SYDNEY – An Australian radio host was fired after quizzing Prime Minister Julia Gillard repeatedly about her partner’s sexuality, prompting her to warn that such probing could discourage women from entering public life.
Perth radio station 6PR dismissed host Howard Sattler, having earlier suspended him, after he asked Gillard in an interview late Thursday whether Tim Mathieson’s profession as a hairdresser meant he was homosexual.
“I want young girls and women to be able to feel like they can be included in public life and not have to face questioning like the questioning I faced,” Gillard told reporters Friday, echoing concerns raised by Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick.
The fallout capped a week in which gender and sex dominated the political agenda three months from an election that opinion polls indicate Gillard’s Labor party will lose in a landslide. The nation’s first female prime minister thrust gender into the spotlight when she signaled that a coalition government led by Tony Abbott may wind back abortion rights and see women’s voices banished from frontline politics.
Gillard, during Thursday’s interview with Sattler, said “vile and offensive” speculation is regularly circulated about her on the Internet, after she was pressed on whether she lived with Mathieson in a heterosexual relationship.
“We live there together as a couple,” she said. “To all the hairdressers out there, including to all the men who are listening, I don’t think in life one can actually look at a whole profession full of different human beings and say, ‘Gee, we know something about every one of those human beings.’ I mean, it’s absurd.”
Radio station management, announcing Sattler’s dismissal, said he pursued a line of questioning with Gillard “that was disrespectful to the office and the person of the prime minister and was entirely inappropriate.”
Gillard revived the gender debate in a June 11 speech to a Labor fundraiser when she said, “We don’t want to live in an Australia where abortion again becomes the political plaything of men who think they know better.” She has previously described the Sept. 14 ballot as a contest between “a strong feisty woman” and a “policy-weak man.”
The abortion assertion was condemned by Deputy Liberal party leader Julie Bishop, the senior female in Abbott’s opposition, who described it as a “crude political ploy” from a desperate prime minister and reiterated that the coalition had no plans to change current laws.
The debate then switched to sexism in the coalition’s ranks after a menu from a Liberal party fundraiser making sexually derogatory comments about Gillard was posted on Twitter.
One of the dishes included “Julia Gillard Kentucky Fried Quail,” with a description including comments about the prime minister’s body.
Mal Brough, a minister in former Prime Minister John Howard’s government who held the fundraiser as he seeks to return to parliament, denied Thursday he had seen the menu and said had been assured by the restaurant owner it hadn’t been distributed to guests.
Gillard, the first Australian leader who isn’t married, lives at the prime minister’s residence in the capital Canberra with Mathieson. Since becoming prime minister in June 2010, she’s withstood opposition taunts that she’s childless and has previously attacked sexism in Australian politics.
On Oct. 9, she accused Abbott of “repulsive double standards when it comes to misogyny” and said she’d been offended by “cat-calling” to her in the House of Representatives.
Abbott, 55, has rejected Labor claims that he has a problem dealing with powerful women. He has a female chief of staff, a female deputy and three adult daughters.
Gillard, 51, faced down her second Labor leadership vote in a year in March, winning uncontested. Labor hasn’t led in opinion polls for more than 18 months and was 16 percentage points behind the opposition on a two-party preferred basis in a Newspoll published in the Australian newspaper on June 4.
Parliament will sit for a final two weeks starting June 17, a danger zone for Gillard when her Labor colleagues will all be in Canberra, enabling a snap challenge.
Finance Minister Penny Wong said Friday the Sattler interview showed a lack of respect.
“I just don’t think it’s an appropriate way for the office of the prime minister to be treated, to be engaged in these sorts of personal discussions,” she told the Australian Broadcasting Corp.
With assistance from Edward Johnson in Sydney.