The Politics    Monday, May 9, 2022

Strongman politics

By Rachel Withers

Image of Prime Minister Scott Morrison (right) and Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese during the second leaders’ debate last night. Image © Alex Ellinghausen / AAP Images

Prime Minister Scott Morrison (right) and Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese during the second leaders’ debate last night. Image © Alex Ellinghausen / AAP Images

Last night’s atrocious leaders’ debate was an insult to Australian women

What did last night’s “shouty”, “shit blizzard” of a debate have to offer women, beyond the leaders using their opening remarks to wish viewers a glib “Happy Mother’s Day”? They got to see two men aggressively hector each another, and ignore moderator Sarah Abo when she asked them to stop. (The PM today denied that “gender had anything to do with it”, adding that he was always respectful of “females”; Labor’s defence wasn’t much better.) When it came to the “treatment of women” section of the debate, the first thing the candidates were asked was “how do you define a woman?” – a transphobic question imported from the US culture wars, and a revolting attempt at a “gotcha”, which both carefully dodged. When we finally came to the more substantive questions, Scott Morrison quickly brought up “Jenny” before bungling a domestic violence statistic, proving that these horrific stats are nothing but talking points to him. Meanwhile, Labor leader Anthony Albanese was asked about the treatment of the late Senator Kimberley Kitching, an issue that had little to do with sexism and more to do with factionalism. There were no questions about the $500,000 payment made to a former staffer of benched education minister Alan Tudge, or indeed on most of the major policy areas affecting women. Why even bother wishing women well when you’re going to spend the next hour either ignoring or insulting them?

It’s been pointed out in many places that the real loser of last night’s debate was the Australian public. And between the macho shouting and empty platitudes, Australian women were particularly disregarded. As University of Sydney professor Elizabeth Hill wrote in the Nine papers yesterday – an echo of a piece she wrote 21 years ago – the best Mother’s Day gift of all would be an overhaul of the childcare and paid parental leave systems. And yet Nine’s panel of political commentators didn’t bother to ask about either of these things. Albanese, to his credit, attempted to bring up Labor’s popular childcare policy whenever he could, while the party is preparing to announce further pay equity reforms. Labor disappointed many last week, however, by ditching the relatively inexpensive policy of adding super to Commonwealth parental leave. (Pushed on this issue over the weekend, shadow minister for women Tanya Plibersek said they couldn’t fix everything at once, adding that it is something “we would love to do when we can afford to”.)

And as Jess Hill writes in an important piece for Primer, gendered violence has completely slipped from the radar in this election campaign, unless you count the Coalition boasting about funding levels or Morrison misquoting statistics. This is despite the fact that it was supposed to be the “women’s election”, with advocates in the space still trying to use the campaign to get their issues heard. (The Women’s Legal Service in Queensland became the latest to release an election wish list today; demand number five was simply for “leadership”.) As one survivor advocate told Hill, neither side seems to consider violence against women a vote winner, despite it affecting such a devastating percentage of the population. But the latest Newspoll confirms what many have long suspected: women’s votes are playing a role in the Coalition’s declining popularity, with Labor now ahead 45–38 with women voters, while men are evenly split between the major parties, 44–44. The Australian theorises that this is to do with cost-of-living pressures, which women are often more attuned to than men. But there’s no doubt that Morrison’s toxic and patronising personality is also at play.

In fact, if there were any women who could be considered winners in last night’s off-putting debate, it’s the so-called teal independents. As former Insiders host Barrie Cassidy pointed out, the unedifying spectacle may have prompted some voters to wonder if “inserting women from the sensible centre into the process might help”. Morrison, who has obviously been asked to stay away from the campaigns of his more “moderate” Liberal MPs, has nevertheless offered up a helpful reminder of why many inner-city voters are so repelled by him, with his bullying attitude and disdain for integrity and climate change on full display. The fact that he’s back to playing games with the lives of LGBTIQ students certainly isn’t helping either, with party tensions resurfacing as the moderates push back. (Then again, the moderate Libs don’t seem to be doing themselves many favours, what with choosing to preference far-right parties over centrist independents and reacting childishly to having their seats challenged).

Yesterday, to be fair, wasn’t the most insulting Mother’s Day we’ve seen in Australian politics. For that, it’s hard to go past 2015, when – as founder of the Ernie Awards for Sexist Remarks Meredith Burgmann reminded Crikey readers on Friday – the Coalition government accused new mothers of “double dipping” and committing “fraud” on paid parental leave if they also legally accessed employer schemes. There’s one thing both 2015’s offensive comments and 2022’s demoralising ones have in common, however: Scott Morrison was at the centre of both.

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Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.

@rachelrwithers

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