Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Today by Rachel Withers

The woman problem
The Coalition’s women don’t appear up to the task of fixing sexism in government

Image of Liberal Party federal vice-president Teena McQueen appearing on the ABC’s Q&A in 2019. Image via ABC

Liberal Party federal vice-president Teena McQueen appearing on the ABC’s Q&A in 2019. Image via ABC

Most of the appalling comments leaking from the government over the past few weeks have been made by men, but women have had their fair share of doozies, too. First, there was incoming minister for government services Linda Reynolds’ “lying cow” comments. Then there was Nationals MP (and the assistant minister for children and families) Michelle Landry telling reporters that she felt “bad” for the “really good worker” who had lost his job for masturbating on a female MP’s desk. Today’s clanger comes from Liberal Party vice-president Teena McQueen, who reportedly said, in a closed-door meeting on a new code of conduct: “I would kill to be sexually harassed at the moment.” McQueen has denied she used those exact words, though confirmed she “made a throwaway line, that ‘when women reach my age, we don’t have to worry about being sexually assaulted’”, but three women remain adamant that she used the words reported. (Witnesses also say they heard McQueen say “let’s talk about women not getting drunk at work”, comments understood to be a reference to Brittany Higgins.) McQueen’s words had a faint echo of those awkwardly used on Sunday’s Insiders by the member for Higgins, Katie Allen, who said she had never been subject to sexual harassment within her party, asking, “What am I missing out on?” This was part of a performance in which she made excuses for disgraced MP Andrew Laming (“clearly the stress must be getting to him”), praised the prime minister, and refused to acknowledge that her party seemed to have a particularly bad sexism problem, even as host David Speers laid out the evidence. So help us if these are the women we are relying on to explain women’s issues to their colleagues.

Parliament’s “woman problem”, as many noted last week, is not so much women’s problem as men’s problem – a culture created and caused by the deplorable behaviour and attitudes of men. Women did not create this culture, and all women in parliament are victims of it, as last night’s excellent episode of Australian Story – exploring women’s stories from across the political spectrum, led by former Labor MP Kate Ellis – made clear. The Coalition’s very particular and long-established “woman problem” is not the fault of Coalition women. But fixing the problem is going to rely on women inside the party calling it out and acknowledging it. Unfortunately, it seems many of them are not up to the task. Many, in fact, seem more intent on protecting the patriarchy than tearing it down.

There is one task they are up to, however. The loyal women of the Liberal Party have been wheeled out to deal with this PR crisis, to talk down the sexism problem and talk up the government’s response, and many – notably Allen, along with senators Sarah Henderson and Anne Ruston – are doing it with gusto. There are exceptions, of course: incoming Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews, who, having had a “gutful”, spoke out against the boys’ club culture within the party (though some suspect she was tasked with doing this by the party), while outgoing Liberal MP Sue Hickey brought Senator Eric Abetz’s alleged slut-shaming and victim-blaming to light, after she was disendorsed. As NSW state Liberal MP Catherine Cusack tweeted and wrote when she reached her “tipping point” last week, the federal women are just as furious, but aren’t speaking out due to “party loyalty”. One does feel for these women, members of a party that disrespects them (whether they realise it or not, Katie Allen) and then uses them to “defend the indefensible”, as Cusack put it. Perhaps some of them are doing everything they can behind closed doors to force change – though McQueen’s “closed-door” comments would indicate she is not. But while it’s understandable that they want to protect their party, they’re doing so at the expense of protecting women. 

Yesterday’s cabinet reshuffle, as I noted yesterday, elevated to the ministry and to the new cabinet taskforce a number of Liberal women known for their less-than-stellar records on women’s issues, some better known for their defence of men. The new assistant minister for women, far-right senator Amanda Stoker, has previously accused women who call out harassment of being “weak” and “playing the gender card”. The new minister for women’s economic security, Jane Hume, is a proponent of a widely criticised policy to allow domestic violence victims to use their super to escape. The new minister for women’s safety, Ruston, has been a vocal Coalition apologist throughout this crisis, and on Monday defended Laming’s right to paid leave (while insisting JobSeeker had to be cut). The minister for women, Marise Payne, who became the leader of the new taskforce, has been mostly silent these past six weeks – other than to oppose an inquiry into historical rape allegations against Christian Porter and defend the suspension of the Gaetjens inquiry into who knew what and when of Higgins’ allegations, as Crikey’s Charlie Lewis noted. Were these really the best advocates for women the party (or the faction system) had to offer?

It comes as no real surprise that there weren’t enough feminist women in the Coalition to put forward a strong woman-focused team. It may be that there simply aren’t enough women in the Coalition full stop, with part of the “woman problem” being that they simply aren’t there. Quotas, many are arguing, are the most effective way to address this, but the majority of the party still seem to oppose them – including, of course, its most fiercely loyal women, with Allen and Henderson both rejecting the idea on Insiders. They were right about one thing: quotas aren’t going to fix the Coalition’s sexism problem, especially if they’re only going to deliver more women like the ones they’ve got.

“We were elected to lead and to uphold a standard. If it means we lose the seat of Upper Hunter … I’d rather stand here doing the right thing than worrying about a majority in government.”

NSW Deputy Premier John Barilaro shows the federal government how it’s done, calling on former Nationals MP Michael Johnsen to quit parliament, adding that it’s “irrelevant” that it would threaten the Berejiklian government’s slim majority.

“If the quota motions are successful, there will be no mainstream political party in Australia left to stand against the dehumanising instruments of collectivism. Who will remain to fight against identity politics when even the party of the individual has abandoned it?”

Aspiring Liberal candidate for Warringah Alex Dore has written to state council delegates, urging them to put “party and country before faction” and vote against quotas.

One month, four more Aboriginal deaths in custody
Over the past month there have been four Indigenous deaths in custody across Australia. Now, a new organisation has been created to help their families fight for justice. Today, Madeline Hayman-Reber on the grassroots group supporting families whose loved ones have died in police custody.

The number of COVID-19 vaccine doses so far administered in Australia – far short of the original goal of 4 million by the end of March, and far from on track for the revised goal. Health Minister Greg Hunt has hit back at suggestions Brisbane’s lockdown could have been avoided if the vaccine rollout was further advanced.

“The federal Opposition leader, Anthony Albanese, will establish a $15 billion reconstruction fund aimed at job creation if Labor wins government, saying Australia must be a country ‘that makes things’.”

Labor’s proposed reconstruction fund is aimed at reviving the struggling manufacturing sector, putting Australia back on a path to “make cars, trains and ships”.

The list

“To their credit, the filmmakers don’t attempt to soften their subject’s rhetoric. (‘Kill a few pigs, get a little satisfaction,’ Hampton thunders at one point. ‘Kill ’em all? Get complete satisfaction!’) But what the film manages to do extremely well is to represent the wildly unequal terms offered ordinary black Americans in the exercise of their civil rights, who must carefully modulate their voices at all times, lest they appear ‘angry’, and whose protests can take only the mildest and most inoffensive forms – even as a knee is pressing down on their collective windpipe.”

“Raised in a culture that since 605 AD has employed a merit-based civil-service examination system to reward academic excellence with tangible, life-changing consequences, many Chinese-Australian parents understand education as a way to shift class. With insufficient time, energy or resources to change their own circumstances, first-generation migrant parents generally encourage their children to work within the system. This has led to the almost exclusive emphasis on examination results, and often leaves the entire burden on the small shoulders of the students themselves.”

“If you can’t accept Del Rey at her word, perhaps you can accept that it’s nice to have complex, strange figures – or even outright villains – in the public eye, as opposed to a slate of poreless, textureless ciphers. It feels at times as if she acts out of a desire for what critic Hua Hsu, writing about the many gaffes of pop superstars Post Malone and Kanye West, once termed ‘the freedom to say whatever you want in the name of artistic vision; the freedom never to be misunderstood or misinterpreted; the freedom to do what you love simply because you love it’.”

Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Monthly Today.



The Monthly Today

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The cost of delay

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Vaccine rollout a (p)fizzer

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Holgate strikes back

Scott Morrison humiliated the wrong woman

Up the river

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Green house effect

Joost Bakker’s vision for sustainable housing is taking root