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.

Trust me

Screen Shot 2014-07-14 at 6.06.06 pmTrust me. A multimedia post on political lies for ABC’s The_Brief. (Best viewed on a tablet/ipad.)

Coalition eases us into tough love policies

Given the option, most politicians would prefer to do what the community wants instead of what it needs. But governments that configure their policies to meet only the voter popularity test inevitably will be faced with a humongous bill and the twin terrors of debt and deficit.

The solution to this conundrum is surprisingly straightforward: Simply convince the public to support an otherwise unpopular but necessary government action. While not quite an act of sorcery, this ability to transform public opinion can help a politician or government lead a relatively charmed life. And it is often seen as the measure of a truly effective government.

Kevin Rudd once had the knack, being able to turn public opinion 180 degrees in his favour. His most audacious prestidigitation was as opposition leader in 2007 when he told Australians made comfortable by years of middle-class welfare under John Howard that “this reckless spending must stop“. Capturing the public’s imagination as well as that of the media and political commentators, Rudd made fiscal responsibility the new black and thereby relegated Howard to the Whitlam and other Profligates’ Hall of Shame.

It’s a matter of record that Rudd’s eventual successor as prime minister, Julia Gillard, did less well in convincing Australians to bear a little carbon price pain for some climate action gain. Gillard did, however, prove to be a more adept apprentice as time went on, transforming both the potentially unpopular increase to the Medicare levy for the National Disability Insurance Scheme and the scrapping of the surplus into actions widely welcomed by the media, commentariat and broader community as sensible and appropriate.

And now Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey are proving to be keen acolytes, converting what could have become public opprobrium into widespread support for scrapping assistance to the car manufacturing industry.

Abbott and Hockey did this by slowly but persistently chipping away at the locally-based but foreign-owned operations’ credibility, questioning their intentions, and undermining their grass-roots support by implying they were nothing more than spivs and carpet-baggers.

The Productivity Commission inquiry into the domestic car manufacturing industry, the results of which were never in doubt, was meant to be the final piece of damning evidence against car industry subsidies. But events moved more quickly than the government expected after Hockey clumsily called Holden’s bluffin December.

Despite Hockey’s over-reach, public opinion has moved from supporting the local manufacturers to the government. Back in January 2012 an Essential poll found 68 per cent of Australians supported the current levels of assistance to the car manufacturers and 58 per cent supported giving them even more. Public approval of subsidies was still high at 58 per cent in October last year, but by December only 45 per cent approved of subsidies to Holden (and even less of increased subsidies to keep Toyota in Australia). The latest poll by Essential finds support has now dropped to 36 per cent*.

This change of sentiment suggests Australians can see the broader merit of some tough decisions being made by the government, which is admittedly easy to do if it’s not your own pay cheque on the line. The next test of whether Abbott and Hockey have mastered the alchemy of public opinion transformation will come when the federal budget is handed down in May.

By all accounts, the first Abbott/Hockey budget is going to be a harsh one – for households, businesses and marginal seat holders.

Having talked tough on fiscal responsibility since being elected (although not consistently walking that talk), the government’s gestures and incantations – from MYEFO and the Commission of Audit to keynote speeches and feature articles – are all crafted to shape voter expectations into acceptance, if not support, for a budget that shares the pain around. The age of entitlement, according to Hockey, has become the age of responsibility. In short, he’s trying to recreate the Rudd magic of 2007.

Expectations management for the budget is just the beginning. The many reviews and inquiries, accompanied by thought-bubble debates in the media suggest the government is also trying to frame the debate, shape views and normalise unpopular reform plans for a range of contentious matters including welfare payments, privatisation of government assets, the unions, and the ABC.

The government may see these also as a simple matter of convincing the Australian public to want what the country needs. But the latter point – what the country needs – might well become hotly contested ground.

* The Essential poll questions on subsidies for the local car manufacturing industry vary, but nevertheless indicate a downward trend over time.

Tony Abbott’s high-stakes expectations game

Tony Abbott’s high-stakes expectations game

After four years of watching the Rudd and Gillard governments do it so badly, it’s morbidly fascinating to see the Abbott Government play a particularly high-stakes expectations game with the Australian public.

While often portrayed in more simplistic terms, as promises kept or broken, the compact sealed between Australian voters and the government they have installed is more fundamentally about the expectations of what values and principles will be upheld. By confusing the two, political observers run the risk of misunderstanding which of the Abbott Government’s “broken promises” will be ignored or forgiven and which could be politically toxic.

Rudd learned that unfulfilled public expectations can bite badly when he squibbed on the self-proclaimed “great moral challenge of our generation“. By postponing any further efforts to establish an emissions trading scheme, Rudd effectively repudiated the need for urgent and effective climate action, which was one of the few principles he’d highlighted as distinguishing himself from John Howard in what was otherwise a me-too election campaign in 2007. The ease and speed with which Rudd discarded the commitment added the public’s concern to those already held by the business community and public service that there was a vast gap between the expectation created by Rudd (that he was a man of vision and action) with the perceived reality (that he was an obsessive micro-manager gridlocked by the unworkable need to make every government decision).

Julia Gillard also fell foul of an expectations shortfall. As deputy prime minister, she was a vibrant, articulate and engaging member of the Rudd government, as well as a beacon to the feminist movement. Yet this credibility was eroded by the apparently inexplicable knifing of PM Rudd; early bumbling on the mining tax, asylum seekers and people’s forum on climate action; an unnerving Stepford PM performance during the 2010 federal election campaign; and the need to go back on a clumsily worded carbon price commitment in return for securing minority government. While much was made of Gillard breaking her “carbon tax promise”, the real damage from this announcement was that it crystallised the public’s growing realisation that she was not the capable and honest politician they had expected.

As opposition leader, Tony Abbott ruthlessly exploited the public’s fractured expectations of Gillard. But in continually drawing a contrast between her government and his alternative, Abbott constructed a whole new expectations edifice for himself to uphold. However, he’s been much more strategic, creating expectations in broad brush strokes that give the Coalition Government a lot more room to move, including the occasional backdown on promises and commitments.

Hence Abbott’s constant referral to high level descriptors of his government when deflecting questions about backflips and reversals. They will “build a stronger economy”, “do what we said we will do”, and “be a no surprises, no excuses government”. Many sins can be dismissed or ignored under the cover of these generalities: for example, eliminating the debt ceiling can be framed as being in the interests of a stronger economy, and “re-profiling” of funding for the NDIS can be “doing what they said they would” but in a way that is “appropriately targeted and … sustainable“.

Even so, there are limits on the extent to which voters are prepared to have their expectations massaged by the Abbott Government. This was clearly demonstrated when Education Minister Christopher Pyne flouted the voter expectations of school equity under the Coalition’s version of Gonski that he and Abbott had deliberately encouraged during the election campaign. Despite protesting that they were keeping the commitments they had made but not necessarily those that people “thought they had made”, Abbott moved quickly to contain the disillusionment outbreak, forcing Pyne to perform a triple, double backflip with pike to placate the wailing hordes of teachers and parents.

When it comes to asylum seekers, we are yet to see which of the expectations created by Abbott and his Immigration Minister Scott Morrison will prevail. Considering that “we will stop the boats” was a core component of Abbott’s favourite election mantra, and that it’s shorthand for the broader principle of “protecting your jobs and your way of life”, it’s fair to say it will take priority over Abbott saying his government will be “transparent and open” and that “the last thing we want to do is to hide anything from the Australian people“.

As the billboard says, human rights abuse starts with secrecy, but in the case of boat-borne asylum seekers, many Australians seem prepared to accept being treated like mushrooms, lest they start to feel complicit in the atrocity.

It would be foolish however for the government to think this is a default position. As we saw during the Gonski shambles, voters won’t turn a blind eye to actions that “hurt” them or their nearest and dearest directly. If voters start to sense the government is being silent on a decision that affects them, particularly the hip pocket nerve, there will be electoral hell to pay.

This post originally appeared at ABC’s The Drum.