This week, we ran a series called ‘Why I’m Voting‘, in which five politically-minded writers, representing five different parties, tried to convince readers in 1000 words to vote their way.
We kept the call-out open for as long as possible, but had no women respond to it — meaning all five columnists were men. A reader emailed us on Wednesday afternoon, disappointed with the lack of female voices through the columns. So we asked her to write her own.
My earliest political memory is of Tony Abbott delivering a speech while he was Minister for Health back in 2004, in which he infamously characterised abortion as the “easy way out”. I was 15. I hadn’t learnt about Germaine Greer or second wave feminism, and I don’t think I knew which side I really stood on when it came to parties, but I knew I didn’t agree with that statement, and I knew I didn’t like the guy who made it.
You can imagine – and you may even share — my indignation when I’m faced with the possibility that he will be Prime Minister. What the hell is going on here? Along with my disquiet over his proposed cuts to education and the Australian public service, his blatant disregard for our environment, and his horrific immigration policy, I am utterly bewildered by and scared of what a Tony Abbott government will mean for women — and for people who just, you know, know women.
“What the housewives of Australia need to understand as they do the ironing is that if they get it done commercially it’s going to go up in price, and their own power bills when they switch the iron on, are going to go up.” — Tony Abbott, press conference, 2010
Who let this happen? Where is the death by media, or the concerned numbers analyst suggesting that running with outdated, inequitable and frankly economically impossible views on more than half the population might not be such a good idea? In spite of our political differences, there are Liberal Party voters and members I know and respect who also think this guy is a kook — so I’m baffled that he’s still around.
To judge Abbott for something said back then may seem a little petty; ten years ago I typed dribble into MSN messenger and exclaimed “I hate olives” — what the hell was I thinking? But Abbott hasn’t changed his tune much at all; the only difference now is that he’s been given more power, and more speaking opportunities. Including this one, and this one, and this one.
People say that, given the way our democracy works, we shouldn’t just be focusing on the party leaders — but I don’t trust a party that votes in a man with such a strong history of sexist postulating any more than I trust the man himself. Even looking at the broader spread, a Coalition cabinet is likely to only include one — at best two — women. (One of whom is still being discussed in terms of her “tan runners body“. Well done, Australian media; leaps and bounds.) The current cabinet may have just ousted its highest-ranking woman, but there are still six left in there. Of course, you want it to be less about the numbers game and more about tangible change, but how will we get there if we’re still fighting for a seat in the boy’s club, soon to be run by the biggest boy of all?
“I think it would be folly to expect that women will ever dominate or even approach equal representation in a large number of areas simply because their aptitudes, abilities and interests are different for physiological reasons.” — Tony Abbott, Four Corners, 2010
Let’s not forget that there are women who enjoy his company and think he’s great — as Abbott himself has been eager to point out over and over and over again. Cue the wife — legally bound to him, voluntarily! — and the smiling daughters.
But having other people say you are A-OK with women falls woefully short of actually being A-OK with women. Being recommended to run the country is different to a testimonial about a potential housemate, or a diner review on yelp. I don’t want someone else to tell me you’re okay with me having control over my uterus; I want you to implement policies that give me control over my uterus. Instead, you’re not-so-infrequently spouting sexist bullshit, and actively denying support to single mothers who didn’t take that “easy way out”.
The sexist gaffes and inappropriate comments speak volumes of the man, but they’re obscuring actual discussions and issues about gender. We are so busy hanging our heads in shame or throwing our hands up in the air that no one is sitting down and actually talking about the nuances of gender in politics. We have become numb to blatant sexism, to the point where higher standards are placed on footballers than on political leaders.
I want a national discussion about the pay and superannuation disparities, about contraception, and FINALLY about the decriminalisation of abortion. But we’re not going to get it if Abbott is in the mix. The Coalition needs more than a light-bulb vote-buy moment, like their comparatively progressive paid parental leave scheme; they need long-term commitment when implementation becomes difficult, and they need stronger foundations of gender equality. But going by their track record, it just won’t happen.
“I think there does need to be give and take on both sides, and this idea that sex is kind of a woman’s right to absolutely withhold, just as the idea that sex is a man’s right to demand I think they are both they both need to be moderated, so to speak.” — Tony Abbott, Q&A, 2009
Batting against such weak gender policies has made the ALP lazy in their approach, too. It’s easy to look like you have a better stance on women when all you’re fighting against is gaffes and outdated ideas — and as we’ve seen with Labor’s refugee policy, it’s easier still to just beat them at their own game. It’s more work to actually create something progressive, that will push the Coalition up into another league. So why bother?
A speech against misogyny is great, but if Abbott’s sexist behaviour was brought to any other workplace in Australia, it would be grounds for dismissal. Instead, the only woman who actually stood up to it — and got internationally applauded for doing so — was booted out by her own party. What message is being sent?
People cringe at the “gender card”, and the tendency for Abbott’s opponents to call out sexism rather than looking at the whole picture. Believe me, I wish we didn’t have to discuss sexism in political journalism, or in politics itself. I’d like a base level of respect and equality from which to question and criticise other aspects of political agendas. I disagree with the Coalition’s stance on climate change (denial), equal marriage (denial), and the economy (ugh). But I also think that my Liberal counterparts deserve a leader who at least acknowledges their equal rights, and exuberantly and publicly commends their intellect and guts, no sex appeal required or even considered. It’s about raising the bar across the board.
I don’t want him to win (obviously), but more than that I would like a message sent loud and clear that in Australia, in 2013, it is utterly unacceptable for any political party to put forward a leader who has had such a consistently backwards view of women. Women on all sides of the political spectrum deserve someone who will protect their rights.
Brigid Dixon is not a writer. Nor is she a pâtissier or a lawyer, but she makes a mean caramel slice and writes scary letters to Real Estate agents. She doesn’t believe you need a vagina to identify as a woman.