Australian politics, society & culture

Illustration by Neil Moore.
May 2014Medium length read

At an International Women’s Day event in March this year, Prime Minister Tony Abbott, in describing the progress women have made, noted, “It wasn’t so long ago as a Sydneysider that there was a female lord mayor, a female premier, a female prime minister, [and] a female head of state in our governor-general …”

It should hardly have been surprising that his remarks were ridiculed. No one had done more, after all, to see that three of the four had by that time been replaced by more traditional appointments – older, private school–educated, conservative white men.

The Abbott government is the first in Australian history not just to stifle but also to reverse the progress of Australian women.

It began within days of Abbott becoming prime minister at last September’s federal election, when he announced a 19-member cabinet with just one woman, the lowest level of female representation since 2001. It continued in January when a former chief of the Australian Defence Force, Peter Cosgrove, was chosen to replace Quentin Bryce, whose term as governor-general was about to expire.

In between times the tone was amplified with a slew of significant appointments weighted overwhelmingly towards older, business-oriented, climate change–denying, Sydney-based, conservative men.

Having mocked the then new prime minister Kevin Rudd for “hitting the ground reviewing” in 2007, Abbott has commenced his tenure in much the same way. “Independent reviews” have been commissioned across portfolios, and the choice of reviewers speaks volumes about the new government, its bedfellows and the advice it wants to hear.

Sydney businessman Tony Shepherd, 69, is chairing the National Commission of Audit. He is the immediate past president of the conservative Business Council of Australia. Sydney businessman Maurice Newman, 76, chairs the Business Advisory Council. A friend of John Howard’s, he is the former chair of the Australian Stock Exchange. Sydney businessman David Murray, 65, chairs the financial system inquiry. He is a former CEO of the Commonwealth Bank. Sydney businessman Dick Warburton, 72, chairs the review of the Renewable Energy Target. Like Murray and Newman, Warburton is an outspoken climate change sceptic, so his appointment to review one of the key planks of the government effort to combat climate change was unsurprisingly met with outrage and incredulity by environmentalists, climate scientists and renewable-energy advocates.

In social policy, Abbott’s big appointment is Sydney-based charity executive Patrick McClure, 63. The former head of Mission Australia, who rose to public prominence as the face of welfare corporatisation in the Howard years, now runs the welfare review. Kevin Donnelly and Ken Wiltshire are carrying out the national curriculum review. Both are long-term fixtures on the political scene who have supported not just conservative education causes but also the cause of the Liberal Party itself. Donnelly was a staffer to Kevin Andrews, now the minister for social services, some years ago.

Over in the courts, the government has again turned to trusted sources as it introduces the American practice of seeking to criminalise its political opponents. The top two contenders to become Australia’s Kenneth Starr are: Ian Hanger QC, 67, who was a former colleague of Attorney-General George Brandis at the Queensland Bar and is now inquiring into the home insulation scheme, and Dyson Heydon, 71, the Howard government High Court appointee now leading the royal commission into unions.

Another striking aspect of the Abbott appointments is that so many are retreads from the Howard years. Cosgrove, McClure and Heydon in particular had strong public association with Howard decisions. The Warburton connection from that time is accidental but telling nonetheless. In 2002, Warburton and Abbott both received Ernie Awards for sexist remarks. Warburton’s Ernie was for the comment, made as the chair of David Jones, that “he was unable to find a woman of sufficient talent to join the Board”. Abbott’s gong, ironically, was for saying that paid maternity leave would happen “over this government’s dead body”. (The 2002 Gold Ernie went to Abbott associate George Pell, who said abortion was a bigger moral scandal than sexual abuse of young people by priests.)

The appointment of Howard-era people by the new government provides a telling insight into Abbott the PM. Notably, for a man who’s been in public life since university days, Abbott hasn’t enunciated a unique political philosophy or surrounded himself with a clique of fellow travellers stretching beyond the party room. Unlike Bob Hawke, Paul Keating, Howard or even Julia Gillard before him – but like Kevin Rudd – Abbott is an individual to whom the party turned, not the leader of a push.

Analyses of Abbott’s political philosophy often reflect on his influences – notably BA Santamaria and Howard – rather than assessing any vision he has presented for the country. The immaturity of Abbott’s political philosophy has been revealed when he has confronted issues beyond the narrow platform he laid out pre-election: when hard choices – the questions on which populism offers no guide – have needed to be made. The prolonged indecision around the sale of GrainCorp was the clearest example of this vagueness; the flat-footed response to manufacturing job losses is much the same. In the absence of a clear personal political philosophy, Abbott’s choice of advisers becomes critical to the direction of the government.

A key difference between the Abbott government and its critics involves the question of diversity. The PM has argued loudly and repeatedly that all the appointments have been merit-based – and that their limited gene pool has been coincidence, happenstance or of secondary importance anyway. Meanwhile, the critics argue that diversity matters, not only in terms of who sits around the table but also in the perspectives they bring and the kind of advice they provide as a result.

A recent Fairfax article by Waleed Aly, commenting on the government’s proposed changes to the Racial Discrimination Act, made a critical point about society’s need to understand diversity. He argued that the issue with the RDA is not whether or not it’s legal to racially vilify someone (the focus of the debate so far) but who determines the standard by which racism is judged. As the proposed amendment stands, the test of whether something is reasonably likely to intimidate or vilify is to be determined “by the standards of an ordinary reasonable member of the Australian community”. Fair enough, says Aly. “But then it adds in the most pointed way: ‘not by the standards of any particular group within the Australian community’.

“Of course, only white people have the chance to be neutral because in our society only white is deemed normal; only whiteness is invisible … This is just the level of privilege we’re dealing with.”

The “reasonable person” envisaged by the Abbott government is not just white but also, it would seem, old, conservative and male.

“I think it would be folly,” Tony Abbott said back in his university days, “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.” Far from growing out of such a view, he took a similar stand 20 years later in a radio interview, rhetorically asking, “If it’s true … that men have more power, generally speaking, than women, is that a bad thing?”

In 2010 he suggested that the “housewives of Australia” would reflect on the carbon price “as they do the ironing”. And in March this year, again at the International Women’s Day event, he reflected, “the deal that [Australia] gives to women … is obviously pretty good”, as if equality, living standards or personal freedom were not human rights but somehow the gift of society – and, by implication, the men who are running it.

The feminist response to Abbott’s appointments paints the exclusion of women as an injustice. “When women make up more than half the population,” said sex discrimination commissioner Elizabeth Broderick, “it’s disappointing that there’s only one woman in cabinet.” Liberal senator Sue Boyce and former Liberal senator Judith Troeth have also expressed their displeasure. “Why aren’t women equally as good [at running the country] as men are?” Troeth asked.

The justice argument ignores the differences between men and women. When women were first fighting for equal opportunity, consideration of these differences was considered either a distraction from the basic goal of better representation for women or an excuse to justify their on-going exclusion. The field on gender difference has been left almost entirely to conservatives, who have used it – relentlessly – to justify inequality.

Alongside the justice argument sits a body of suggested action. From the former Victorian premier Joan Kirner with The Women’s Power Handbook (1999) to the Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg with the bestseller Lean In (2013), women have written guides to success that encourage women to be tough, act more assertively and overcome what for many is a reluctance to self-promote. The subtext is that with a bit of “you go, girl”, women can make it in a man’s world.

What is rarely said about this thinking, though, is that while many women (this author included) find it quite possible to learn to play such a role, the very act of doing so, day after day and year after year, can be a dehumanising or, more truthfully, de-feminising experience. Female political candidates are told to dress differently, to wear less jewellery and colour and more sober suits; they’re told to lower their voices in fear of the great turn-off, that they’ll come across on the radio sounding like a girl. They’re constantly told to toughen up, to not act “emotionally”. It’s well understood that tears in the office would spell disaster. Angry responses are fine, however. There’s no shortage of anger in politics.

My own experience of this process, as a transport minister and later as a finance minister in Anna Bligh’s Queensland state government, is that while women can do it (and indeed it’s satisfying to develop a sense of authority), there can be something soul-destroying about it, too. The constant act of self-promotion sits uneasily with many women, as does the need to defend against the ego-driven players (almost always men) who are constantly point-scoring and looking to knock you off your guard.

The distinctive character traits of many women at the top serve to reinforce, not dismiss, that sense of dissonance. That the Margaret Thatchers, Angela Merkels, Julie Bishops and Peta Credlins of the world often stand out for being tougher than tough suggests not that women are on the verge of forever breaking the glass ceiling, as is often assumed, but that only those who have a level of confidence or force of opinion that is highly unusual among women can make it in what remains a man’s world.

There are a million explanations – from science to self-help – for the origin of men’s and women’s difference. Neuroscientists interpret MRI scans to argue that men’s and women’s brains are wired differently – with men having connections within brain hemispheres, aiding co-ordination and linear thinking, while women are connected across hemispheres, aiding intuition and empathy. While this work has been seen on the one hand as confirming gender differences commonly observed throughout society, other scientists argue that, as the brain changes with behaviour, these wiring differences only reflect the sheer inescapability of social norms.

The popular spiritual author and “guru” Eckhart Tolle describes the differences in understandably different terms: politics, he says, is driven by ego – the part of us that needs constant affirmation that we’re right – but that ego tends to be a men’s field, while women are driven by a deeper, more humble and more spiritual sense of self.

Whatever the origins of difference, it is fair to say that the public responds differently to women and men in leadership.

In Australia, the fact remains that the women who made it to the very top have been flung from political office, not just in defeats but in landslides (or in Julia Gillard’s case a projected landslide) driven by a sense of public rage.

The former NSW premier Kristina Keneally (who took her party from 50 seats to 20, after a 16% swing against it) and the former Tasmanian premier Lara Giddings (from 10 seats to 7 in a 10% swing) were both judged weak leaders. Giddings found it impossible to get through a profile interview that didn’t canvass her desire to “meet the right man”; Keneally fought aspersions that she was someone else’s “girl”. Both Anna Bligh (from 51 seats to 7, 16% swing) and Julia Gillard faced public loathing for “betrayals” (on asset sales and carbon tax respectively).

Compare this to Bligh’s and Gillard’s respective successors, Campbell Newman and Tony Abbott, who performed their own post-election backflips – on public service sackings and telecommunications and education spending respectively – but were instead perceived as simply politicians predictably breaking promises.

As I touched on in a piece for the Monthly’s blog last year (‘What It’s Like To Be a Woman in Politics’), the extreme public emotional responses to Bligh and Gillard seemed unfathomable to those who knew what clear-headed, decent, reasonable people they were in a working environment.

In Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, the Facebook chief operating officer cites empirical evidence that shows women are viewed as less likeable the more powerful they become. This trend, in controlled studies, does not apply to men.

In 2014, the proportion of women in Australian parliaments is actually trending down. Following this year’s state elections, 21% of Coalition MPs across state and federal parliaments are women, while Labor has more than twice that level of female representation at 43%. The fall in overall numbers of women in Australian parliaments is entirely the result of the conservative ascendancy.

When the country’s first female PM has been stalked from office in a tide of sexist abuse and the perpetrators have the same power they always had, when the number of women in Australian parliaments has peaked and declined, and when the country’s most infamously sexist political leader can blithely describe himself as a feminist (as Abbott did again at the International Women’s Day event), the argument that if women learn the right skills they will soon justly prevail has been blown apart.

Perhaps, then, it’s time to move on from the justice argument and acknowledge that women are different – and that their different perspectives are exactly what we need.

This question of difference was tackled recently in a Time magazine piece by the American banker Sallie Krawcheck, who’d run Smith Barney (a part of Citigroup) in the wake of the global financial crisis. Krawcheck recounts how she was first howled down and then lost her job after suggesting the bank partially reimburse investors for losses on unintentionally high-risk products it had sold them. While at first she didn’t see the experience as a gender issue at all – understanding it instead as her failing to toe the party line – she later saw research suggesting it was quite normal for women to be more risk averse, to place higher value on client relationships and take a longer-term view. Perhaps her non-conformity was a gender issue, after all.

Australian opinion polls consistently show that men and women both view and prioritise issues differently. The ABC’s Vote Compass, which saw 1.4 million Australians privately express their views ahead of the 2013 federal poll, showed for instance that women were substantially less likely than men to support higher defence spending, but that the opposite was true of university funds. Women were more likely to support higher foreign aid spending and less likely to back deficit reduction if it came at the expense of social services.

In politics, the Australian woman who has spoken most compellingly about the observed differences between men and women in positions of power is not one of the highest profile figures but Meredith Burgmann, who was a member of New South Wales’s upper house from 1991 to 2007.

Burgmann says that in her years in parliament two of the key issues on which she saw men and women split along gender lines were gun control and swimming-pool fences. Her observations are compelling because they at once seem predictable – of course women will have different views on some issues – but also fly in the face of conventional thinking that would suggest that the classic “women’s issues” – those things about which women might be expected to take a distinct and united view – are abortion and childcare.

Burgmann points out that abortion splits on religious lines and childcare on ideology. Gun control, and particularly the question of unsecured guns in homes, is a matter of how women see personal security. Pool fencing is crucial because mothers know to the core of their being that a child can slip away in the blink of an eye.

Half a world away, and on a bigger stage, another political figure offers a very different take on different male and female thought processes. The International Monetary Fund’s managing director Christine Lagarde has repeatedly opined that the global financial crisis was caused by too much testosterone. “In gender-dominated environments, men have a tendency to … show how hairy chested they are,” she said in 2011. “I honestly think that there should never be too much testosterone in one room.” It’s not known whether a response to her comments has been sought from her immediate predecessor at the IMF, Dominique Strauss-Kahn.

As every era has perennial issues – health, education, economic growth, inequality and the like – so too are times defined by existential concerns, issues that grip the public consciousness in overarching terms. Today, there is of course the serious matter of slow growth in the long shadow of the global financial crisis, but there is also the rise of China and the age-defining threat of climate change.

Thinking people are forced to decide: either reject the well-established science of climate change, a move which essentially involves rejecting the supremacy of science in modern thought, or reflect seriously about our social and economic assumptions in order to find a way forward.

The new chief executive officer of the Australian Conservation Foundation, Kelly O’Shanassy, says she sees differences between how men and women respond to the challenge of sustainability. “With climate change, people tend to see the issue either from a technological perspective or a social and behavioural one. Men tend to look at technology while women innately understand the different kinds of lives and different kinds of behaviours we will have to have. They see the long-term, massive social issues like health problems that will come if we don’t respond to climate change.”

Australia’s head-in-the-sand model of selling our resources to China and buying their cheap consumer goods is unlikely to give rise to the pioneering thinking needed to go on living sustainably. The environmental challenge and the rise of China are closely linked. If the rise of China is effectively the result of that nation’s adoption of the Western business model, particularly of competition, science and consumerism, then we must also confront an inescapable reality that Chinese development to Western standards, along with that of the rest of Asia, will add enormously to carbon emissions.

Queensland University of Technology sustainability expert Jim Gall describes the change needed as an intellectual revolution akin to the Enlightenment, and he reflects a wide body of writing when he suggests feminism is a central part of it.

“It’s not about women having a fair role in this model that is failing us, it’s about asking what it is about the way women think that gives us a way out of this mess,” he says.

 “What Abbott’s trying to do is reinforce the old system, but there’s no future in that … People might want to take shelter in this harbour for a short time but in the end we know these environmental issues are real and we know we have to change.”

As environmental campaigners, too, men and women often behave differently. “Men sometimes get caught in the bravado of a particular campaign and can lose heart if we don’t win,” Kelly O’Shanassy says, “but women tend to stay focused on the fundamental reason for change. They can see it and are resilient whether the immediate battle is lost or won.

“Living sustainably requires a different, more collaborative and less top-down leadership approach. Diversity is an important part of that.”

Former Queensland environment minister Kate Jones agrees. For her, women are in it for the long term, because they see the environment as a security issue. “It’s a cliché but it does become even stronger and clearer once you have kids.”

The opinions of O’Shanassy and Jones are backed by research. A major CSIRO scan of available polling data conducted in 2011 showed that across a range of polls, women were 6% to 11% more likely to believe in anthropogenic climate change and to support action. This is consistent with other data showing that, as concern about climate change declined from its 2007–08 peak, the desertion was starker among men; when it came to concern about climate change, women were more likely to stick around.

The CSIRO climate change study is not the only hard data showing Australian women take a distinctive view. A Newspoll survey published in early April showed the Abbott government’s primary vote had plunged across mainland states by an average of around 6%. The key reason for the collapse? Women’s personal satisfaction with Abbott had fallen from a net satisfaction of zero (41% positive, 41% negative) in the last polling period to a net satisfaction of –18% just three months down the track.

 “If one thing can be blamed for the lack of a honeymoon for the Abbott government, it must be the speed with which women have turned off the PM,” observed Peter van Onselen in the Australian.

Tony Abbott recently claimed, yet again on the occasion of International Women’s Day, that “true equality is always the result of more economic opportunity”.

The comment was a scripted one, made in support of the government’s controversial paid parental leave scheme. The reductionist perspective it represents, that government is essentially a matter of economic management, appears central to the Abbott government’s approach. After all, its only real foreign policy wins have come on economic matters – prioritisation of growth at the G20 in February and the trade deals in Asia more recently. Its significant appointments have overwhelmingly been of conservative company directors, and now the prime minister describes gender equality as an economic matter, too.

As a minister who privatised $10 billion of assets (two ports and a railway), I’m as committed as anyone to the big, hard, serious business of economic reform. This is not, therefore, an argument that we should avoid troubling ourselves with the economy but rather an assertion that economic reform alone is not enough.

The country’s challenges are far more complex than the economic problems confronted during the Hawke and Keating years or those addressed by Howard as he created what is now the model for Abbott’s leadership. The Australia of 2014 is a precarious place. Its economy sails in troubled waters as manufacturing goes offshore and a post-GFC lag in confidence sets in. Its environment is threatened and its per capita emissions remain among the highest in the developed world. Its region is influenced by China, now stretching its muscle and its money through the region with soft and hard diplomacy.

Tony Abbott has a woman problem and he has an agenda problem, too. He must develop an answer clear and simple enough to convince people there’s a future for jobs. He needs a consistent economic and national security response to China and a coherent position on climate change. Doing that will require diverse and complex thinking, something unlikely to come from the uniform advisers he’s so far engaged.

And while it is one thing for the women of Australia to be offended by their exclusion, it is quite another for all of us to see our future endangered by a narrow band of conservative older men set on returning us to a past that can no longer exist.

The exclusion of women is the exclusion of diverse thinking. For the whole country, the price paid for the prime minister’s sexism may yet turn out to be very high indeed.

About the author Rachel Nolan

Rachel Nolan was a member of the Queensland parliament from 2001 to 2012 and minister for transport, then finance, natural resources and the arts.