Comment

Julia Banks
The Coalition’s toxic gender politics

The bells had barely rung for the first sitting weeks in parliament when Opposition Leader Peter Dutton cracked open the playbook of his predecessor Scott Morrison regarding women.

Codes of conduct were being tabled for members of parliament and staff, fulfilling one of the recommendations of the “Set the Standard” report, led by Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins, which Morrison commissioned at the height of the Australian Me Too movement. The Parliamentary Workplace Reform Bill passed both houses on February 15 with bipartisan support. As Minister for Women Katy Gallagher rightly said, “The problems the [Jenkins] report identified brought into light what had been a lived experience for too many, for too long.” In his response, Dutton defaulted to type. “Women of centre-right views are subjected to some of the most disgusting vitriol online and [on] social media dominated by the extreme and insidious left.” And then, with blatant confirmation bias and no research, Dutton continued with depressing predictability, “that’s why women from the centre-right are deterred from entering politics”.

Bang. There it was. Us versus you. Right versus left. A reflexive deployment of partisan weaponry, with a Morrison-style “people in glass houses” flourish.

In the world outside Australian federal politics, codes of conduct have been in workplaces for decades. They are not new to leaders, employers and employees, and they help set the tone, standards and expectations of corporate governance.

Of course, there’s still work to do: gender inequality in the workplace is structurally entrenched. The recent University of Sydney research from its Gender Equality in Working Life Research Initiative shows, for example, that “respect” tops the workplace wish list for 91 per cent of women under 40, and only 75 per cent believe they already have it.

Before, during and, indeed, after my time in federal politics, I’ve worked with leaders in workplaces across public and private sectors and industries in what would be regarded as “blokey cultures”: from the law, manufacturing, pharmaceuticals, consumer and retail, sport and the media, finance and mining. These organisations have gone way beyond their own codes of conduct, with structural solutions for positive workplace cultures, while constructively addressing gender inequality. This is slowly but surely eroding patriarchal systems.

Moreover, having worked in adversarial environments throughout my career, including courtrooms and boardrooms, as well as in federal parliament both as part of a Liberal government and as an independent member, it’s clear to me that personal and partisan attacks and PR stunts are nothing more than obstructions to progress on social issues such as gender inequality. When political allegiances are put aside to strive for a common goal, solutions are more readily found. In the process, friendships and alliances can be forged across party lines.

I am grateful to have worked with truly supportive women from diverse backgrounds and political affiliations with a shared belief in equality, such as Minister for Early Childhood Education and Minister for Youth Dr Anne Aly. We were both elected in 2016 from different sides of politics and different sides of the country. The gender inequality that is the root cause of misconduct and sexist treatment is not about left versus right or even men versus women. It’s about the structure of patriarchy where women can also be willing enablers and participants, just as much as men. It’s a system that needs to be continually broken down.

 

Two years ago, just before International Women’s Day, when Prime Minister Anthony Albanese was leader of the opposition, he said: “The lack of gender equality in this country under the patriarchy, which continues to exist, is about the power imbalance which is there between men and women. Unless we address that structural power imbalance we are really kicking against the wind. We need real reform, real change, real structural change.”

Later that month, in a press conference that was supposed to address the cascades of controversy and misconduct on the Coalition side, including an alleged rape in Parliament House, former prime minister Scott Morrison fired warning shots at his critics, pointedly referring to journalists “in glass houses” and telling them to “be careful”. About the same time in parliament under fire for not meeting with the March 4 Justice protesters, Morrison bellowed across to the then Labor opposition, “People in this place live in glass houses.” Despite the change of Liberal Party leadership, this culture of blame, defensiveness and whataboutism is so naturalised that Dutton has taken to it like a duck to water.

In his speech about codes of conduct, Dutton built on the rolling partisan narrative by referring to terrible behaviour that former Liberal member Nicolle Flint said she had endured from “the left” during the 2019 campaign. When I first heard news reports about Flint’s treatment, I felt genuinely sad for her. The dark and depressing irony was that in the same election campaign I ran as an independent candidate and endured intensely bruising times on the hustings, online and at the mercy of the Murdoch press. I was subjected to similarly vile sexism, defamatory comments and abuse from leaders, members and current and former MPs of the Liberal Party and their activist arm, Advance Australia. The pile on reached an acute, gut-wrenching level, which they rationalised because I’d left the party and had been outspoken about their regressive stances on women, as well as climate change and refugees. And nothing has changed. We learnt this week that Liberal forces are working to dump Liberal MP Bridget Archer. Again, for being outspoken. Yet there are plenty of outspoken Liberal male MPs who don’t endure the same fate.

Flint conveyed in several interviews and speeches that this behaviour predominantly rested in the domain of Labor and “the left”, which diminished the point – namely that women from all sides, particularly those with a public profile, cop this. The harassment that dogged former New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern is well documented and, closer to home, new Labor MP Sally Sitou countered Dutton’s speech by referring to sexist and racist abuse that she has endured.

The opposition’s partisan theme was also demonstrated late last year with a pathetic PR attempt in which female Coalition members marched with solemn faces and confected outrage to a staged press conference, which almost immediately and justifiably became the subject of memes and ridicule. Michelle Landry, as spokesperson, said she was “upset” by Prime Minister Albanese’s comments in question time – which he clearly wasn’t directing to her but rather to Dutton. Landry declared: “I’m not a wallflower. I’m not a feminist by any means … It’s about time people realise conservative females are actually human beings as well. It’s not just about the left.”

Left versus right, again.

In order to ensure a woman would be selected to run in the Aston byelection, the Liberal Party again went for a hand-picked candidate, diverting their usual structural requirements for an open process by local members. It’s no secret that Dutton is not exactly welcome in Victoria, but that didn’t stop him from doing the PR thing. He flew to Victoria as they parachuted in their candidate from some 35 kilometres across town for a press conference. Dutton seemed to choose his words carefully, saying he supported Roshena Campbell, who shares his right-wing views, as “she’s got a compelling story to tell about wanting to fight very hard for a local community”. Just apparently not a community around or within which she has any real personal connection.

Dutton’s leadership has perpetuated the Morrison definition of Liberal Party culture – with Coalition women, as well as men, constantly demonstrating their laser focus on partisanship and personal advancement. It is a crude network of patriarchal quid pro quo deals in which right-wing powerbrokers demand unfettered loyalty, and it has turned a political party into a dying brand. Even in opposition, they still utterly fail to see that constructive and collaborative policy is the way for women to advance towards full equality.

From their divisive mantra about why they won’t introduce quotas (“a Labor solution to a Liberal problem”) to their defensive speeches in parliament and press conferences, from their PR stunts to their attacks on other women – there are countless examples of how women in the Coalition prop up the patriarchy. And there is no evidence to say that “conservative women have it worse” – it’s a puerile position. Hundreds of women contributed to the “Set the Standard” report, and their political affiliation is obviously not part of the research.

Confirmation bias has combined with the Liberals’ inability to see the problem through the lens of gender rather than their favoured one of political gain. And it is overlaid by their lingering sense of entitlement to seats lost at the last election to Labor and the independents. The effect is far more oppressive than a glass ceiling or cliff. It’s a thick slab of concrete in which their patriarchal philosophy is embedded.

When describing former Liberal government minister Kelly O’Dwyer’s stressful time as assistant treasurer, journalist and author Niki Savva stated: “They seemed to her to be so typical of the party’s attitude to women. Women were there at the table – actually waiting on the table – cleaning up the messes or expected to go out and attack other women.”

Since the earliest days of the Albanese government, we’ve seen a slew of reforms that will address gender inequality – action on the gender pay gap, paid parental leave, early childhood education and care, domestic violence leave, full implementation of the Respect @ Work recommendations and a budget that established a women’s economic equality taskforce. All of this was in no small way attributable to the fact that the government has achieved almost equal representation of women – because more than a quarter of a century ago, Labor made the critical structural change and introduced quotas.

The theme for this year’s International Women’s Day is “Cracking the Code: innovation for a gender equal future”. It is as if the opposition is still hovering around a security safe – failing in their multiple attempts to plug in the right numbers. They are caught in a patriarchal paradigm that won’t yield to their superficial solutions, stunts and empty gestures at the so-called “women problem”. Worst of all is their “us versus them” modus operandi.

All of this obscures the fact that women can participate in this structure of patriarchy – just as men can participate in the fight for gender equality.

Australia can look to a future of full gender equality with real hope – Prime Minister Albanese has led his government to put actions to his words of two years ago. Real reform. Real structural change. Leading the charge from our lawmaking centre of power means leaders at all levels, across all workplaces, can sharpen their focus on breaking down these structures and systems, with fresh and positive solutions.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 4, 2023 as "Cracking the codes".

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