The Politics    Friday, April 8, 2022

Crumb maidens

By Rachel Withers

Image of Environment Minister Sussan Ley speaking during Question Time in the House of Representatives last month. Image © Lukas Coch / AAP Images

Environment Minister Sussan Ley speaking during Question Time in the House of Representatives last month. Image © Lukas Coch / AAP Images

The loyal women of the Liberal Party are willing to use “feminism” whenever and however it suits them

The farcical claim that Scott Morrison was “standing up for women” when he intervened in NSW Liberal preselections to save two men and one woman is somehow still being propagated. The woman in question, Environment Minister Sussan Ley, appeared on RN Breakfast this morning, spinning hard as she insisted that the prime minister had sent a “really strong message to women” with his NSW takeover. “We’ve talked about quotas,” she said. (The Liberal Party continues to reject the idea of gender quotas.) “We’ve talked about women not wanting to enter parliament. When they get there, they need support like the PM has given all of us,” she added. Pushback from host Patricia Karvelas over the fact that it clearly wasn’t only women being helped went unaddressed, with Ley chirping that she was “very grateful” to the PM. The notion that this preselection takeover was about saving women rather than saving factional allies has been firmly debunked. So why are these women so willing to keep defending Morrison? And what gives them the nerve to invoke feminism while doing so?

Ley is far from the only Coalition woman standing up for Morrison this week, as the most loyal of them once again fall over themselves to defend their leader, knowing that they are his best defence to the “women problem” charge that still plagues the government. Following the PM’s appearance on 7.30 on Tuesday, little-known MP and key Morrison ally Melissa McIntosh released a statement proclaiming that he has also stood up for her, a “first-term female MP”, in the NSW factional stoush. (McIntosh’s electorate of Lindsay was not one of the 12 affected by the takeover, but Morrison had intervened there earlier. In fact, the PM spent the week of the March 4 Justice protest, which he failed to attend, focused on the seat.)

The other usual suspects have also been out and about, with senators Anne Ruston, Jane Hume and Hollie Hughes running the “Morrison has never bullied me” line, and claiming that all these other women must have some axe to grind. The line remains utterly unconvincing. Morrison, after all, is accused of bullying those women who stand up to him, not those who stand up for him. The fact that Morrison openly humiliated former Australia Post boss Christine Holgate never seems to give them pause. Spare a thought here for Higgins MP Katie Allen, the only woman in an inner-city “blue-ribbon” seat at threat this election, as she walks the fine line between trying to distance herself from the PM (as her “moderate” male colleagues are doing) and trying to do her duty as a loyal Liberal woman. Allen would usually be one of the PM’s most fervent female defenders, but as she notes in Nine’s latest look into Higgins, her constituents are quite clearly “not so happy with Scott”.

A deeply unflattering nickname for these Coalition women often circulates on Twitter: “crumb maidens”, coined by Guardian Australia’s Amy Remeikis to refer to women who uphold power structures in order to benefit from the crumbs. It’s not a new concept, with women – usually white, wealthy ones – long having defended the patriarchy in order to maintain their relative positions within it. But there’s something especially blatant about the way these loyal Liberal women do it, questioning other women’s motives and faithfully defending a man who has been shown – it’s hard to overstate how many times – to be a bully and a sexist who doesn’t really think much about inequality, simply because they want to remain in power, and maybe get a cabinet position to boot.

And there’s also something especially galling about the way in which this self-interested behaviour is increasingly couched in terms of feminism – a somewhat new phenomenon, considering that almost all conservative women until recently eschewed the label. It was bad enough when the prime minister tried to pass off his factional power grab as “standing up for women”, and it is infuriating that men who refuse to instate gender quotas decided to use “female representation” as a shield to justify delaying preselections to the eleventh hour to protect factional powerbroker Alex Hawke. But to have women join in on the act is maddening.

I’m sure that Ley is grateful to have had the PM step in and save her, just as I’m sure that Hawke and Trent Zimmerman were too. But can we perhaps skip the farce and not pretend that this was about gender? (As The Betoota Advocate’s “Scotty the feminist ally” series shows, this claim belongs in the realm of satire.) The only “really strong message” being sent to women right now is that the women of the Liberal Party don’t really give a damn. And they’re more than willing to use their gender – and be used in return – if it means holding on to power.

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Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.

@rachelrwithers

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