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Poles apart: what Julia can learn from her Icelandic counterpart

Just a few days after Julia Gillard became Australia’s first unwed female Prime Minister, on a distant corner of the globe — Iceland’s first woman head of state, Johanna Sigurdardottir married her long-term partner, the writer Jonina Leosdottir in her Prime Ministerial office, becoming the world’s first national leader to enter into a same sex marriage. The day before she took her conjugal vows, Sigurdartottir signed a bill into law recognising same sex marriage in Iceland. Along with the Catholic strongholds of Portugal and Mexico City, Iceland joined a fast growing tide of nations who have recognised and respected the human rights of gay and lesbian citizens by legalising gay marriage

While Iceland’s First Ladies celebrated their late June honeymoon in Reykjavik, not far from the North Pole, here in the antipodes, Julia Gillard moved into Kevin Rudd’s former office. Not far from the South Pole, the new media twittered about her sinful, single marital status and the old media gasped for breath. Writing in the grey and dying pages of the Sydney Morning Herald, Bettina Arndt stated, “If Gillard chooses to play house with Tim Mathieson in the Lodge, this choice sends a strong message to the huge numbers of women who rightly admire her and seek to follow her example.” God forbid Australia might move on from the 1950s, when daily newspapers were widely read and husbands and wives knew their proper place in society. How could Julia possibly run the country when she should be home cooking dinner for Tim? Soon western civilisation as we know it might be buried under the ash of an Icelandic cultural eruption with lesbians running the country and same sex marriage legalised in some scandalous Scandinavia of the South Pacific. That day in AM drive time, PM Julia Gillard set the record straight on the Kyle and Jackie O show. “We believe the marriage act is appropriate in its current form, that is recognising that marriage is between a man and a woman, but we have as a government taken steps to equalise treatment for gay couples.”

As an unmarried woman, in a de facto relationship, Julia can have her wedding cake and eat it too. Without ever having to say “I do”, she is entitled to all of the protections of a virtual marriage contract (gained on the backs of gay Australians) without being condemned to the second class status and stigma associated with living in a same sex relationship. The next week, on talk back radio in Darwin, Gillard expanded her position:”Obviously, we live in an age where there are all sorts of committed relationships which are not marriages. I’m in a committed relationship of that nature myself with my partner Tim, so I think this all boils down to personal choices. Obviously, we want every individual treating others with decency and respect, but it does boil down to personal choices. I don’t believe as Prime Minister it’s my job to preach.”

As a heterosexual woman, Julia Gillard can make the personal choice to avoid the stereotypical gender roles inherent in a standard marital contract’s fine print, or she can chose to marry on her terms — but what choice does a same sex couple have in Australia? A gay couple can not choose to make a legal commitment to each other by publicly proclaiming their life long commitment through a wedding ceremony. Under a constitutional amendment, which was passed into law with the backing of both the Labor and Liberals parties and endorsed by the Gillard government, a same sex union is illegal. Even if you were the Prime Minister of Iceland, your marriage license would not be legally recognised in Julia Gillard’s Australia. In the same way that she sold out the human rights of refugees by proposing to process their applications offshore, at some yet to be determined, poor neighbouring island state, Gillard has played to populist prejudices by refusing to respect the human rights of same sex couples in Australia. In her first weeks in office, Julia Gillard has lurched to the right in order to ensure her party stays in power.

Call me a cynic, but what do you think the odds are that Julia will tie the knot with Tim in the lead up to their moving into the Lodge? Picture the happy wedding snaps on the cover of the nation’s women’s magazines, the television coverage and the electoral surge. How many extra points do you think the party room hacks have calculated a Prime Ministerial wedding would generate? Will Bill Shorten, Mark Arbib and the whole of Sussex Street call Tim to pop the question? If Julia trades in her feminist credentials and her de facto partner for social acceptance, as she walks down the aisle, it is unlikely she will spare a thought for the same sex couples who don’t have the option of becoming respectable in the court of public opinion. As she lurches further and further to the right, it will take a lot more than a Kirribilli garden wedding to make an honest woman of Julia Gillard.