Liberal right is all bark, no bite on same-sex marriage

Liberal right is all bark, no bite on same-sex marriage

News last week that a cross-party bill is being prepared to legalise gay marriage has unleashed the hounds of the conservative right. The baying beasts are doing their best to keep the Prime Minister in check, even going as far as to threaten his leadership, but what happens once Tony Abbott realises the hounds have no teeth?

It’s no secret Abbott owes his initial election as Liberal Leader to the hard right of the Liberal Party. Led by the godfather of the right, then Senator Nick Minchin, the arch conservatives backed Abbott in 2009 to bring down then Liberal leader Malcolm Turnbull and prevent any moves to support Kevin Rudd’s emissions trading scheme.

Yet the right have never really considered Abbott to be one of their own, partly because of his early days as a devotee of Bob Santamaria; then because of his proposed paid parental leave scheme; and later because of his refusal to go hard on IR reform, his backdown on reforming the Racial Discrimination Act and his continued support for constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians.

At times, the conservatives have gone as far as to warn the PM through the media to stay true to their Faustian pact. As News Corp journalist Dennis Shanahan wrote just last week:

Liberal pragmatists can remember it was a Liberal Party branch revolt over supporting Kevin Rudd’s emissions trading scheme that brought down Malcolm Turnbull and ultimately put the Liberals back into government with an anti-carbon tax campaign.

Leaders need to know that you go home from the dance “with the one that brung you” no matter how nice you are to the others at the dance.

However, this time the right aren’t threatening to take the leadership from an uncompetitive opposition leader who is dangerously advocating progressive views. This time they are warning off an incumbent Prime Minister who still has a good chance of winning the next election to step away from another of the progressives’ totemic issues.

Until recently, the PM appeared relaxed about the prospect of a marriage equality bill successfully getting through the Parliament. He’d likely been comforted by the knowledge that Labor harboured its own objectors and that the numbers just weren’t there, even if Liberal MPs were granted a free vote on the matter.

And so Abbott had toyed with the expectations of moderate Liberals, reportedly agreeing with marriage equality supporter and Liberal MP Warren Entsch after the Irish referedum to “do something this year”. Abbott reportedly told Entsch to “talk to like-minded individuals, come back and have a yarn to me and we will say where we go with it”.

Meantime, the marriage equality lobby had gotten on with the job of persuading MPs to declare their hand – or even change their mind – and brought the numbers much closer to the line, thereby making the successful passage of legislation a real possibility.

It seems the Liberal right were initially as complacent as the PM, but once Abbott seemingly gave Entsch the nod to proceed and the numbers tightened, the conservatives became nervous about the PM’s perceived dalliance with the issue.

Columnist Miranda Divine wrote last month that the conservatives were “furious at what they see as an orchestrated campaign, with (Abbott’s) blessing, to sneak a change to the Marriage Act through parliament” and that they would withdraw their support from Abbott if he “doesn’t hold the line”.

Entsch nevertheless followed through with what he understood to be the PM’s imprimatur to obtain cross-party support for a new private member’s bill. This would fulfil Abbott’s declared requirement for any such legislation to be “owned by the Parliament” and not one party.

But once news of Entsch’s cross-party bill was leaked to the media, the PM took note of the warnings from the right and made it known that such private member’s bills rarely reach the voting stage in Parliament (remember Bill Shorten’s bill?) and so there was no need for a party room decision to allow a free vote.

Labor’s Penny Wong helpfully tweeted that six private member’s bills not only reached the voting stage but were also passed by the previous parliament. And that five were passed under John Howard’s government.

As the possibility of the proposed law being passed has moved from highly unlikely to not beyond the realms of possibility, the Liberal right have become increasingly shrill. So shrill in fact, that they’re beginning to rival the Great Unhinging of 2010. Since news of the Entsch bill has emerged, the lieutenants of the right have lined up to variously denounce gay marriage as the harbinger of bulk lot matrimony, our loss of face in Asia, a reason for ministers to walk the plank, an issue without momentum, and a distraction from the real issues of concern to everyday voters.

There is but one small problem with the arch conservatives’ determination to hold the PM’s hand to the fire on gay marriage – their capacity to punish him.

They could arrange for his removal, in the same way they dispatched Turnbull, but who would they replace him with? Some voters of the right have already made it known they’d rather lose the election with Abbott than win with TurnbullJulie Bishop fancies herself a contender, but it’s hard to see the party described by Peta Credlin as having entrenched inequality in its ranks and processes putting a woman in the top job. The right also have their man Scott Morrison lurking in the wings, but he is not yet ready for the ultimate political promotion.

And even in the fog of their self-indulgence the right must also realise that, having been recently reminded of the Rudd-Gillard turmoil, the last thing voters want is another round of leadership musical chairs.

In short, there is very little the right can do to the PM, other than speak sternly to him. However, they can – and do – exert and maintain the very influence castigated by Credlin by pre-selecting candidates who toe the conservative line. This makes it risky for moderate MPs and potential candidates to speak out in support of marriage equality.

Liberal Teresa Gambaro is reportedly one such MP. According to Dennis Shanahan, she is “torn between appealing to a large part of her marginal electorate that supports same-sex marriage and an equally large Liberal stronghold that does not – and that includes the members of her federal electorate council”. Despite facing this risk, Gambaro is backing the Entsch cross-party bill.

This brings us to the voters, an overwhelming majority of whom support marriage equality. If there was to be an electoral backlash from the minority, which party would the Liberal supporters who oppose gay marriage vote for if Liberal MPs helped the law to be passed? The ALP, which has a policy supporting marriage equality? Or maybe the Greens, who also support gay marriage?

For all the talk (through the media) of the “absolute necessity” for Abbott to “be seen to be standing up for his conservative base” after “disappointing” them on free speech, there really is nowhere else for those voters to go. They’ll begrudgingly vote for candidates like Gambaro rather than give their vote to lefties like Labor and the Greens.

It’s time for the PM to recognise the hollowness of the Liberal right’s threats and to call their bluff on marriage equality.

The conservatives have no viable options to replace him, and their determination to pre-select candidates who reflect their own minority views could lose more votes than it wins. Conversely, the right should wake up to the fact that, at least until Morrison is ready to step up, the mostly-conservative Abbott is the best option they have to remain relevant and dominant in today’s Liberal Party.

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.