May 2019

The Nation Reviewed

Terri Butler’s rise through the rancour

By Lech Blaine
The Queensland Labor MP on the hustings and the hating

Terri Butler has a soul. If that seems metaphysically self-evident, it can’t be taken for granted among current MPs. Labor’s successor to Kevin Rudd in the Brisbane electorate of Griffith is an unapologetic nerd. She has publicly confessed to playing oboe in high school plus obsessions with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Marvel comic books and punk rock, boasting in her memoir that progressives enjoy better music and piss-ups than Liberals.

A member of Labor’s Left, Butler is married to Troy Spence, a former Australian Workers’ Union organiser and member of the opposing Right faction. Butler’s résumé is in fact remarkably similar to that of Rudd’s mortal enemy, Julia Gillard. She was elected to parliament at 36, one year younger than Gillard. Both were successful industrial relations lawyers and members of the Left with connections that transcended Labor’s internecine divisions.

On TV, Butler speaks with an urbane sophistication – more Keating than Gillard – that belies a Cairns childhood. She attacks opponents with sarcasm rather than anger. Her acerbic sentences start softly and sound like they might suddenly stop, but continue with an insistent rhythm. She doesn’t smile with the same glibness as the average politician, and this restraint gives a depth to her grimaces as well as her grins. She seems unafraid to be regarded as serious or insufficiently provincial.

The shadow minister for employment services has risen to prominence with impeccable timing, on the cusp of an “unlosable” election, thanks to frequent appearances on ABC’s Q&A, including a recent episode during which she traded barbs with Canadian alt-right cult figure Jordan Peterson.

In an exchange that later went viral, Peterson said supporters of gender-based quotas fundamentally accept that group membership is primary to human identity.

Butler countered that those, like her, who support quotas have simpler motivations. “Or maybe [we] just think that women should be equally represented in the decision-making fora of our nation. Maybe that’s really just about having proper equality in a body that’s meant to be representative?”

“Well, I do believe that women should have…” Peterson said, then paused. “I don’t understand your question, I guess.”

“Well, I guess you don’t,” said Butler. “That’s pretty obvious, unfortunately.”

Peterson’s normally monotonous voice flashed with wrath. “Well, how about if you phrase it more clearly, instead of just insulting me?”

A squadron of alt-right trolls has stalked Butler ever since.

On a humid Saturday night, the rising Labor star is appearing at a trivia night raising funds for her campaign. It’s a full house of political junkies in the function room adjoining St John the Baptist Anglican Church in the riverside suburb of Bulimba, which used to be firmly working class before the property boom bleached the blue collars to a crisp shade of white.

Tonight the canteen is run by Paul Lucas, the former deputy premier of Queensland under Anna Bligh. Lucas flogs cheese platters and bottles of sparkling white wine as well as snags, “Team Terri” cupcakes and tinnies of XXXX Gold.

On a big-screen TV, Antony Green predicts a Coalition victory in the New South Wales state election. Nobody present seems to care, until a few diehards boo and give the finger when Scott Morrison flashes up. The room is focused squarely on the impending trivia contest.

Butler opens proceedings with a spirited defence of diversity in both parliament and trivia. She speaks more breezily than when she’s on TV, with a sly sense of humour that doesn’t overdo the punchlines.

“Tonight is going to get a bit heated and competitive,” she says. “I’m here to encourage that. The secret to trivia is bringing together a diversity of weird niche interests, and winning at all costs.”

On the following Thursday night, I go to The Pineapple Hotel in Kangaroo Point to listen to Butler act as MC on a panel discussing barriers to the political activities of women. A volunteer in a “Team Terri” T-shirt interrogates me with polite scepticism. Egg Boy has made politicos across the nation paranoid about unexplained attendees at local campaign events.

“Are you a party member?” she asks.

I explain that I’m researching a story about Butler.

“Cool beans!” she says. “I thought you were a furtive Green.”

Butler sips from a schooner of beer and declares that the “Piney” is one of her favourite drinking holes. The all-Labor panel features federal MP Ged Kearney, assistant state secretary Sarah Mawhinney, and Anne Warner, an Indian-born former state MP. (“I was the only black woman with a bunch of white blokes,” says Warner.)

Butler takes stock of the political driving forces behind the evening. “How do we make sure women don’t disappear into the home?” she asks.

Afterwards, Butler holds court with a flock of audience members. I have a number of questions, but it’s not the appropriate event to get my voice heard above others. The search for a quiet word with the MP continues.

So on a muggy Sunday arvo, I cross the Story Bridge once more, and drive to Whites Hill Reserve in the south-eastern suburbs to see Butler at a junior cricket presentation day. Another Sunday, another sausage sizzle. Butler announces $360,000 of funding for the facility should Labor win the upcoming election.

The red “Team Terri” campaign tent fights a losing battle for attention with jumping castles, ubiquitous iPhones and a seemingly endless supply of Golden Gaytimes. Butler doesn’t have the celebrity of Kevin Rudd yet, but that might change over the next decade.

After she finishes official duties, I wander over to the tent. Butler recognises me from the trivia night and the women-in-politics event.

“Wanna go for a walk?” she asks warmly.

We do loops around the freshly mown oval. I’ve been reading her memoir, Labor of Love. Butler writes about the traumatic experience of suffering a miscarriage during a campaign, and the guilt she felt as a mother of two young kids while working interstate as an MP. She doesn’t seek personal catharsis or pity from a sympathetic readership. She wants to normalise commonplace emotions for female politicians.

In a 2015 interview with Kerry O’Brien, Paul Keating defended emotional depth in public figures. “We don’t want to be happy and sparkling all the time,” he said. “You need the inner life, the inner sadness. It is what fills you out.”

Butler has a deep inner life and, unlike many sparkling politicians, she is willing to display candid glimpses of dark realities.

I don’t ask about personal ambitions or what the legacy of the Rudd–Gillard factional civil war means for the next Labor generation. I ask her what it does to someone’s soul when they are the target of trolls.

Butler says that the volume and venom of the online abuse after the recent Q&A appearance was unprecedented. The involvement of Jordan Peterson and fellow alt-right figure Milo Yiannopoulos – who was granted a video question – gave the ABC’s flagship show rare global exposure among online misogynists.

“I think that social media has provided more anonymity,” she says, “and anonymity disinhibits people. If you have a mechanism that creates disinhibition, people are going to act differently than the way they are if their face and name are attached to things.”

The ABC uploaded a video titled “Jordan Peterson Confronts Australian Politician on Gender Politics and Quotas”. Soon the video had received almost two million views, roughly the same number of followers the bestselling psychologist has on YouTube. Most of the 9200 comments are from fawning alt-right acolytes with names like “The Sperminator”, who attack Butler’s character and physical appearance while waxing lyrically about the genius of Peterson. It is the definition of an echo chamber.

I hope her womb is barren. Unfortunately that vacant uterus in the suit was given a platform. That simian in the red dress needs to be slapped. How many of us wanted to slap that smug little face. The world would not be poorer without her. Et cetera.

Butler says similar insults were sent across various platforms, wishing on her a mixture of humiliation, infertility, violence and death simply for daring to debate the paragon of machismo.

Where’s my ak47 when you need it.

“These are choices we make,” Butler says. “I don’t have to be on the platform … For me, I think the benefits outweigh the costs. But the costs can be pretty revolting sometimes.”

Butler says what bothered her most about the vitriol was just how unbothered she was by it at first, given how “inured” to gendered insults female politicians have become. I ask whether she thinks technology is to blame for an increase in bigotry or if it is just providing more exposure to what is already there.

“The sentiments existed,” she says, “but the difference is that social media amplifies them in a way that legitimises prejudice, because people see that other people share the same prejudices.”

At an oval populated by chirping birds and hyperactive kids eating ice-cream while scrolling on screens, Butler ponders social developments fuelling acts of political violence across the West.

“That’s what we saw when British MP Jo Cox was murdered a few years ago,” she says. “It didn’t happen in a vacuum. It’s an incident that occurred in the context of the mounting racism in UK politics.”

Butler made the decision to seek preselection in the wake of Gillard’s leadership, when a progressive woman was abused not just by the anonymous alt-right on Twitter, but also by prominent male media personalities on their TV and radio shows.

Butler says Gillard’s treatment didn’t make her reconsider pursuing a political career, but she doesn’t think personal abuse should be accepted as just part of the job.

“You have to acknowledge the risk exists,” she says, “[but] just because I know that people might do this doesn’t mean they should be able to do this. Part of having self-respect and having a sense of who you want to be in public life is drawing boundaries around what people can get to, and the way they can treat you.”

Lech Blaine

Lech Blaine is a writer from country Queensland.

Cover May 2019
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