Last week’s extraordinary attack on finance minister and senate leader Penny Wong by Liberal senator Michaelia Cash raises a number of questions that all women should consider in light of Julia Gillard’s removal from high office.
Cash’s tirade was ostensibly part of the Senate’s debate on 457 visas, but she took the opportunity to vociferously denounce Wong as part of an apparently hypocritical and bloodthirsty “sisterhood” who, in voting to return Kevin Rudd as Labor leader, had stabbed one of their own in the back:
The sisterhood stabbing one of their own in the back. You’ve always got to like that, don’t you? When the sisterhood stab one of their own in the back … I wonder how loud former prime minister Gillard screamed when her own sisterhood knifed her in the back and took her out – minister Wong is now sitting reaping the spoils of the victory, drinking from the chalice of blood …
Putting aside the astonishingly vitriolic abuse levelled at Wong – a woman who has unassumingly notched up so many firsts (first climate change minister, first female Senate leader, first openly gay minister, first Asian born federal minister) – it’s nevertheless fair to question whether it’s more important for female ministers to resign in protest, or stay on to further progress the interests of women and all other Australians. I saw Wong’s decision similar to that of Tony Burke: loyalty to the party and the nation outweighed that to Gillard. It was a tough choice, and I wouldn’t have liked to be in her position.
Cash’s outburst, however, raises another far more troubling question: why do female Coalition MPs descend to such levels of spiteful abuse?
No one was surprised when departing independent Tony Windsorappeared on Insiders yesterday and labelled Liberal frontbencher Sophie Mirabella the “nastiest” member of parliament. Admittedly, this may have had as much to do with an independent running against Mirabella this election as the Liberal MP’s reputation for confrontation in parliament. Nevertheless, the shadow industry minister has a long rap sheet, including having suggested that late-blooming progressive and former prime minister Malcolm Fraser’s stance on the war on terror left him open to caricature as a “frothing-at-the-mouth leftie”, ridiculing Gillard for her childlessness, and telling a fellow Coalition member to “pop your Alzheimer’s pills”.
More troubling than Mirabella’s behaviour is that she is not the exception. In what appeared to be a deliberate Coalition strategy since opposition leader Tony Abbott was tarred with a misogynist brush, and one which is based on the deeply flawed logic that a parliamentary attack on a woman by a woman is somehow more acceptable than one by a man, deputy liberal leader Julie Bishop has regularly been wheeled out to attack Gillard (you will also remember her cat claw gesture). And now Cash has joined the ranks of the Coalition’s female attack force.
Sadly, neither of the major parties is innocent when it comes to strategically deploying aggressive female parliamentarians for maximum impact. Labor’s “handbag hit squad” (dubbed so by another of the Coalition’s own attack force, Kelly O’Dwyer) were ruthless in wielding their gender to emphasise Abbott’s misogyny.
But Coalition women have now taken nastiness to a new low. And it really does have to stop. When high-octave abuse and the parliamentary equivalent of girl-on-girl jelly wrestling becomes the accepted way of making a political point, what hope does the average Australian ever have of again respecting our democratic institutions?
This post first appeared at Guardian Australia.