What is most enraging about the developing discourse around the Gillard’s treatment is the accusation that its discussion is some kind of distraction or sideshow to an unspecified main political event we should be paying more attention towards.
I say it’s the biggest goddamn show in town.
Van Badham, The Guardian, Wednesday 19 June
Lest there was any doubt on the Left that Australia has been experiencing a profound, rolling crisis of official politics, the re-eruption of debate around the Right’s sexist abuse of Julia Gillard, nominally the most powerful person in the country, should have settled the question.
Except that it hasn’t.
Instead, the mainstream progressive response has been dominated by attempts to reduce the crisis to one of its ugliest manifestations, to explain the unhinged state of politics as a product of misogyny. Such a view seems to drive Destroy The Joint, a feminist network set up to challenge mistreatment of powerful women, and has now been taken up by others appalled by the degeneration of official discourse.
For example, John Birmingham argues that the problem is with men in our society – not the sexist ones, but the ones who don’t step in to call out misogyny:
Where are they when some idiot demeans and disrespects a prime minister, not because of what she’s done, but because of what she is? Where are you guys? Because if you just stepped up and said no at the very moment that it’s happening, not later, but right then and there, some of this wretched dickishness might finally die out.
Similarly, Ben Eltham contends that ‘for many Australians, including many men, the idea that Gillard is on the receiving end of a torrent of sexual abuse is just too hard to cope with’ and that having a female PM is seen as a threat to ‘male power’.
In perhaps the boldest statement along these lines, my good friend Van Badham maintains that the Right has created a crisis of legitimacy for Gillard by attacking her (female, gendered) body. Van claims this has been the main reason for the government’s dismal lack of popularity:
I want to believe that the majority of Australians are not falling for this, but I cannot fathom any other plausible reason that Abbott leads in the polls. Under Gillard Australia has been swimming in prosperity, and where she has failed – on refugees, equal marriage and welfare inequality – the policy alternative put forward by the LNP is consistently worse.
As the quote at the top of this post indicates, Van criticises not just ordinary voters, but also those on the Left who argue that Gillard’s disappointing, right-wing actions in office, its imposition of more austerity than prosperity, or the long-run structural crisis of the Labor Party might have contributed more to the current degeneration of politics than sexism itself. On her view, to focus on these things as having greater explanatory power is to reduce misogyny to the status of ‘distraction’. And Van seems keen to portray Gillard as both the helpless victim of an all-powerful Right and the last bastion of defense against the Abbott Apocalypse.
Not only is the analysis in such commentary depressing, it actually doesn’t accord very well with the available facts. First of all, there is no clear indication that huge numbers of voters think that sexism in society is acceptable. Essential Research, for example, found earlier this month that 52 percent of voters polled thought that sexism was a large or moderate problem, up from 45 percent last September (before Gillard’s misogyny speech); only 11 percent said it was ‘not a problem at all’.
It is true that in most polls male voters approve of Gillard’s performance less than female voters, but a closer look at the polling shows that her approval has collapsed at a similar rate with both genders. Neither does there seem to be a blasé attitude in the community towards sexual abuse and rape. The horrific rape and murder of Jill Meagher produced massive public concern last year, which continues to resonate. And the promise of serious action against sexual abuse scandals within the military has engendered public acclaim.
Perhaps frustratingly for the sexist Right and pro-Gillard feminists, who would both want the ‘Gillard woman question’ front and centre, Essential last week reported a poll of which issues were most important in deciding people’s votes:
47% of people surveyed rated management of the economy as one of their three most important issues, followed by 45% ensuring the quality of Australia’s health system, 34% Australian jobs and protection of local industries and 25% ensuring a quality education for all children.
Then there is Gillard’s actual record on women’s rights, which is far less straightforward than her defenders want to portray it. Apart from legislating to kick (predominantly female) single parents onto Newstart on the same day as her misogyny speech, and hanging out with notoriously sexist radio jock Kyle Sandilands while shunning Alan Jones, Gillard has promoted Labor’s stance on abortion when, in fact, abortion on demand is only legal in the ACT and Victoria – and the PM never criticized the charging of a Cairns couple for procuring an illegal abortion under Anna Bligh’s government.
But if sexism is not ‘the biggest goddam show’ in Australian society, why does it appear so for the political class? The Piping Shrike has proposed what is to my mind a more convincing explanation:
[T]hose who blame sexism for Gillard’s lack of authority today are reading things the wrong way round. Gillard hasn’t become more of a woman, nor Australia more sexist, since her popular start. Rather Gillard’s declining authority comes from the institution she represents; it’s just that as a woman it has taken a sexist form.
It is the declining authority of Australia’s political establishment that has manifested itself both in the sexism of the Right and the ALP’s attempts to shore up its base by appealing to anti-sexism. It is important to realise that both attempts have been failures. In particular, while Gillard was initially able to win wide sympathy for October’s misogyny speech (helped by Abbott’s perennial unpopularity), as her authority has further disintegrated, the ability to hold together a feminist bloc has cracked apart, provoking open dissent from figures like Eva Cox and Christine Milne. This is not a case of trying to ‘distract’ from misogyny, nor of “trivializing” sexism, but of recognising the political character of the conflict and its origins in political weakness – on both sides.
Wittingly or not, some have touched on the real issue: the most powerful public office in the country appears utterly without authority. For example, Michael Gawenda has argued that
[T]he point about sexism and misogyny is that, in a sense, it’s like racism — it renders its victims powerless. They are subjected to attacks — which are really expressions of prejudice — not because of what they do or believe, but because they are women or black, something they can’t change even if they wanted to.
In a similar vein, in her valedictory speech, Nicola Roxon said, ‘It really is time for people to understand just how corrosive sexism is, to acknowledge that it deliberately sets out to diminish authority.’
It is the lack of authority of the political class that makes such prejudice able to have an impact when it would normally bounce off members of that class (they being the ones in charge of the rest of us). For many on the reformist Left – who strongly believe that the people need a political class to rule over them in their own best interests — this is a profoundly unsettling state of affairs. It is reflected in the title of Van’s Guardian piece, ‘If Julia Gillard isn’t safe from the Liberals’ sexism, who will be?’, and in some tweets intervening in a debate Van and I had the other night.
Yet if the only road to defending ourselves from nasty governments depends on restoring the authority of politicians and the institutions of rule they inhabit, we have a real problem, because we remain at their mercy. And if the way to stop Abbott is to downplay the current government’s failures, to reject the disdain so many people feel for official politics, then the Left cuts itself off from very healthy disrespect for those in power – a disrespect that, in the past, it would’ve been trying to mobilise.
Painting ordinary voters as complicit with Abbott (because they are sexist or at least won’t stand up against sexism) is designed to shift the blame for the political establishment’s decay away from it. Worst of all, it has the effect of shutting down debate about the way forward for the Left generally – and on how to deal with the problem of women’s oppression specifically – reducing it to a question of first lining up with Gillard politically.
It is, in fact, a right-wing response to misogyny, trying to funnel completely legitimate anger at sexism into a narrow elite project. The alternative, I would argue, needs to start from arguing that, while the Left must systematically oppose women’s oppression in all its manifestations, we will not do so most effectively by demanding that the bigoted personal behaviour of our rulers towards each other must be everyone’s political first priority.