Australia: Canberra's parliamentary zoo where sexism is a great big fat red herring Print E-mail

Tuesday May 29 2007

Sexism in politics, or just politics?

By Jocelynne Scutt

For the past week or so, Sydney Morning Herald readers have been expressing their opinion on commentary and interchanges involving federal politicians. One view seems to accord with Prue Goward’s opinion that politics is the “most sexist” field she has ever experienced: “Bearpit sexist, says new MP Goward”, (SMH, May 10, 2007).

With a total of 7,413 votes counted, the Sydney Morning Herald poll of May 25, 2007 found 71 per cent saying Therese Rein should not give up her business in support of her husband’s becoming prime minister: she “should be able to keep running the company she built from scratch”. Only 29 per cent responded “yes”, the business should go, because “there should be no conflicts of interest”.

On May 23 2007, figures in the “Joe Hockey v Julia Gillard” poll showed 8,245 people registering their view of Hockey’s comment that media focus on Gillard is a consequence of her being “prettier”:
face it Joe, she's smarter than you on IR issues and that's why she's

  • polling better - 59 per cent;
  • it's just a harmless off-the-cuff comment - 17 per cent;
  • a sexist put-down - 18 per cent; and
  • all is fair in politics - 6 per cent.

As for Bill Heffernan’s “barrenness doth not deputy prime ministerial material make”, on May 3, 2007, 10,366 voters addressed the charge that Julia Gillard’s lack of maternity bars her from ministerial qualification. Poll numbers showed a clear lack of support for Heffernan, an apparent triumph for Gillard:

  • his apology is enough - 12 per cent;
  • his apology was a joke - 12 per cent;
  • he should be sacked - 52 per cent; and
  • he is irrelevant - 24 per cent.

All this is declared by commentators to support the proposition that women remain the odd-ones-out in politics, and sexism remains the order of the day.

Yet is this really the case, or is it purely and simply politics, with sexism a great big fat red herring?

The media, along with Senator Heffernan and the Liberal Coalition, would have us believe that Heffernan’s comment about Julia Gillard’s lack of children was all his own work, spontaneous, unplanned, and unknown to John Howard, his leader, until widely reported by the press. Yet is this likely? Far more credible is that it was planned all along: Heffernan having appeared so often to be a stalking horse for his party, raising uncomfortable and sometimes unsustainable charges and challenges against members of the opposition or personalities whose lives do not accord with his sense of “right” and “wrong”.

Whenever the going on matters of substance becomes tough for the Howard Government, in comes Heffernan with statements immediately latched on to by the media - and the hares are running, matters of substance forgotten. This was precisely the outcome of the “Julia-not-ministerial-material” charge. It served as a diversion from the subject matter of Gillard’s shadow portfolio, industrial relations.

Where was the government on that topic at the time? And where was Gillard? No prizes for guessing: the government was well and truly on the back foot. Gillard was winning, hands down, both sounding and appearing calm, measured, ministerial.

There she was, day after day in the media - putting calm, measured, ministerial arguments as to the flaws in so-called “WorkChoices”, and the substance of the ALP’s industrial relations platform. Yes, Gillard was being challenged on her relations with business. Yet this was a part of her job, in any event: she is obliged, as shadow minister, to deal with business, just as she is obliged to deal with the unions, to communicate with employees and employers, employer and employee representatives. This is the substance of her job.

That she was meeting with business, responding to business concerns, reiterating the ALP’s position all added to her profile as ministerial material. After all, the public doesn’t expect ministers to agree with every part of the electorate or business community always, or at all times. What the public does expect is that ministers - and would be ministers - have sufficient stature, sense and capacity to interact, initiate and respond to issues of moment affecting the substance of their portfolios or shadow portfolios.

Julia Gillard was doing just that.

Once Heffernan’s comments were published, however, commentators became mesmerised by the question whether or not Heffernan had offended, whether or not his remarks were “sexist”, whether or not Julia Gillard should or shouldn’t have children, could or couldn’t be ministerial material because of it - and on and on.

“Feminists” were called upon as commentators, falling into the trap of justifying their own existence upon the basis of their having children, or - although not having children - having direct and companionable relationships with other peoples’ children. And again - on and on - red herrings rampant.

This is why, surely, we need to recognise Heffernan’s intervention for what it was. An effort to direct attention away from Coalition industrial relations problems, and away from the reason Julia Gillard is there - namely, her role as opposition industrial relations spokesperson, putting arguments of substance, slashing away rigorously and relentlessly at government policy and practice in the field.

Heffernan succeeded in diverting the media and commentators onto an irrelevancy, while all the while they were filling the airwaves with their contentions, expressed in words - hundreds and thousands of them - that the childlessness of Julia Gillard was not, or should not, be an issue. And that Heffernan should not have raised it.

This gave Heffernan precisely what he wanted and, no doubt, left the government gloating at the undercutting (mostly by women professing to be her supporters) of Gillard’s seriousness and standing as a potential industrial relations minister.

Then, with the aplomb of a shockjock, Heffernan diverted attention to himself once again, and to the core of the complaint, by a highly publicised undertaking to call everyone who had expressed affront at his comment, and to apologise to them. Red herrings rampant - once again.

Next, the “I’m not as pretty” plaint. Once again, the public is asked not to focus on what Julia Gillard is saying about industrial relations, her challenge to the government’s system, or how she is rebutting substantive challenges to her own arguments. Joe Hockey seeks to “do a Heffernan”.

Despite media and (feminist) commentators, sexism really has nothing to do with it. Rather, it was a direct attempt to divert the public from Gillard’s role and responsibilities and her evident capacity in handling the job. Luckily, this time, Sydney Morning Herald readers were not fooled. The vast majority saw the ploy for what it was. Yet still, those same commentators are called upon to pronounce upon Hockey’s sexism, the sexism of federal politics, the antediluvian nature of women’s treatment as politicians.

All the while, these commentators fall into the trap set by Hockey, Heffernan et al. One sniff of the red herring and they’re away, running like hares, undercutting Gillard’s stature while all the time professing to be her supporters. Yet with supporters like this, Gillard is ill-served. Fortunately, readers and voters in the polls are not fooled - this time.

Thence to the Rudd-Rein business. Feminist commentators again tell us sex-gender is the issue. They protest that were Rein “Terry” and Rudd “Karen” the matter would have been addressed differently by the media. What we can guarantee is that these same commentators would have been equally affronted had the husband been the businessperson, the wife the politician. Again, the issue would have been projected by the commentators as a sex-gender issue, the argument in that case being that the woman politician was wrongly having attention focused upon her because of her partner-husband’s business.

The reality is that Rein and Rudd have dealt with a clear conflict of interest in the most sensible way possible. The conflict? The JobSearch policies of the federal government do not fit well with ALP policy - or what the ALP has stood for and professed in the past.

John Howard’s Government abolished the Commonwealth Employment Service. Employment services were privatised. Tenders were called for. Church organisations came into the field with a vengeance. What was the ALP’s position on this? As I recall, there were objections to the Howard Government’s privatisation of employment services. This is the field Ingeus entered.

For quite some time after jobsearch privisation, the ALP raised questions in Parliament about the way funds were being allotted and how the new employment agencies were dealing with job applicants. There were suggestions that job search applicants were being kept on the books for so long as it meant the job search agency would profit, and that they were dropped or moved on when the greatest benefit had accrued. All this was raised in question time by opposition members. And if we went back in time, over the 10 years of the Howard Government and its jobsearch policies, its privatisation of the sector, more areas of contention would be found.

Therese Rein got it in one when she talked about the need to be consistent with ALP policy.

This is not an issue of husbands and wives, or what businesswomen or businessmen should or shouldn’t do when married to politicians and putative prime ministers. It’s an issue of what the ALP stands for, what it professes and whether it follows through.

Yes, partners of politicians have a right to their private lives, to their independent careers and to their own political leanings. But in the end, if the ALP wants to be accepted as a party for the people and a party for principle, it cannot promote leaders who contest Howard Government policies on the one hand, while adopting them in private. It cannot maintain trust if it allows its leaders to pick and choose where they stand, when it is in full flight against government policies and practices.

Let’s concentrate on substance, ignore red herrings, and reserve arguments about sex-gender and politics for instances where they’re really relevant - and count.
Dr Jocelynne A. Scutt is a Barrister and Human Rights Lawyer in Melbourne and Sydney. Click  for her web site.