September 19, 2013

A cabinet of sausages

By Richard Cooke

I once asked a right-wing poet (they exist) about the pitifully low number of female contributors published by conservative magazines. Why was it so? In response he took me on a long tour of the weak excuse department, trying everything from the historical gender make-up of writing course graduates to the importance of selecting on merit alone.

Of course it was all bullshit – Quadrant today fails a standard set by Australian universities more than a century ago. And what kind of meritocracy needs a Y-chromosome membership card? Underneath all the bluster, and the guy’s armour-plated belief that it had to be something, anything other than sexism, it became clear he just didn’t care about this kind of gender inequality. Or rather he did care, but only a very, very small amount.

In the wake of Tony Abbott announcing his Cabinet of Sausages, many conservatives are starting to wonder if they perhaps should start caring more. When even Greg Sheridan is complaining about the number of females on the front bench, it’s clear the canary in the coalmine died some time ago.

Both major parties have made efforts to address the low number of women in parliament. Labor have used the blunt instrument of quota representation, with some success. The Liberals have instead opted for what Mitt Romney called the ‘binders full of women’ method, trying to attract and promote top female talent. Yesterday that approach ran aground.

There are some obvious reasons why it has, beyond the predictable prejudices. Conservatives approach most kinds of change more fitfully. Women seem less attracted to the right side of politics, perhaps because they’ve been granted less assistance by the status quo in the past. There’s a reason why so many libertarians are young white men –  it’s easy for those who need the government’s help the least to reject it categorically. But beyond these, there is a special problem when conservatives deal with gender inequality in parliament. It conflicts with their attitudes to inequality in the rest of society.

Back when I was ingesting right-wing blogs by the roll, I kept coming unstuck on the ways political conservatives dealt with inequity. Take an egregious example, like the economic status of African Americans. The left says their relatively worse-off position is because of dispossession in the past and racism in the present. The right tries to minimise both of these factors to the point where they’re no longer workable explanations.

So what is a workable explanation? “Culture” is one that they offer instead, ranging from a mendicant mentality caused by welfare, to the “breakdown of the family”. The symptom of economic inequality is presented as the cause. 

Behind this the right offers another justification (although seldom one given full voice). It’s that inequality is the natural consequence of innate differences. On race issues this line is now rarer, although it does show itself in right-wing love-ins for books like The Bell Curve, which touch on the allegedly inherent differences in racial IQ. When it comes to gender however, the genetic argument still gets a guernsey, especially in the realm of economic inequality. "By our nature," Victorian Women’s Minister (Liberal) Heidi Victoria explained recently, “obviously women are the nurturers in more circumstances than not, so for us to say that there’s going to be equality in Parliament is perhaps naive.”

What compounds this thinking is a belief in the righteousness and morality of markets. Conservatives take their organisational templates from the business world, where women are also rare at high altitudes. Where the left see structural impediments, the right sees fair reward for natural inclination to lead. “I don't see a glass ceiling”, says Julie Bishop, the only woman to make the order of merit.

It’s all a fantasy of course, as transparent as the poet’s excuses. It’s wilful, to ignore millenia of one kind of quota system to complain about another trying to address it, especially when your alternative is foundering. If the LNP wanted to be dissuaded of the idea we live in a meritocracy, they need hardly look further than their own front bench.

Richard Cooke

Richard Cooke is The Monthlys contributing editor. 


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