Equal measures

The image is one of a man who seeks to be prime minister, blinking back tears as he faces off with an expectant press pack.

He doesn’t speak of scandal, or personal failings, but of the discrimination faced by women.

There are no broad platitudes, only specificity – the structural adversities, unseen but so keenly felt, the toxic merger of ageism and sexism that burdens older women in particular.

It would have been hard to imagine, had it not played and replayed on screens across the country.

In rebuking The Daily Telegraph’s editorial about his mother, Ann, Bill Shorten conjured a rare moment in Australian politics.

He said: “My mum would want me to say to older women in Australia that just because you’ve got grey hair, just because you didn’t go to a special private school, just because you don’t go to the right clubs, just because you’re not part of some backslapping boys’ club doesn’t mean you should give up.”

It is not rare, of course, for male politicians to relate the discriminations faced by women to their own families, to flatten to the personal: I wouldn’t want this to happen to my daughter/my wife/my mother.

The test for Shorten, if elected, is how broadly his empathy can be cast.

Beyond the women known to him, and the many women he has already elevated into senior leadership roles in his party, to the women he will never meet. To single mothers struggling under the demands of the ParentsNext program, to women living in remote communities, to those held in prison.

Shorten speaks of vital funding for domestic violence services. Yet our refugee-processing system continues to trap women in violent relationships, if they are dependent upon their spouse for their visa application. Will it be overhauled?

“My mum is the smartest woman I’ve ever known,” Shorten said on Wednesday. “It has never occurred to me that women are not the equal of men. It’s never occurred to me that women shouldn’t be able to do everything. That is why I work with strong women. That is why I believe in the equal treatment of women.”

It was a moment the women of Australia won’t soon forget.

In its emotional honesty, in the vulnerability he allowed, Shorten seemed a man willing to break apart the calcified structures so stacked against women.

He will be measured against the yardstick he has set himself, should he be elected as prime minister come next weekend.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 11, 2019 as "Equal measures".

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