YESTERDAY, I saw a programme on the Howard government; a piece on Iraq featured a street march in Melbourne, with an effigy of George W. Bush on a float and another behind it of a dog in Howard’s likeness, mounted on a dolly so that as it rolled back and forth, the dog’s nose wedged up Bush’s backside.
In the eight months since Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s notorious “misogyny” speech — which was actually a defence of sexist grub Peter Slipper — much has been made of the issue, real or perceived, of sexism and misogyny directed at her simply because she is a woman at the apex of politics in this country.
I’ve opened my comments tonight by recollecting the Bush/Howard stunt because whilst it was devoid of taste, lacking in respect and nothing short of disgusting, nobody could say it was sexist.
A similar case could be made of comments by ETU secretary Dean Mighell prior to the 2007 election, who described John Howard as “a skidmark on the bedsheet of Australian politics.”
In both of these instances — and there were hundreds of others during the 12-year tenure of the Howard government — Howard never responded, let alone flinched; he knew that to do so would be to encourage more of the same, and that to get angry or to lash out would simply display a weakness that his opponents would then hammer.
Had either of these stunts been enacted with Gillard as their target, imagine the outcry.
Remember the silence from Gillard — and almost all of her Labor colleagues — at the time?
Two events this week rekindled the debate — such as it is — over sexism and misogyny, how they apply to Gillard in particular and to other women in politics by extension: the “Menugate” scandal that erroneously targeted LNP candidate Mal Brough, and former 6PR shock jock Howard Sattler’s interrogation of Gillard about her partner’s sexuality.
I really do have limited time for the whole misogyny/conspiracy theory where Julia Gillard is concerned; for one thing, nobody on the Left seems overly concerned when the same purported tactics are used against their opponents, be they women or otherwise; and for another thing, a lot of what is held up as “evidence” is not sexist or misogynistic at all.
And I think the point needs to be made, upfront, that Australian politics is a robust sport at the best of times; our polity can be brutal, and its participants fling themselves into the fray with great relish and gusto.
I have always said openly (including in Liberal Party forums) that when it comes to basic politics, the Left is far better at it than we are; the past ten years or so, however, have seen the tactics of the Left move from simply being robust and tough — there’s nothing wrong with that — to the politics of the gutter, a trade in real filth and dirt digging, whilst maintaining a sanctimonious and pious indignance in the face of their own hypocrisy.
To this end, it can hardly come as a surprise that some elements within the Right are now responding in kind; it doesn’t make it right, but most of what gets picked over in the name of “misogyny” is nothing of the sort.
And in the desperate orgy of outrage over manufactured issues of sexual degradation, the ultimate consequence is proving to be that ordinary people — the silent majority in mainstream Australia — is deserting the Left in droves.
The “Menugate” incident was contemptible, certainly, and it wasn’t even funny. I thought the owner of the establishment did the right thing at least by publicly owning responsibility for his actions and those of his staff, whilst at pains to point out that neither Brough nor Joe Hockey (who also attended) had even seen the menu as it was never distributed.
But this wasn’t good enough.
Julia Gillard sought to make it a direct reflection on Tony Abbott personally: “that’s what they’re like, Tony Abbott’s Liberals,” she was quoted as saying.
Unbelievably, she demanded Brough’s disendorsement: a disproportionate call that made her look even more ridiculous than the outraged performance over the menu itself.
Wayne Swan went even further, making an outright accusation that the owner of the restaurant was lying. We know Abbott orchestrated it, he inferred; we know Brough and Hockey were in on the joke. Anything other than total guilt of a blatant misogynistic stunt was not true and the Liberals would be exposed to the public for their sins.
Unfortunately, this is typical of the standard of discussion such issues now elicit from those on the Left.
Sattler’s remarks were simply beneath contempt.
But again, today we find that even to discuss the incident is enough to attract a charge of “sexism” from the Gillard camp, as Daily Telegraph writer Piers Akerman (unreservedly a favourite of this column) found out today to his detriment.
Let’s deal with that: the rumours about Tim Mathieson have been floating around, barely beneath the surface, for years.
I’ve heard them; lots of people have heard them. But as I said in my article, who cares if he is or if he isn’t? Does it matter? To me it is relevant only insofar as he may be wrongly accused — which Sattler stopped short of — but beyond that, what business is it of anyone’s?
The point is that you can’t deny the existence of the rumours; they are there. They may very well be false and malicious (and I don’t believe they are true, for the record). But for even discussing their existence in the context of what Howard Sattler did on Friday being enough to demand Akerman’s head?
Spare me. At least Akerman had the decency to offer Gillard an apology if raising the matter offended her.
And it brings me to an article that appeared in the august pages of the Fairfax press on Friday by Stephanie Peatling, which was a barely disguised cheerleading piece for the slighted, wounded women of the Left.
Of the Left, mind, no-one else.
“Uneasiness About a Woman in Power Unleashes a Sexist Maelstrom,” trumpeted the headline, informing me before I even opened it that it would spell out clearly that Gillard was as pure as the driven snow, but that her opponents were filthy, misogynistic pigs.
I wasn’t disappointed.
It isn’t so much what Peatling said as what she didn’t say; after all, much of what she covered — “Menugate,” the Sattler comments, and Tony Abbott appearing with protesters describing Gillard as a “witch, bitch, and a liar” might well have come from Gillard directly.
Yet notwithstanding anything else I have said — and at the risk of splitting straws — let’s look at some of Peatling’s complaints.
It is certainly true that Abbott was photographed with demonstrators in Canberra, wielding placards bearing such slogans as “ditch the witch” and the like.
Yet one of the most intellectually and politically contemptible aspects of the entire “misogyny” case the Left seeks to prosecute against Abbott (and let’s be frank: all of their complaints are ultimately aimed at Abbott) is that its arguments are stripped of context in order to provide them with legitimacy — for want of a better word.
Abbott had agreed to meet with anti-carbon tax protesters who had travelled to Canberra and demanded to be heard; they had come from all over the country, and the opposition leader wasn’t so arrogant as to snub them — not least as their protest was an issue that is also the subject of a key Liberal Party policy.
Abbott didn’t write the slogans. He didn’t tell the media that Gillard was a “man’s bitch.” He didn’t cherry-pick photo opportunities based on availing himself of the most offensive slogans as a backdrop. He simply met as many members of the protest as he could.
By contrast, when Gillard staged her ridiculous “sleepover” in western Sydney earlier this year, the howl of outrage from ignored local residents who wanted to see (and confront) her could hardly have been more singular.
Not only did she not “meet the locals” at large as the brief stipulated, but those people she did meet were carefully shepherded into meticulously staged events where no suggestion of dissent or confrontation could occur, be captured by the media throng, and beamed around the country.
Do these vastly different episodes cumulatively constitute a case of “damned if you do, and damned if you don’t?”
I have written in this column many times of Gillard’s singular lack of political skills and her seeming inability to communicate with the electorate; these factors — combined with the wilful insistence on linking everything to a misogynist smear and landing it in Abbott’s face — have contributed to a deep resentment or even anger toward Gillard personally.
Is it sexist?
I contend that it is nothing of the sort; I think Australians are well past the point where women are every bit as accepted in political life in men. As they should be.
But if a woman is a bad politician, nobody should be restrained or intimidated out of the freedom and the right to say so.
I think Julia Gillard is an abomination as Prime Minister; it has nothing to do with the fact she is female; simply that she is, in my estimation, utterly useless — as are a myriad of her (predominantly male) colleagues. Wayne Swan in particular, step forward!
We seem to be getting to the point where to speak out about a female politician at all is grounds for an accusation of sexism or misogyny; it’s counterproductive as well as grotesque.
Even so, the message being picked up by millions of everyday people is that because Gillard is a woman, they have no right to question or criticise her and so, to that extent, the fact she is a woman is feeding public antipathy toward her, precisely because her gender is held up as somehow conferring immunity from criticism.
I recall seeing Gillard in Parliament (it might have even been in her “misogyny” speech) claiming that even being called “a piece of work” was highly offensive, sexist, misogynistic and blah blah blah.
Seriously, who hasn’t called someone that? And who hasn’t been called that?
Peatling talks of an incident when Kevin Rudd was Prime Minister, in which his wife — Therese — was photographed in her gym gear; “it was Ms Rein who copped the attention, not her husband,” she writes.
There are so many things tangled up in the whole sexism/politics/gender thing that it becomes difficult to untangle; a photographer, clearly keen to please an editor, has the opportunity to take a photo like that — why wouldn’t he/she?
Again, it doesn’t make it right per se, but the paparazzi have a worldwide reputation for this sort of thing that has been built over long years. How does this relate to Julia Gillard as Prime Minister?
Peatling also states that “Greens leader Christine Milne also attracts a far amount of distasteful attention,” and poses the question collectively of Gillard, Rein and Milne: “Is this because all three women are strong, successful, forthright women who forged careers that made them trail blazers?”
It ignores the fact that a huge proportion of the electorate view the Greens collectively as downright dangerous, if not a pack of lunatics; Milne, as their public face, herself has stated such objectives as “working to combat corruption in Indonesian ports,” which — whilst just one example — isn’t just impossible for any Australian politician to effect, but any attempt to actually do so would run the risk of starting a war.
I’ve called Milne pious and sanctimonious in the past, and I stand by those remarks; they precisely reflect her public persona as presented to the electorate.
But they’re not sexist.
One thing that stands out most starkly in the Peatling piece is the total lack of mention of women on the Right; for all its righteousness about sexism and the alleged mistreatment of women in politics on the Left, her arguments can hardly be called balanced — and neither can those of most other commentators, friendly to Labor, who write on this issue.
Where is the outrage at some of the things that have been said about Julie Bishop? Or Bronwyn Bishop? Sophie Mirabella? Amanda Vanstone, in her day? The list goes on, and the silence from the most aggrieved when it comes to Gillard et al is deafening when names such as these are thrown into the mix.
I do agree with Peatling on one thing; as she says, sexism is not a political issue. Neither are manners, respect and courtesy.
Is it possible that whilst we are comfortable with women in roles of high office, many of us don’t know which form of language, or which turn of phrase, to use when they let us down?
It is simply that some people use the same expressions to criticise a woman in the role as they would a man?
There will always be the odd redneck or Neanderthal, adamant the woman’s place is in the kitchen or the bedroom, and no matter how people try to bring these individuals into the 21st century such efforts, sadly, will always go unrewarded.
Overwhelmingly, though, I refuse to believe men have an insuperable prejudice against women in roles of authority; I do think, however, that they expect to be able to hold them to account as they would a man, and I do concur with that.
I just wonder how much damage is being done — and, inadvertently, how cheapened the standing of good women might be — by the flinging of taunts and insults of misogyny and sexism at people for no better reason than they disagree with the likes of Gillard.
A friend of mine in Melbourne — a journalist of some standing — and I had a discussion on this last week, and I made the point that generally, the standards of public discourse and debate in Australia, at present, are the grimiest and the grubbiest I can remember in almost 30 years of following politics like a bloodhound. He didn’t disagree.
And that assessment, without singling out any individual or specific issue, probably applies to the Left, the Right, and elements within both of the major parties as well as in the media and the commentary space.
Barring a few specific examples, I have been deliberately reticent in making too many judgements in this article tonight; what I am more interested to do is to get people — on all sides of the political spectrum, and in whatever capacity they fill — thinking.
And so it’s over to you; feel free to comment. What do you think?