Why women of the right will never call themselves feminists

feminist-motherOver the five years I’ve been writing about politics I’ve steered clear of feminism: mostly because I don’t really know much about it. I didn’t do gender studies at high school or university and, perhaps most importantly, it was never raised as an issue at home.

My parents never told me I had a natural disadvantage in life because I was female. Not once, ever.

But I was told many, many times that if I studied diligently, did well at school and university, and worked hard at my chosen vocation, I would be successful and, by extension, happy.

Before you jump to conclusions about my privileged Tory upbringing, let me explain.

Continue reading “Why women of the right will never call themselves feminists”

Like it or not: everything is politics

Ever since American journalism academic Jay Rosen talked to the Melbourne Writers Festival in 2011 about how impoverished our political media is, because of its seeming obsession with the internal workings and intrigues of governments and political parties, the same criticism has been levelled at Australian political journalists and writers who seek to explain the mechanics and mysteries of politics.

The articles of contention describe the judgments and tradeoffs made by political players to maintain the tenuous balance between sound policy or doing what is morally right and what will win or maintain votes at the next election.

The most common criticism of such posts is that they focus on how things “are” instead of how they “should be”. My Drum column last week on the politics of Ebola, and others published elsewhere about how the budget is being sold to voters or various political figures are positioning themselves for future leadership contests, are amongst those criticised in this way.

There was particular consternation about my contention that the Government’s response to the growing Ebola crisis in West Africa was shaped by politics, as was the Opposition’s approach. Commenters on The Drum and Twitter complained the column should have focused on what the Government “should” be doing about Ebola, instead of explaining why it was not.

Such criticism misses the point entirely: like it or not, everything in politics is politics. There’s no way to take politics out of Australia’s democratic institutions and processes, be they parties, elections or parliament. While democracy continues to rely on “the people” to exercise their vote, and human behaviour remains in the mix, there will always be politics (which by definition is the theory and practice of influencing people).

Public opinion looms large when it comes to politics: if a party can’t win the hearts and minds of voters then they won’t get elected. It’s that simple. And it’s virtually impossible to implement one’s policy agenda from the opposition benches.

So it’s a difficult proposition for an opposition to willingly diminish its electability or a government to risk its incumbency by advocating a course of action that is not supported by the majority of voters – even if that action is the right way to go in a policy or moral sense.

This is why former prime minister Kevin Rudd backed away from his emissions trading scheme in the face of growing voter antipathy for carbon pricing, and his successor Julia Gillard similarly ruled out a carbon tax. Neither wanted to sacrifice their governments’ future prospects for one, albeit critically important, matter when their reform agendas encompassed so many other important things that also needed to be done.

It could be argued that, even though Gillard was subsequently forced to renege on her “no carbon tax” commitment, she may not have been elected without having made it and then would not have been able to follow through on many of the important reforms started by the Rudd government such as the NBN, Gonski and NDIS.

Such are the swings and roundabouts of politics.

There is an alternative to conceding to popular opinion, and that is to change it, but this is akin to doing a u-turn in a cruise ship.

Getting the voting public to change its mind, not on superficial matters, but on those that tap into core values and concerns, is a slow and laborious task that can take longer than one three or four-year parliamentary term to produce results. Doing so is hard enough for a government, even with the authority that comes from being in power and having a phalanx of departments and battalions of advisers at its disposal.

One illustrative example is former PM John Howard’s attempt to change voters’ views about the GST leading up to the 1998 federal election. While he did manage to do so slightly, Howard also lost almost 5 per cent of the vote at that election.

Gillard tried similarly with the Clean Energy Future Package in 2011, which included the carbon tax and associated compensation measures, but to little effect. Three years on from the launch of that package, only 38 per cent of voters support having a carbon tax or emissions trading scheme to manage climate change.

Changing popular opinion is even more difficult to do from opposition. Liberal opposition leader John Hewson failed spectacularly to bring voters on board with his comprehensive Fightback policy manifesto in 1993. More successful (at least from the Liberals’ perspective) was opposition leader Tony Abbott’s campaign, which turned community sentiment against the carbon tax, but still took four years spanning two parliamentary terms to come to do so.

It was politics that thwarted Howard, Rudd, Gillard and Hewson, and it was politics that helped Abbott prevail. Without understanding the politics of each event, we have a limited understanding of how each leader failed or succeeded in shaping public opinion to their political or policy ends.

So to dismiss the political dimension of any civic event as somehow unworthy of consideration because it’s not as things “should” be, is to diminish one’s own capacity to fully understand that event.

That may be an acceptable stance for the ignorant and blinkered, but it does nothing for those who wish to fully and productively exercise their democratic rights.

Labor misreads the politics of ebola

No other government has vested so much of its credibility in protecting the nation’s borders than the Abbott Government. As a result, it is arguable that no other nation measures the competence of its government and other political parties in such terms.

Yet the Labor Opposition has profoundly misread this fact when crafting its position on the Ebola crisis unfolding in West Africa.

Terrorism, war and security issues are now considered to be the third most important group of problems facing Australia, after economic issues and a group of issues involving religion, immigration and human rights.

Whether threats to the nation are imagined or real, from asylum seekers or home-grown Jihadis, Australians have largely accepted Tony Abbott’s assurances firstly in opposition and now in government that he will do whatever is necessary to protect us from them.

Abbott has also shrewdly enlisted us in the campaign to protect Australia’s borders, making it easier for us to silently assent to the harsh treatment of asylum seekers by placing them out of sight and eventually out of mind once we’ve concluded the job of stopping the boats is done.

We’ve similarly complied on combatting the terrorism threat, with half the community even indicating a willingness to give up some personal freedoms to help the Abbott Government do so.

It may appear that the security pact between the Government and the community weighs heavily in Abbott’s favour, but it is in fact a finely balanced agreement that would be thrown awry by a breach of our borders – be it a successful act of terrorism or a confirmed case of Ebola in Australia.

Any such incidence would shatter the broader community’s belief that Abbott is a capable protector of the nation. Abbott knows the consequence of the security pact between his Government and the community falling apart is electoral suicide, and his response to the developing Ebola crisis should be viewed in this context.

The disaster clearly has broad and fundamental humanitarian implications that should be considered as being above national politics. Frankly, so does climate change, but neither the Coalition nor Labor have been prepared to risk a climate action policy that goes against Australians’ majority view.

Labor PM Kevin Rudd famously welshed on “the greatest moral challenge of our time” in 2010 by abandoning his Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme and then again in 2013 by vowing to “scrap” the carbon tax in response to strong voter opposition to the tax. In reality Rudd was simultaneously trying to placate those angry about increased costs perceived to have been caused by the tax while keeping climate action advocates on board by simply changing the fixed price to a floating price on carbon.

Shorten demonstrates a similar reluctance to provoke the “no carbon tax” crowd, replicating Rudd’s linguistic gymnastics by claiming Labor in government will oppose a carbon tax but support a carbon price (when in fact a carbon tax is simply one form of carbon pricing).

In short, Labor has stuck as closely to the Coalition as it can bear on the vote-killing carbon tax despite the pressing humanitarian dimension of climate change.

Labor has similarly stayed close to the Government on national security issues, knowing there is more to be gained electorally from being seen by the supportive majority as a fellow traveller than a critic.

This like-mindedness has even extended to Shorten trying to best Abbott in the macho stakes by calling Russian president Vladimir Putin an international bully who can “thumb his nose at the rest of the world, go wherever he wants without there being any repercussions”.

Yet it appears Labor is also smarting from criticism levelled at it by parts of its supporter base for aligning too closely with the Government on military re-engagement in Iraq and the suite of new counter-terrorism laws.

Labor’s position on dealing with the terrorism threat has become more nuanced over time and is not actually a blanket approval of the Government’s new laws. But its position on Ebola appears to be a defensively kneejerk attempt to prove it’s not the Government’s cat’s-paw on national security matters.

The ALP’s determination to take a diametric position to the Government on Ebola suggests Abbott was never going to achieve bipartisanship on the issue.

If he had offered to send medical teams to the viral epicentre before securing agreement for their evacuation, if needed, the PM would have likely been accused by Labor of recklessly putting Australian lives at risk in order to grandstand on the international stage, or perhaps to draw attention from his unpopular budget.

Labor also achieves nothing by trying to conflate the risk faced by Australian military personnel deployed in Iraq with medical professionals helping in West Africa.

Yes, both risk their lives in those roles, but those in the Australian community who are anxious about this issue are more concerned about what happens when the doctors and nurses return home. They are afraid hubris, poor procedures or human error will prevail over any so-called water-tight quarantine measures.

Like opposition to climate action, many of the community’s concerns about Ebola are not based in science. That doesn’t make those concerns any less real, or any less potent when ultimately unleashed at the ballot box.

If indeed the Opposition had genuinely wanted the Abbott Government to rise above base political considerations, to put global humanitarian action ahead of protecting its base, Labor would not have politicised the issue in the first place.

Just as Labor has used its bipartisan support to leverage important amendments to the new national security laws, it could have used a similarly soft political approach to guide the Government to a more internationally cooperative approach on Ebola.

But an obliging Abbott Government was never the purpose of Labor’s public posturing on Ebola; it was only ever to differentiate the Opposition from the Government. It’s understandable that the Opposition would want to limit the extent to which it aligns with the Government on key policy matters, but Labor has badly misread the politics of national security in using Ebola as a point of differentiation.

This may well win Labor a few new votes from the left, but it will lose many more from mainstream voters who won’t take too kindly to what they perceive as the ALP’s weakening resolve on border protection.

Conservatives also face sexism – yes, really

The emergence of former PM Julia Gillard on the book campaign trail, and related discussions of the role sexism played in her defeat, has uncovered a curiously blinkered view of sexism in Australia.

It’s as though some progressives see sexism as such an essential influence in shaping Gillard’s story that they’ve co-opted it as her burden alone and not one also borne by all other women.

This seems particularly the case when considering whether female politicians from the other side of the political divide are subjected to prejudice because of their gender, or abuse that manifests the bigotry.

Last week, I looked at the prospects of Liberal Deputy Leader Julie Bishop ever becoming PM, and argued that sexism within her own party as well as that in the broader Australian community and the media would likely prevent her from ever reaching that goal.

The column provoked considerable discussion. Many of the commenters refused to accept that Bishop, or any other woman from the ‘right’, were subjected to sexist abuse. Some readers wrote to me on Twitter, saying these women were spared from sexism because they shared the same politics as the sexists. Other commenters refused to believe that at least some of the attacks were coming from progressives and Labor supporters, because in their view progressives wouldn’t stoop to gendered abuse.

But the reality is that sexism is an equal opportunity employer: both the perpetrators and targets cross party lines. All women in politics – be they Labor, Greens or, yes, even Coalition – are subject to blind prejudice because of their gender.

That prejudice creeps within all aspects of our society – the community, the media, and political parties, including progressives and members of the Labor Party.

comment from Razget on my column last week is representative of the sexism Bishop faces from her own “kind”. Claiming that “theres nothing special about Julie Bishop that makes her more powerful than say…the immigration minister Scot Morrison” [sic], Razget goes on to declare that Bishop has probably benefited from reverse sexism:

Smells like feminism to me…lets give a woman a job because of her gender, not because of her actual performance. It doesn’t help anyone to get a quota because of race or whatever, ahead of superior competition.

Meantime, one only has to take a look at what Labor supporters and other opponents of the Abbott Government also have to say online to see that society’s dark vein of sexism flows through the “left”. The prejudice may not have the same breadth and depth as that levelled at Gillard, but it is there nonetheless. Scan the #730, #lateline or #qanda hashtags when a female Coalition MP is being interviewed to get a sense of it.

During one appearance on Lateline, Kelly O’Dwyer was variously described on Twitter as an “interrupting cow”, an “annoying rude bitch”, a “female attack dog”, one of the Liberal Party’s “hideous women”, and the product of “some sort of LNP Island of Doctor Moreau breeding [of] feral women”.

In another example, John Graham, a cartoonist for the “the journal of democracy and independent thought” Independent Australia, depicted Julie Bishop in one caricature as wearing a short, low-cut dress and boots, with legs astride as missiles fall from her nether region. Another shows Bishop in the same dress, bent over in front of Abbott as he lifts her skirt from behind saying “Hey boys I think I found one”.

The PM’s Chief of Staff gets the treatment too. Those who make witty bondage allusions with Credlin as Master and Abbott as slave don’t seem to realise the inherent sexism in this scenario, nor do those who suggest Credlin holds the position because of an alleged affair. Most offensive of all are comments that seek to diminish Credlin in the most vile terms by suggesting she’s a man.

Of course, these are the tame comments – just Google your chosen female Coalition MP plus the word “c*nt” to see a broader range of more colourful slurs, threats and epithets.

While it is true that Labor MPs generally have not engaged in the type of reprehensibly sexist language used by Coalition MPs against Gillard, there are still glimpses of gendered slagging, such as Federal MP Steve Gibbons calling Julie Bishop a “narcissistic bimbo“, NSW Labor MP Amanda Fazio describing another state MP’s partner as resembling a porn star, and another Federal MP David Feeney’s series of tweets labelled “The different emotional states of Christine Milne” (which admittedly did not target a Coalition MP).

It is due to examples like these and many more that last week’s column argued there’s nothing to suggest sexism is the sole preserve of one side of politics or the other:

“The gendered abuse currently being generated online … casts just as ugly a light on perpetrators from the left as it does on similar abuse coming from the right.

The point being made is not some type of Four Yorkshiremen attempt to claim the magnitude of sexist abuse levelled at these women is more than that endured by Gillard. It clearly is not.

But it is sexism just the same, and by any measure sexism is unacceptable.

In all cases of sexism, the holder of the prejudice believes they are superior to one, some or all women. And they believe this superiority gives them the right to verbally, psychologically or physically dominate or abuse those women.

The use of gendered terms such as “cow”, “bitch” or “c*nt”, or use of ridicule or abuse to diminish a person’s female attributes, are all sure indicators of a person’s sense of superiority over some or all women.

Some forms of prejudice may be created and driven by politics, but in the case of sexism, it is a more fundamental power differential that resides within a person’s core values.

It may be easy to dismiss gendered bigotry as a construct of the right, but there is much to suggest both men and women of the left consider themselves superior to those of the right and have let that power differential creep into the language they use to denounce the other side.

Sexism is not an acceptable way to try to balance the ledger after the appalling sexism and yes, misogyny, of the Gillard years.

Having endured sexism shouldn’t be a reason to fete a politician, nor should bigotry be a legitimate form of political attack for any side of politics.

The inequity that arises from sexism can only be addressed if prejudice is challenged wherever it appears – even when it comes from progressives who see gendered ridicule and attacks on politicians as nothing more than robust political debate.

It is unlikely that real progress will ever be made in combating sexism if progressives don’t accept they are part of the problem and do something about the need to change.