Argument

Check Matey

A woman is finally prime minister of Australia. But for how long?

One cool morning in June, Australians woke up to find that they had a new prime minister. And for the first time in history, she was a woman. Kevin Rudd, who three years earlier was swept into office in a landslide, had just been ousted by his deputy prime minister, a woman named Julia Gillard.

The arrival of a woman to Australia's highest office was both accidental -- after all, she was installed, not elected -- and inevitable. Women are increasingly likely to hold prominent political positions in Australia today, and there is nothing unusual per se about Gillard's politics. Still, the last two months have been monumental, breaking some of the stereotypes of a national culture of "mateship" -- not least because a woman has been brought in to shepherd the incumbent's politics, which were increasingly losing grip with the electorate. Rudd's agenda got stuck in Parliament; he was losing allies left and right. The party brought in a woman to clean it up, and now, on August 21, Australians will go to the polls and decide whether or not they want to keep her.

Saturday's vote will be something of a referendum on the performance of the ousted Labor Party administration. Rudd's most notable achievement -- foresight and swift action that saved Australia's economy from the worst of the 2008 global financial crisis -- was impressive indeed. But it wasn't enough for voters or his party, especially after his attempts to implement a carbon-trading scheme were scuttled in Parliament. Gillard has wisely steered further from climate policy, preferring to call attention to Rudd's gains on education, healthcare accessibility, and the economy.

As a politician, Gillard has an impressive record. A 48-year-old former lawyer, she rose quickly through the Labor Party ranks since becoming a member of Parliament in 1998. She is quick on her feet and renowned for exercising a quick wit in parliamentary debates. She is an unabashed supporter of women's rights and, though some progressives have been dismayed by the conservative stances she has taken on issues like immigration and gay marriage, her takeover was seen by many as a welcome change.

Gillard the woman, however, has been entirely more controversial. Anyone who has come within three meters of a newspaper in Australia since she took office will know that the new leader is not married but in a long-term relationship. This makes her not just the first woman prime minister, but the first unmarried one, too. When her takeover was announced on June 24, the newspapers had a field day, wondering among other things, if she was setting a bad example for Australian women, if her partner would live with her in the prime minister's official residence, and what on earth the function of a "First Bloke" might be. It bears noting that her partner is a former hairdresser who, the Sydney Morning Herald made very clear in a football and pub-going profile, does not want to be "Julia's man-bag."

In many ways, the public conversation about Gillard's personal life reflects the underlying discomfort that Australians still have with women in positions of power. Though Gillard has company in high office -- women currently hold such posts as mayor of Sydney, governor general, premiers of Queensland and New South Wales -- she raises the bar on Australia's ability to outgrow its macho history.

Australian culture grew out of the rugged frontier mentality of its settlers' past, making their way in a new land. Women fit into that story largely by standing on the sidelines. And while the country has made great progress in women's rights since, much remains to be done. Women represent 55 percent of Australia's workforce but earn about one fifth less than men. The number of women on corporate boards hovers at a measly 8 percent. The cultural desire to keep women in line, subtle and subconscious though it may be, keeps those numbers down. Added to this is Australia's general discomfort with ambition and high achievement -- a national inferiority complex that has been dubbed the "Tall Poppy Syndrome," or a tendency to cut down those who excel and are foolish enough to acknowledge or brag about it. In short, a woman prime minister -- ambitious and high-achieving by definition -- should expect to have, in local parlance, a hard go of it.

Indeed, the latest polls do not bode well for Gillard. For a start, her opponent Tony Abbott, the head of the Liberal Party (Australia's conservatives), is her polar opposite: a conservative Catholic who once trained for the priesthood and whose views on social issues are not unlike those of the average U.S. Republican Party senate candidate. A proponent (though famously not a practitioner) of pre-marital abstinence, against gay marriage (he has said that he feels "threatened" by homosexuality) and staunchly pro-life, Abbott is far more socially conservative than the Liberal Party leaders who preceded him. And opponents have been quick to accuse Gillard of being politically out of touch as a result of her personal choices: For example, in 2007, one Liberal Party member suggested that Gillard, being childless, would not be able to understand the needs of Australian parents.

Still, in the end it may be not so much Gillard's leadership as Labor's record that cuts short her political career. Two months may simply not be enough time to recover the faith in the party that was lost under Rudd.

Perhaps it speaks to the progress that Australia has made that Gillard's policies have largely been evaluated on their merits, rather than through the lens of gender. Indeed, when news came last month that women voters were more likely to support Gillard, she responded by asking for the votes of all Australians, regardless of gender. This may seem an obvious move, but Gillard's refusal to appeal specifically to women voters is a telling one.

If Gillard loses, it should by no means be interpreted as a rejection of women's leadership. If she is elected, it won't be because she is a woman. And that is a step forward Down Under.

Scott Barbour/Getty Images

Argument

Why We Need Big Oil

BP might not be anyone's favorite company right now, but it's our best hope against the world's oil-rich troublemakers.

In the aftermath of the largest oil spill in history, Big Oil -- never the greatest of PR cases -- has lost most of the few friends it ever had. When BP -- whose assets stretch from Azerbaijan to Libya to the Alaskan Arctic -- announced last month that it was planning to shrink in size after its huge losses from the Deepwater Horizon disaster, selling off at least $30 billion worth of its assets in places like Texas and Vietnam, it accordingly received little sympathy. Even those who don't actively hate BP tend to argue that a bit of streamlining might do it some good, producing a more effective and competitive oil company -- or even that the company's pieces are worth more than BP itself at this point.

That's a crude analysis. The shrinking of Big Oil should neither be cheered nor cautiously welcomed. Much more is at stake here than schadenfreude and corporate efficiency. If Big Oil is rolled back, so is Western influence in global energy markets -- and you won't like the people who fill that power vacuum.

The talk of the town in Houston today is leaner, meaner, greener supermajors. ConocoPhillips has benefited recently from trimming fat, selling off some assets while cutting staff, and BP is hardly the only company in the post-Gulf-spill world adopting a strategy based on this faddish principle. But in truth, Big Oil is really not that big to begin with. The six supermajors only hold about 5 percent of global oil and natural gas reserves. The rest are controlled by governments: some like Norway's democracy, but most like Equatorial Guinea's Teodoro Obiang. Even a third of a century after the OPEC embargo, the oil business's biggest problem is still resource nationalism: incompetent, capricious, and geopolitically malicious governments that use energy as a weapon or a plaything.

It was this imbalance of power that motivated BP, once one of the leanest and meanest of the majors, to expand during the tenure of outgoing CEO Tony Hayward's predecessor, John Browne. In the early 1990s, the company's reserves were quickly dwindling in some of the most politically inhospitable parts of the world; Browne's ambitious strategy was to grow the company so that it could survive. BP's aggressive swallowing of pedigreed American companies Amoco and Arco, and the ill-fated merger with Russia's TNK in the late 1990s and early 2000s, kicked off the merger mania that created the supermajors we know today: Exxon-Mobil, Chevron-Texaco, Conoco-Phillips and Total-Petrofina-Elf.

The mergers occurred because consolidating private companies was the quickest and easiest way of growing reserves in a world where most of them were off limits, possessed by national oil companies and petro-oligarchs. Merger plans were adopted not because of the monopolistic tendencies Big Oil is often accused of having, but because they would allow companies to acquire greater reserves without the high costs of exploration -- why look for new oil when you can just buy another company's?

After the merger mania went as far as it could in the first half of this decade, Big Oil cautiously returned to the hunt for new untapped reserves. But it was once again blocked by the national oil companies and the governments that oversaw them, who already owned most of the world's easy-to-access oil. So the supermajors have for almost a decade been forced to look for deepwater "elephants": highly lucrative, but also potentially risky fields, accessible only with the technology and expertise that Big Oil can provide.

The shrinking of Big Oil after the gulf spill will only reinforce this trend, as the supermajors streamline to focus on this sort of high-risk, high-payoff exploration. Even with stepped-up regulatory safeguards, the pillorying of BP will have the perverse effect of increasing the likelihood of another catastrophic spill. The next target for deepwater drilling is the Arctic. Why? Because national boundaries are fuzzy up there and only the supermajors have the technology to work in such a harsh environment. Get ready for oily polar bears and blackened seals.

If the free market could reach the world's abundant easy oil, these sorts of gambles wouldn't be necessary; global production would increase, and prices would be less volatile. But thanks to the poor management of the world's mostly nationalized oil reserves, the exact opposite is happening. Production of oil and gas in Iran is significantly less than it was before the 1979 revolution. The same is true of production in Venezuela since Hugo Chávez took power in 1999. After the sometimes violent de facto nationalization of energy assets in Russia over the past decade, the growth of oil production there fell by 80 percent. Until recent changes in all three countries, resource nationalism in Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Libya meant stagnant production for over three decades. Demand for oil may be down in the United States and Europe, but China and other emerging markets remain thirsty. While Beijing may cut mercantilist deals with oil producers, many emerging and advanced economies will continue to rely on the shrinking supermajors' deepwater oil.

Big Oil was the result of the geopolitical problem of nationalization. BP's fear in the 1990s was that if it didn't grow by the few means it had at its disposal -- absorbing smaller players and placing high-stakes exploration bets -- it would turn into little more than an oil services and trading company that couldn't compete on the oil patch, or on Wall Street. In the aftermath of the gulf oil spill and a fire-sale of its assets, the company is facing the same threat again.

If the shrinking virus spreads to the rest of the supermajors -- as many analysts suggest it will -- the story will switch to their diminishing heft in negotiations with problematic petrostates. That means less energy security for U.S. and European consumers, and more geopolitical shenanigans by some of the world's most unsavory characters.

BERTRAND GUAY/AFP/Getty Images