The Political Weekly: The Opposition Leader found a new way to help boost flagging poll ratings, but unforeseen circumstances threatened to derail his progress.
Sexism and other forms of disrespect against women can only be eradicated if all our community leaders, including the two at the top, actively repudiate those behaviours.
The Political weekly: The federal election should be held in August or September this year. If it is called for any time before that, particularly the first half of 2016, voters will have no choice than to think PM Turnbull is taking us for fools.
Given the events of the past week, it’s time to recognise some of the government’s outdated views on women.
No woman, regardless of her views, words or behaviour should be subject to criticism or abuse based on her gender. Not even rampaging Tory women.
There is a world of difference between aggression and assertiveness. One is a negative approach; the other is positive. One incites fear and retaliation; the other encourages mutual respect.
In the political style the Prime Minister has managed to make his own – namely tumbling from frying pan to fire – Tony Abbott has exacerbated the hostilities simmering between his chief of staff and colleagues by accusing the MPs of sexism.
In doing so, he may have made a career-limiting move.
In the face of ongoing criticism about the operational style of his most senior adviser, Peta Credlin, Abbott made the extraordinary suggestion today that she would not be “under this kind of criticism if her name was P-E-T-E-R as opposed to P-E-T-A”, and that “people need to take a long, hard look at themselves with some of these criticisms”.
This proposition involves a lack of self-reflection that is breathtaking even for Abbott.
Not that long ago, certainly within the memory of most voters, Abbott accused the then prime minister Julia Gillard of playing the gender card when she suggested some of the criticisms levelled against her were due to sexism. Abbott denied there was any inherent sexism in the community, stressing that any and all criticisms of Gillard were based on her competency and not her gender.
By this logic, Abbott has placed himself between the rock that is Credlin’s incompetency and the hard place that is a sexist parliamentary wing. That’s sure to go down well in the party room.
Ambitious backbenchers and sidelined ministers have grumbled to the media for months about Credlin’s centralised micromanagement style. This has flared into several spot fires over past weeks as opinion polls continue to look dire for the Coalition and ministers angling for promotion (or simply to save their skin) have ratcheted up the blame game.
To an extent, such behaviour is par for the course. It’s the chief of staff’s job to support and protect the Prime Minister, and being the gatekeeper necessarily involves being the flak-catcher too. Credlin is not the first or last PM’s chief of staff to be met with resistance or agitation from the parliamentary wing.
But concerns expressed about Credlin have flared dangerously beyond what is the norm, evidenced by the astonishing story published earlier this week suggesting the Liberals’ most senior elected woman, the Foreign Minister and Deputy Leader Julie Bishop, is at loggerheads with the adviser and unwilling to continue “taking orders” from her.
This revelation comes after weeks (and, in some cases, months) of claims from conservative columnists and commentators, as well as journalists with strong Liberal or business connections, that no advice is getting to the PM other than that permitted by Credlin. Former PM John Howard and the Liberals’ campaign strategist Mark Textor have even taken to the airwaves in apparent attempts to get through.
And now to dismiss these criticisms as mere sexism, and therefore without foundation, Abbott is essentially pulling down the shutters.
Former Howard government minister Peter Reith is reported to have cautioned against this, saying it was “a bit of a mistake on Tony’s part to throw in the gender claim”, and that Abbott “would be wise to put to the side gender issues and focus on genuine concerns and worries people have had, generally on the backbench but also some ministers”.
On this occasion Reith is absolutely right. This is anything but a wise move for a party leader to do when his MPs are feeling demoralised and pessimistic about their future electoral prospects.
Abbott has rightly noted that Coalition MPs would be disinclined to change prime ministers mid-stream in light of the voter wrath brought down on Labor for doing the same. But Abbott ignores the fact that he is more unpopular than Rudd was at the time of being deposed, and by refusing to countenance any suggestion that Credlin is either incompetent, or just not managing the role effectively, Abbott is inviting dissenters to conclude that the only way to get rid of Credlin is to get rid of him.
Ultimately, the Prime Minister is responsible for the staff appointed to his office and the advice he decides to accept and act upon. By deflecting criticisms of Credlin, which are in fact de facto criticisms of him, and calling his own people sexist, Abbott is causing himself an almighty problem – he’s disregarding and provoking the very people who can remove him (and Credlin) from the Prime Minister’s office.
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.
A 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.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott isn’t the only Government MP riding a wave of national security-inspired popular support at the moment. So is his Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, whose capable handling of Australia’s response to the MH17 disaster has seen her profile and popularity soar.
Bishop is the politician du jour, feted by political columnists and a coterie of personal supporters as the Liberal Party’s next big thing. This has emboldened her in recent days to put a cold spoon to the ambitions of Immigration Minister Scott Morrison, who was manoeuvring for a new Homeland Security super ministry as reward for having “stopped” the boats.
However, proponents of Bishop as a future Australian prime minister are ignoring the realities of both geography and politics – no matter how well credentialed she is or becomes.
Bishop’s geographic impediment is that she hails from the west. Since federation, only one prime ministerhas come from that state – Labor’s John Curtin – and there has never been a Liberal PM, or opposition leader for that matter, from our western shores.
This is because the power bases of both major parties are located in Sydney and Melbourne. More often than not, NSW and Victorian MPs determine the leadership of those parties because the more populated states hold a higher number of seats in the parliament.
As a result, the Coalition has a long tradition of splitting the spoils of office between the two states, with a leader from NSW often being paired with a deputy leader from Victoria and vice versa. There have been exceptions of course, one notably being opposition leader Andrew Peacock’s onetime deputy Fred Chaney, who was from Western Australia.
Nevertheless, history has shown that geography weighs heavily against any chance of Bishop making it to prime minister.
An even more overwhelming obstacle is that Bishop is a woman. No matter how well the former moderate has adjusted her positions to appeal to the Liberals’ dominant hard-right, and no matter how charming or competent she is as Foreign Minister, Bishop will never be seen by the conservative powerbrokers within her own party as a contender for the top job.
Just as they were unsettled by the unmarried and childless Gillard, the same Liberal traditionalists would be uneasy about the capacity of Bishop, who is similarly unencumbered, to understand the importance of traditional family values when she has chosen not to embrace the whole “hearth and home” experience.
And it’s not just internal party politics that could prevent Bishop from becoming PM. Any political strategist worth half their salt should advise against it on the grounds that Bishop’s elevation could spell electoral suicide for the Liberals.
It should be obvious to any clear-eyed observer of contemporary Australian politics that many of those who responded negatively to our first female prime minister would likely react the same way to the second one.
In fact there’s nothing to suggest that sexism is the sole preserve of one side of politics or the other. The gendered abuse currently being generated online against Abbott’s chief of staff Peta Credlin, the Speaker Bronwyn Bishop, and the mining magnate Gina Rinehart, for example, casts just as ugly a light on perpetrators from the left as it does on similar abuse coming from the right.
And let’s not forget the political media, which admittedly grapples with its pockets of inherent sexism. It will nevertheless remain a bastion of chauvinism until the current stable of senior reporters has retired.
Given this reality, a hypothetical PM Bishop would not be spared any of the gendered opprobrium that was levelled at Gillard, particularly if Bishop was to incur the wrath of the left with unacceptable policies on, say, asylum seekers or climate change.
Granted, Bishop has proven to be personable if not charming, a diligently hard worker, and in possession of a sharp mind when it comes to mastering departmental briefs. Yet Gillard also displayed those qualities as deputy Labor leader, but they dissipated under the combined pressures of difficult politics, bad decisions and destabilisation from Kevin Rudd.
Gillard may still have prevailed if it had not been for the added burden of sexism directed at her by elements of the Australian community and media. The combination of those factors led to Labor’s electoral defeat.
The same pitfall awaits Bishop if she were ever to become PM.
The eminently capable Foreign Minister may yet be able to reshape the Sydney-Melbourne nexus of Liberal Party power to accommodate her west-coast genesis. And she may be able to convince the good old boys that she actually is one of them. But our times simply do not suit Bishop’s ambitions.
It will be a very long wait before Australia is ready to welcome its second female prime minister.