hardest time letting go.
Abbott’s intervention into the national debate last week came with a fig leaf of policy – he said the Liberal party needed to realign itself with conservative values, and it should cut the renewable energy target, cut immigration to make housing more affordable, scrap the Human Rights Commission and reform the Senate.
But few people took notice of his policy ideas because no one thought they were anything more than a pretext to express hostility towards the man who stole the leadership from him.
Abbott’s remarks were called an “outburst” and his former chief of staff and confidante Peta Credlin said on television that it was “still a very personal grievance that he feels”.
In other words, he was acting out of emotion.
Abbott is increasingly compared to Kevin Rudd, the spurned leader who, unable to move on, sat on the backbench and undermined his successor with sniping, leaks and criticisms that were less than constructive.
Rudd’s capacity for anger and revenge was still in evidence last year when Turnbull refused to endorse him, on behalf of the Australian government, for his candidature for the United Nations Secretary-General job.
Rudd leaked letters Turnbull had previously written to him, indicating he would support the UN bid.
If Rudd was going to miss out, he wanted everyone to know Turnbull had deceived him over it.
Turnbull, likewise, is known for his emotional temperament – he can be quick to anger.
As Annabel Crabb famously wrote in her award-winning profile of the prime minister, his character divides into “good Malcolm” and “bad Malcolm”.
Good Malcolm has a firm rein on his emotions. Bad Malcolm lets them fly. And it was the Prime Minister’s emotions, not his reason, that caused him to return fire at Abbott in a press conference on Monday, unsettled by a bad Newspoll result.
“What we saw was an outburst on Thursday and it had its desired impact on the Newspoll, it was exactly as predicted and calculated,” he told reporters.
“He knew exactly what he was doing and he did it, and I’m not going to be distracted by that.”
And yet he clearly was, because he fuelled the story when it would have been more rational to starve it of oxygen.
The most emotional of all contemporary politicians has to be Donald Trump, who uses his Twitter account to self-soothe.
His emotional range lurches from hurt to fury to neediness, sometimes all in the space of 140 characters.
Can you imagine how such emotional volatility would be framed if he were a woman? Trump would probably say she was on her period.
During the past few months, as Abbott has gained momentum as leader in exile, the Facebook page of Julia Gillard has been a portrait of what a fulfilling post-PM life can look like.
Photo credit: GPE
Gillard was criticised for not being “real”, but she is the only recent politics refugee to act on her words, long past the time when those words might get her elected.
She always said education, in particular girls’ education, was her great political passion.
As chair of the Global Partnership for Education, Gillard was most recently in Malawi, where her organisation is putting $44.9 million towards primary education.
Gillard wrote about the strong negative emotions she felt on losing the prime ministership. When she was prime minister, she was criticised, firstly for not being emotional enough, and then for being too emotional when she blasted Abbott with her famous misogyny speech.
But of all our recent former leaders, she seems to be doing the best job of mastering the turmoil of her innermost self, so she can move happily on.