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Category Archives: Gender

On the day that Julia Gillard gave her public accession speech, on Sept 7, 2010 announcing she would be Prime Minister in the hung 43rd Federal Parliament Of Australia I was sitting in the office lunch room of the prominent private sector firm where I worked.

One of the women there, smartly dressed, intelligent, but not in senior management, some kind of assistant, began vocalising a demeaning assessment of Gillard’s ability and character. In content it was not much different to demeaning assessments of John Howard by ALP/Green voters I knew, but in tone it had a deeply hostile edge not commonly heard and which I had noted with curiousity on a number of previous occasions from other persons here and there.

What was it about Gillard that evoked such a hostile reaction in some ? The woman had not even been Prime Minster 10 minutes.

So I asked, ‘What is it about Gillard you don’t like ?’
‘Uh. Uh She’s terrible, she’s not up to it…uh…she’s…’
‘So its just that she’s on the wrong team. ALP not Lib ?’ I suggested.
‘No. She’s awful.’

The explanation was purely emotional. Not rational. No doubt given time my work colleague could have summoned some rational basis: Carbon Tax maybe, or knifing of Rudd.

But that deeply hostile edge…

Old World

As Gillard’s Prime Ministership unfolded we saw the infamous and ugly ‘Ditch The Witch, Bob Brown’s B…’ protests, so happily presided over by Abbott, Mirabella and Bronwyn Bishop, as Abbott praised the supposed decency of the shock-jock audience protestors against the supposed reprehensible dishonesty of Gillard.

Later Gillard made us aware of a disgusting genre of anti-Gillard commentary typified by Larry Pickering, intentionally humiliating, deeply personal and plainly misogynistic.

The humiliatory aspect of anti-Gillard misogyny is central to its relevance. To humiliate means to bring low. Gillard, female Prime Minister, had to be bought low because she embodied an overturning of patriarchal power unthinkable and threatening to the Pickering cohort. Females must be subjugated to men. The old order including the freedom to belittle women must be maintained. So the upstart new order, female power, must be humiliated.

Echoes of that humiliatory misogynism appeared typed up on a menu for a Liberal Party fundraiser organised by Mal Brough, a man so superbly protected by the privileged order that even when found guilty (now appealed) of political conspiracy to bring down the Speaker Of The House Of Representatives, the fact was barely reported at all. Tony Abbott was moved to describe the menu at Brough’s fundraiser as scatalogical.

And in the rabid centre of attacks on Julia Gillard was the spittle-flecked Alan Jones much pandered to by Tony Abbott, whose misogyny was explicit as he rattled off names of women who had come to positions of political and social power in Australia and who had Destroyed The Joint. Jones’ plain message – women, in particular atheistic, unmarried, childless, leftist women do not belong in leadership. They are invalid.

Now Jones, Abbott, Pickering and the shock-jock universe do not think that all women are unsuited for power. Margaret Thatcher is a hero of most of them. No, its only leftist women who are unsuited for power, who do not belong, with their unconventional philosophies about marriage and child-bearing. Leftist women particularly represent a threat to Privileged Order because that Order’s truisms, its ontology about the place of women is threatened by powerful women. Leftist women encapsulate the many fears and bigotries of the Privileged Order. They are simply the wrong type of person and invalid, not entitled to be, leaders.

As Tony Abbott put it on the ocassion of Gillard’s attendance at the Harry-Kate Royal wedding:

“She may not believe in God, the monarchy or marriage, but there will be a royal wedding bounce [in the opinion polls Quarterly Essay 47, p. 85]”

A leftist woman in power shows society out of control of the Privileged Order and forebodes the death of patriarchal certainties.

Leftist men are bad enough. But enough of them are tolerably comfortable with male privilege. But a Leftist woman might undo that, that last bastion, open the doors to the clubroom bar and smash the cut glass decanters housing sacramental claret and whisky. Privilege gone. Power gone.

That threat to established order is why Julia Gillard PM attract such hatred and fear. It’s why the shock-jocks and Pickerings and Abbotts and Joneses – 50 to 70 year old conservative white males and those who have similarly imbibed these certainties of the past – so vehemently despised her.

New World

Conversely, for feminist women, Gillard is loved almost worshipfully by a segment of the Feminist Left. In the same way that conservative white males aged 50-70 will reject and despise any powerful leftist female simply on the basis of gender, so the Feminist Left will embrace and celebrate almost any powerful leftist female simply on the basis of gender.

Gillard, summarizing her Prime Ministership, said

[Misogyny] doesn’t explain everything, it doesn’t explain nothing…

We may replace ‘Misogyny’ with ‘Gender’ in the above statement and get the same meaning. Gender explains two things about Gillard PM: the irrational disdain and hatred of a cadre of privileged male conservatives and their traditionally-minded fellow travelers, and the hero-worship she receives from a segment of the Feminist Left. Anna Goldsworthy, prominent feminist writer said:

There are those who will vote for Gillard because of the sheer fact of her anatomy, a qualification that trumps any policy. These are the most devout members of the sisterhood, the ones for whom, as Greer wrote in 1999, “to be feminist is to understand that before you are of any race, nationality, religion, party or family, you are a woman”. And there are those for whom Gillard’s gender is the only disqualification required.

Gillard was indeed a threat to Privileged Order, to patriarchal certainty. And she succeeded in getting to the highest office of the land. And Gillard is correct. There will be more to follow her. For Feminists, despite the ways in which Gillard falls short of the feminist ideal, Gillard is a harbinger of a New World, a new society, proof that the feminist ideal is obtainable. She has become a Feminist hero, if not quite an idol.

For Feminist women, Julia Gillard PM represents not a threat to the old world but a promise of a new world.This is why Gillard’s most ardent supporters are Feminists like Anne Summers who has provided intellectual attack and defence against Gillard detractors, Margot Kingston who self-described as a Gillardista and well, read any Feminist-friendly blog. The beaming Summers-Gillard interviews in Sydney and Melbourne which farewelled the Gillard era were a celebratory procession welcoming this new world; the new reality.

Julia Gillard PM is very significant. She’s the beginning and the end. Watch that space just to the Speaker’s righthand over the despatch boxes. The men are.

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Abbott’s almost female-free Ministry was not selected solely on merit.

As Mark Kenny has pointed out, the LNP dissects and allocates those juicy and prestigious positions on a variety of criteria including representation from each State, fair division between Senate and MHRs, the Coalition’s need to include a certain number of National Party MPs, factional weighting and party seniority. And merit.

A moment’s reflection shows that these diverse considerations are pulled together by the overarching necessity of balancing party power relationships through careful apportionment of the spoils of victory. Let me encapsulate that in two words: power relationships.

Harmonising Power Relationships

Abbott and the party executive have carefully thought through each of the power dynamics salient to their party’s needs and satisfied them as well as they possibly can. If the harmonics of the competing power claims are misjudged the party will inevitably collapse into squabbling and disunity. That might take some time, three terms in office even. But ambitious persons and factions will not forever be denied what they see as rightfully theirs: Power.

So, the lesson of the almost-female free Abbott government is that gender balance is not relevant to the internal power relationships within the LNP. It can be and was ignored, or at least set aside, for now.

And by gender balance I mean of course female representation. Imagine if Abbott had selected an entirely female Ministry. Would any men be complaining, Virginia ? Would power relationships be upset ? Would there be squabbling, disunity and collapse ? I will guess YES. But women can be excluded from an LNP Ministry, no complaints, no trouble (yet).

It is not necessary for women to have power.
It is very necessary for men to have power.

And that is how we can see that the Abbott Ministry is sexist.

Women may knock at the doors of power, but in the LNP they may only enter at the whims of men, as noted by 2013 Australian Of The Year Ita Buttrose, herself a trailblazer who as recently as 1989 became the first woman editor of an Australian metropolitan newspaper and who therefore understands personally the sexist hurdles that inhibit female representation at the top levels of power in this country.

Stability

Abbott campaigned strongly on the stability of his Shadow Cabinet ministry as compared to the drastic personnel changes in the ALP front bench that resulted from the narcissistic destabilisation campaign authored by Kevin Rudd against Julia Gillard over the term of her Prime Ministership.

This gives Abbott a plausible reason, an electoral promise, to minimise change in his Ministry and might therefore be seen as a merely temporary brake on the proper merit-based promotion of LNP women.

In my view this reasoning is not sufficient. Quite simply, why could not at least one of Bronwyn Bishop (moved to Speaker) or Sophie Mirabella (not re-elected) be replaced by a woman ? And why are there are only four female Parliamentary Secretaries or Assistant Ministers in Abbott’s outer Ministry, this being the pool and proving ground from which Cabinet Ministers are typically drawn ? Indeed one those women in the outer Ministry, Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, is universally regarded to be on a career downpath as a result of her endorsement of the inferior candidate James Diaz in Greenway, who failed to win that highly marginal seat in the context of a strong national swing to the LNP.

In short, in Abbott’s ruling circle there are almost no female Cabinet Ministers and few identified as likely Cabinet Ministers.

Could it be that Abbott still believes as he did when aged 41 and a Cabinet Minister in the Howard government, when he told Good Weekend magazine on 29 Aug 1998

…men are by philosophy or temperament more adapted to exercise authority or to issue command ?

This is the real Tony. As Abbott said of Mark Latham

…he is already 42 and leopards do not change their spots

Eviscerated

For the ALP, of course, female representation is an important element in their power dynamics. If women are poorly represented in ALP power roles then the party is axiomatically destabilised. Should Albo or Shorten select a female-free Cabinet the executive would be under seige instantly and eviscerated (sorry I’ve been reading Politically Homeless again) before sundown.

No, No. It’s Merit.

We could of course take the LNP at their word in their claims that their Cabinet posts, pre-selections and Senate ticket positions are all exclusively and austerely determined by merit.

Which suggests, judging from current outcomes, that the current lot of LNP women are just not up to high office even though as backbenchers their sex appeal is without question.

The objective lack of merit in LNP female MPs as assessed by LNP leadership should be a cause of puzzlement to LNP supporters since the LNP has often claimed that it is the ALP with token and weak female representation due to their talent-destroying female quota system.

Bishop

Ironically, the only female LNP Cabinet personage, Foreign Minister and Deputy Leader Julie Bishop, is not there by merit. Her appointment to Deputy Leader was and is a tokenistic concession by which the LNP tries to appeal to women voters. Doubly ironic is that Bishop’s elevation to Deputy Leader was a strategic move by the LNP to add female representation in order to counter the profile and popularity of Julia Gillard.

Her position as Shadow and now Cabinet Foreign Minister is Bishop’s chosen consolation prize for stepping aside as Shadow Treasurer. Her performance in both Shadow roles left many unimpressed.

Of wonderment to myself is Bishop neglect of her Shadow Trade portfolio in which she did not ask a question of Craig Emerson, the relevant minister, for three years. By contrast, the now departed Sophie Mirabella, while abrasive and self-destructive, was visibly engaged with her Shadow Manufacturing portfolio and able to marshall relevant detail into her statements and questions.

Michelle Grattan, writing in 2010, put it straight-forwardly

She [Bishop] has survived by virtue of her gender and the party’s need for stability.

Also in significant part, Bishop has the Deputy Leadership of the LNP because she represents zero threat to the power relationships of the LNP. In Abbott’s words, unsettling even Andrew Bolt, Bishop is a loyal girl.

Abbott’s first mistake: to give deputy Julie Bishop a cuddle during the press conference and call her a “loyal girl”.

Merit and power: They’re interrelated. But when it comes time to apportion power, merit is only an influence and only sometimes a determinator of outcomes.

The race is not always to the swift.