Not a crisis of misogyny: a crisis of political authority

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.

twitter debate

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.

Tad Tietze

Tad Tietze is a Sydney psychiatrist who co-runs the blog Left Flank. He’s written for Overland, Crikey and The Drum Opinion, as well as music reviews for Resident Advisor. He was co-editor (with Elizabeth Humphrys & Guy Rundle) of On Utøya: Anders Breivik, right terror, racism and Europe. He tweets as @Dr_Tad.

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  1. Thanks for the article, Tad. Another dimension in support would be to observe standard tactical practices that Labor Party activists use to turn around a losing debate. Fix on a failure of character by one or more of your opponents – ideally something genuinely serious, such as sexual harassment – then accuse all your opponents and doubters alike of complicity in the outrage.

    Anyone who has ever attended a young labor conference will have seen this manoeuvre. It empowers the advocate of a dumb idea to drown out all counterarguments with moral outrage.

    The Tories have their equivalent tactics, of course — recall Tampa. Federal Labor’s miserable failures in government, combined with the left’s curious incapacity to break us out of the LibLab duopoly, mean we shall all get very familiar with them again for the rest of this decade.

    1. I think that in general the debates inside the political establishment have increasingly taken the form of student politics (or worse: NUS politics!). The hollow Right-Left polarisation that Abbott and Gillard constantly feed has become a cover for their lack of a social base from which to carry out any kind of coherent Right or Left program.

      However, I doubt that we have a decade of the Tories ahead of us. If Abbott wins then his ramshackle constituency cannot hold for very long if he tries to do anything decisive. As I wrote in The Guardian the other day, there’s not much evidence that the bulk of people who are intending to vote for the Coalition are doing so because they like the Coalition’s agenda for Australia.

      But — and this is the key thing — the ALP’s internal problems are so deep that it may relegate itself to opposition for a long time, meaning that splits in Abbott’s electoral coalition could go in a variety of unpredictable and weird directions. There is nothing automatic about a revival of the political Left if the Right tries to go on the offensive.

      Hence why falling in behind Gillard is so dangerous for the Left. Because the ALP is likely to place such limits on what is an acceptable response to Abbott, and police the rest of the Left as fiercely as it is now over the misogyny question.

  2. Tad concludes:

    “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.”

    This seems to me to be correct. However, the subsequent sentence disappointingly stops short from describing what an alternative might be, and lends itself to an albeit mistaken interpretation of Tad’s argument as being that we need not attack the extreme sexism levelled at Gillard because she herself is one of said bigoted rulers. Such an interpretation would be a shame, but I think the alternative needs more fleshing out.

    It is interesting to perceive the issue from Germany, one of a handful of other countries with a female leader, and certainly the most powerful of those. Angela Merkel has largely escaped such treatment (excepting the now virtually proverbial – but always cheap and inaccurate – comparisons with Thatcher). The political elites in Germany are as yet still not suffering from a comparable degeneration, despite growing pressure for solutions to the economic crisis across Europe. This could be attributed to the consensus among the easing political elites of Europe.

    At worst, Merkel has been attacked/confronted with Nazi caricatures in Greece, but sexism has not featured at all in public condemnations of her government, which is in the process of pushing through a raft of regressive reforms to family law (eg. a new payment especially for those who stay at home with their children rather than sending them to underfunded, understaffed and overcrowded kindergartens) and is just as likely as Gillard to legalise full same-sex marriage.

    It would be interesting to hear Tad’s views on the European comparison.

    1. On the possible misinterpretation of the last sentence: It took me a long time to write that because I wanted to make sure I said what I thought very precisely. I actually think the demand to make anti-Gillard sexism “everyone’s political first priority [emphasis added]” works against challenging the sexism so deeply embedded in our society. Because, actually, if fixing this problem is our first priority then we need to reconstruct the authority of the political establishment to achieve it. Calling it out, naming and shaming it, protesting about it — all of these are completely fine responses but they will not stop the misogynistic discourse because it is not mainly about sexism. It is about how a bunch of sexist people on the Right (which is full of such people) feel they need to do this to try to prop up their own failing authority.

      I think the Merkel comparison is instructive. My impression (although my knowledge of German politics and society is not as good as I’d like it to be, so apologies if this turns out to be misinformed) is that the stable post-WWII institutions of rule, on both Right and Left, have not decayed to anywhere near the same extent as in Australia, and so the discourse about official politics is much more contained and “political” in the classic sense.

      I think this relative strength of institutions also explains why when the SPD’s base split it was on the basis of a section of the trade union bureaucracy setting up a Left party. Those Left unions were socially powerful enough to make such a split happen and to convince the East German PDS that uniting as Die Linke was a good idea. In Australia the Left split in the ALP’s base was to the Greens, a far more politically amorphous beast with little ideological or organisational relationship to the organisations of the working class.

      All that should make clear that I think that the political crisis in Australia is very deep and intractable. But also that much of the Left treats it like the proverbial elephant in the room.

  3. You make some excellent points. I agree the argument for a politer political discourse is missing the point entirely. We should be directing our disgust with institutions that have always been anti-feminist to bringing those institutions down, not reforming them. I wrote about this in my piece for Destroying the Joint (I am not involved with DTJ the org)

    Unfortunately sexist trolling doesn’t just happen to Julia Gillard, it happens to almost all women in public life, which is what drives many of us from participation. This should engender (pardon the pun) a broader crisis in all our institutions, not just Parliament. But abandoning ship is seen as a feminist fail. Julie Posetti wrote about this ‘double bind’ at New Matilda recently.

    Not everyone on the left is siding with Gillard. I’d say most feminists are well aware of the corner we are in.

    1. Thank you for your comments. The Posetti piece is really interesting. The “double bind” idea expresses the conundrum really well — it was what we saw very dramatically during the War On Terror where Western feminists were encouraged to line up with Islamophobic and pro-war arguments because of misogyny in Muslim countries that were being bombed.

      The resolution to the double bind forces us to concretely look at how to deal with intersecting political conflicts, not just to say that we have to deal with all oppressions equally at once. The Left needs to prioritise how it is going to deal with these contradictory pressures; to make an argument about which types of prioritisation may lead in right-wing directions (e.g. the desire to fight the oppression of Muslim women by Muslim men leading to support for bombing Muslim men and women). These are hard arguments, and sometimes we will get them wrong. But we shouldn’t abstain from trying to think things through — to think politically rather than just ideologically — or else the dominant/elite arguments about priorities will win out.

      I also agree that not everyone on the Left is lining up with Gillard (nor all feminists for that matter). But I also think that has taken time — it was hard to raise much criticism of her in October after the misogyny speech but much easier now. I think the political nature of the sexism/anti-sexism battles inside the political class has become more obviously just that: political. Indeed, the current ramping up of pro-Gillard heat is probably more a sign of how her camp knows it is even more on the back foot.

  4. What Jennifer said. I think you’re totally right on the collapse of political authority at the core: at the same time, I’d say that there’s a big difference between grasping opportunistically at an issue as an electoral tactic (eg the Women for Gillard campaign) and much of the discussion around the sexism revealed by Gillard’s unpopularity. The fact that that unpopularity has taken a “sexist form” is an issue for many women, who are nevertheless also looking with dismay at Gillard’s less-than-glorious record on reproductive rights or feminine poverty. The reason why so many women respond so strongly to that sexism is precisely that so many women experience and witness sexist dismissiveness/aggression/trivialisation in their own lives. I agree, the question is how to open that anger out into a proper discussion on systemic sexism, rather than funnelling it narrowly into electoral politics. But surely that is going on too?

    1. I think that argument is going on, but only at the fringes. We had dinner with a Greens candidate in a left-wing electorate last night, and he was saying that lots of people’s excuse for not voting Greens was that they wanted to stand with Gillard against the sexism, as a kind of solidarity with her. He said it was hard going in an area the Greens have been very strong.

      In a sense, Gillard has been doing what she has been very good at for the last three years: Shoring up the ALP base (including its Left flank). But that base is now exposed as so small that she hasn’t got much to show for her efforts, having failed to win back potential Labor voters currently parked with the Coalition. That has little to do with misogyny and everything to do with the ALP’s long-run problems.

      1. I agree it’s difficult to disentangle, and that misogyny isn’t by any means the whole story for the disaster that is the current ALP leadership. But at the same time, you’re missing the dilemma here for many feminists: how the sustained gendered critique of Gillard has materially weakened what leadership she has. I don’t think you can simply dismiss how the sustainedly sexist coverage and commentary of Gillard – not just from the right, from everywhere, from her shoes to her hair to her body – has shaped the current endgame. You can recognise the truth of this, and at the same see how the ALP is attempting to spin this in party politics to their advantage. The double bind is that, as Jennifer says, to not. defend Gillard is tantamount saying that this deeply structured sexism doesn’t matter, when it clearly, and materially, has had a massive effect on the way this country’s leadership is perceived, both overtly (current discussion/vile attacks) and covertly (focusing on shoes/jackets/hair instead of policy etc, or media business-as-usual). That’s the problem with saying that her unpopularity has “just” been inflected in a sexist manner. It’s not “just”: it’s been central to the attack.

        1. I’m happy to defend Gillard against the sexism. It’s gross sexism. I’m not happy for that to structure my approach to Australian politics in general.

          And I’m totally happy to say that the sexism has had some impact now that it has been unleashed; all I’m saying is that it’s much less than the structural reasons for the government’s unravelling. Indeed, the idea that the sexism has caused the crisis of authority has only really been very prominent since around the time of the Alan Jones and misogyny speech episodes. Before that we’ve had other explanations: The agreement with the Greens, leaks, Rudd destabilisation, worries about the carbon tax, etc.

          But I would argue that if the political establishment was not so destabilised in the first place (see the contrast with Merkel in Germany) then things wouldn’t have been so ugly in the first place.

  5. I agree totally with the problem of Leftists becoming political partisans for one of the most right-wing Labor leaders ever. I also agree that the demand to respect the sanctity of high office is both bizarre (at least when coming from the Left) and totally reactionary. Expect that, when Abbott’s in office, all these calls for civility, respect, etc will come back to haunt us.
    But I also disagree with aspects of how you have presented this. IMO, you’ve turned the (broadly correct) idea of a crisis of authority for the political class into a shibboleth that distorts your argument.
    The Left’s not against ‘authority’ per se. And what Gawenda says is true: sexism is used to strip power from the oppressed. Racism works the same way: black people know that, no matter what they have achieved, the racist can shout, ‘Nigger!’ and thus reduce them to being ‘just a black’. Likewise with sexism. Everyone can think of examples where some giggling sexist brings down, say, a female lecturer by making a comment about her appearance. The subtext is that it doesn’t matter what expertise she possesses, she’s a woman and thus inferior.
    I could imagine that notorious sexist menu being used to, say, strip authority from a female trade unionist, in precisely the same kind of way.
    That’s why I don’t have a problem with the headline of Badham’s piece.
    Indeed, the reason why Gillard’s misogyny speech resonated so widely (and it clearly did) is that lots of ordinary women had experienced similar treatment.
    There’s nothing wrong with pointing that out. What’s problematic is a response that then emphasises the importance of honouring the PM’s office, rather than saying, well, this kind of sexism is going to affect working women more than politicians (precisely because they don’t have the trappings of office) and that’s why we need a grassroots anti-sexist movement.
    You quote the Piping Strike as saying: ‘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.’
    That might be true but the form that it’s taken is not insignificant. In other circumstances, the decline in Gillard’s standing might have manifested itself in, say, a trade union revolt. Here, though we’re seeing an outbreak of sexism in the public sphere. That’s a bad thing, and saying that it’s a bad thing should be central to the response.
    I agree with you on this paragraph:

    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.

    But I think the para that follows is too ambiguous. You write:

    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.

    Your last sentence comes across as if you are saying people shouldn’t be engaging with the debate, that anyone who decries the sexism against Gillard has the wrong political priorities.
    I don’t think that’s very helpful. Aside from anything else, like it or not, this is the form in which a debate about sexism has erupted. The Left can’t very well remain silent (indeed, you’ve just written an article about that very debate!).

    Surely the real issue is not whether the sexism directed at Gillard should be a priority (it’s that already, simply because of the debate taking place). The real issue is how to respond to that sexism. The Left needs to make clear that a rejection of sexism doesn’t have to entail political support for Gillard’s policies.

    1. I certainly don’t think that people shouldn’t engage with the debate — but as I suggested in my comment to Kate D (above) I am arguing about strategic prioritisation. By that I don’t just mean prioritising which debates we engage in, but how we engage in them, and therefore what argument we put.

      I appreciate that the issue of the crisis of authority may come across as a shibboleth, but my stress on it comes from a reality that we on the Left — used to campaigning around issues or for our broad ideological worldview — have too often missed, and that is the way that politics is the concentrated expression of social relations and social conflicts, and how it then structures and shapes every issue and every ideological debate.

      The reality of politics in capitalist societies is that it is concentrated around the state, and not diffusely spread across all of society. Therefore any political project, even one like ours that seeks the end of the capitalist state, cannot avoid relating to this fact, and trying to come to terms with the current structure of politics and how it “envelops” (Gramsci’s word) civil society.

      If my thesis is close to the mark then the decay of the post-WWII political order has profound consequences not only for how the ruling elites act politically, but how any resistance is structured and channelled, and therefore how to resist the pressures from above.

      The crisis of authority thesis helps explain the thing Van is so confused about — how the mass of the population can dislike sexism but not feel the need to change their vote over the most discussed revelations of sexism in the country: Because what is shaping and structuring much of the public response is a lack of coherence from the political elite, the obvious signs of their decline.

      On the other hand, sections of the Left (often ones we are in contact with) are pulled towards dropping criticism of Gillard because they are still tied at some level to the remains of the institutional power of Laborism (and here Greens voters are in a somewhat contradictory position). That is, the remaining influence of Laborism from above shapes their response to sexism from below in a certain direction, one which explicitly seeks to reinvigorate the ALP’s authority when in fact there is no stable social base from which to do that (and hence why Gillard’s poll standing is continuing to slide — there are no new recruits available through such manoeuvres).

      Recognising the crisis of authority tells us something else which the obsessive focus on anti-Gillard sexism cannot: That those who rule over us are weak and that their arguments can be beaten.

      Van, who provides the textbook argument for the opposing case, has to stress not only the frightening power of Abbott and the right-wing misogynists around him (because they have been able to do this to the most powerful person in the land), but also how the general populace is so willing to countenance the worst kind of gendered abuse (because the Right’s incredible power must have some kind of social basis, and the ordinary punters who vote them in will be that base).

      Her effective conclusion is that only a progressively-run state (i.e. the re-election of Gillard) can save us from both the Right and our own reactionary views.

      I think you’re right that we’re not against all authority, but if we are to build a collective authority from below we will have to grasp how the current debate has the effect of demobilising our project in favour of propping up those who rule over us.

      1. The reason why I suggested this was becoming a shibboleth for you is that you are, uncharacteristically, responding to a concrete political situation at a different level of abstraction, both in the original article and in the reply above. You agree that Leftists should engage with the furore around the sexist attacks on Gillard (and, indeed, your article itself constitutes such an engagement). But by making prioritisation central you come across, in practice, as if you’re participating in the debate by saying the debate is a distraction, which is never an approach that works.
        I also thought this passage in one of your replies a little odd.

        I actually think the demand to make anti-Gillard sexism “everyone’s political first priority [emphasis added]” works against challenging the sexism so deeply embedded in our society. Because, actually, if fixing this problem is our first priority then we need to reconstruct the authority of the political establishment to achieve it. Calling it out, naming and shaming it, protesting about it — all of these are completely fine responses but they will not stop the misogynistic discourse because it is not mainly about sexism. It is about how a bunch of sexist people on the Right (which is full of such people) feel they need to do this to try to prop up their own failing authority.

        The sexism against Gillard is not my ‘political first priority’ (though I’m not even sure what that would mean). Nonetheless, it’s an argument that’s raging among the milieu in which I work, and so it’s not something I can avoid, even if I so wanted.
        But let’s use a hypothetical. If we were discussing Australia’s first indigenous PM, a person being sledged for being a lazy black (or whatever the stereotype is), surely we would loudly welcome outrage about that racial abuse — precisely because we know that if racism against the PM was normalised in the papers and on radio and on TV, that would be a green light for bigots to redouble their abuse of ordinary Indigenous people, who already experience succh sledging on a daily basis. Yes, we’d also warn against rightwingers who called for ‘more respect’ for elected officials and political support for their conservative policies. But we would not say, well, it’s fine to protest about racial abuse … but you’re not really going to stop racism, since it’s deeply tied up with the mining boom and Australia’s history as a settler state (or whatever). Why? Because that would seem like an abstention, as if we were indifferent to something about which many Indigenous people were rightly outraged. On the contrary, we’d say the anger was justified and necessary, and we’d try to direct it, as much as we were able, into real struggles for Indigenous rights.
        That would be my approach here, too.

        1. The reason why I suggested this was becoming a shibboleth for you is that you are, uncharacteristically, responding to a concrete political situation at a different level of abstraction, both in the original article and in the reply above.

          But surely this is not the case. We are currently seeing a whole range of problems and behaviours within the political class and the issue is not whether or not they are happening (they are), but a battle over how they are to be explained and, from this, how they are to be addressed. It’s a battle of interpretation that the Gillard supporters are waging, one in which they want everyone to prioritise their explanation and (therefore) their plan of action.

          The reason I used the words “political first priority” is because a whole section of prominent people in this debate are arguing that all other aspects of political discourse on the Left (including on women’s oppression) must be seen through the prism of anti-Gillard sexism and the fight to restore the authority of the prime minister against that tide of sexism. This is what I mean by politics structuring the way issues are dealt with.

          That is why I don’t buy your hypothetical, because you miss out the most important aspect — if this Indigenous PM consciously started to mobilise supporters to attack critics on the Left for not taking anti-racism seriously enough because they continued to be sharply critical of him expanding the NT Intervention. Those supporters would say that the “only show in town” is the attack on him, and that whatever other things he may have done to Indigenous people or others through his policies the key thing is to recall that these are secondary issues compared with the verbal abuse he is suffering.

          The point I am making is that this is not just a case of the Right being sexist to Gillard, but of Gillard and her supporters actively seeking to mobilise anti-sexist sentiment in the service of strengthening the grip of her politics on the Left — and it is worth recalling how much Gillard has been about “shoring up the base” rather than expanding it. The fact this debate is raging in the milieu you inhabit doesn’t change the fact that it is structured in terms of an explanation that obscures what is really going on. The fact that in many other milieus perfectly decent people who hate sexism and are disgusted by the attacks on Gillard can’t get themselves especially worked up in Gillard’s defence suggests the weak hold of that explanation in many places, and the opening for a more radical politics that recognises those weaknesses.

          Sometimes the most concentrated Left milieus find it hardest to recognise the crisis of the institutions they have always operated in or against. It’s not to write off these milieus but to recognise that the battle of interpretation may be much tougher in them, precisely because they are closer to the institutions that are unravelling.

          I don’t want to overstate this — Australia’s post-WWII order is nowhere near completely defunct. But the sexism crisis is a direct and obvious manifestation, perhaps even representing an acceleration, of its continued unwinding.

          1. OK. Maybe we’re at cross purposes cos you are simultaneously trying to argue both against the right-wing Gillardites you address in your article and the commenters here.
            But IMO you are consistently eliding the distinction between the argument that we need to put in this debate and the prospect of that argument swaying large numbers to the Left, which are analytically separate points. And that’s not a pedantic difference since, as I’ve said, we cannot very well sit out this debate. You agree with that, but the way you phrase your argument gives the impression that you don;t.
            Anyway, it’s Friday night. Enough. 🙂

          2. The more I think about this, the more problematic Tad’s position seems. In response to my hypothetical about an Indigenous PM, he writes:

            That is why I don’t buy your hypothetical, because you miss out the most important aspect — if this Indigenous PM consciously started to mobilise supporters to attack critics on the Left for not taking anti-racism seriously enough because they continued to be sharply critical of him expanding the NT Intervention. Those supporters would say that the “only show in town” is the attack on him, and that whatever other things he may have done to Indigenous people or others through his policies the key thing is to recall that these are secondary issues compared with the verbal abuse he is suffering.

            But, of course, that’s precisely what our hypothetical indigenous Laborite PM would do, isn’t it! One would expect an intense campaign along the lines that, if you don’t uncritically support his or her policies, you are a racist, an objective supporter of the Right. There’s nothing new about that: it’s how social democrats _always_ respond to the Left in such situations. So, in practice, the logic of Tad’s position would hold whenever there was racism or sexism in mainstream politics, which is an entirely unsustainable position.
            Further, I think that, in terms of an intervention into what’s happening now, Tad’s line rhetorically reverses what needs to be said. His stance can come across as close to the old caricature of the Left response to sexism: namely, anti-sexism is a distraction from the real issues. (Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that’s his position, just that it can come across in that fashion). IMO, that actually strengthens the Gillardites, allowing them to say, look, the Left doesn’t care about sexism — that’s why you need to support Gillard, cos she does.
            Instead, I think the Left should be putting the case the other way around: arguing that _Gillardism is a distraction from anti-sexism_. By that, I mean a position that begins by saying, we agree that sexism is always terrible and we are totally committed to fighting it, whatever the circumstances. But defending Gillard’s policies means ignoring or whitewashing all the attacks on women over which she is presiding: the cuts to single parents, the women in detention, etc.
            To me, that has far more bite, since, actually, Gillardite feminism is incapable of fighting against such attacks, since doing so would entail fighting Gillard.

  6. I agree with your last line, Jeff: that’s our key task. But while you don’t think it should be discussed in terms of priorities, I actually think that’s how the debate has taken form. That’s basically Badham’s argument: Abbott is worse than Gillard, the only explanation for her lack of popularity is sexism on the part of, well basically, everyone. As such, arguing against that sexism is the key priority (it’s a bigger problem than Gillard’s conservatism).

    As a leftist, I find this a difficult problem to be honest and I don’t know how to deal with it. I find it a bit rich for people who claim to be feminists to use their platforms spending all their time expressing outrage about attacks on the PM while simply noting the attacks on ordinary women in passing (or worse, ignoring them). But I also agree with you Jeff, it’s problematic to talk about these as priorities because I think the sexism toward the PM is wrong, must be condemned and we should be intolerant to all kinds of prejudice on principle. I don’t know if that means we should talk about priorities, but I regularly struggle to work out how else to frame it.

    Separating it out is really the only way, but it’s harder than it looks. Part of the complexity I think is that Gillard is explicitly positioning herself as the antidote to this sexism – she says she’s got pro-women policies and that her presence in the top job helps smash the glass ceiling. Those things are both false. The former is factually so. But the latter is also important because it is really the left’s argument: it’s false because it relies on defending the sanctity of the office which doesn’t really care about women (which of course is how the former came to be). It also requires arguments about the futility of identity politics.

    Depressingly, I find those argument are pretty hard to make in the current climate. FWIW, I certainly don’t encounter it very often or see these debates taking place, seemingly unlike the experience of Jen or Alison.

  7. Thanks for taking the time, Tad. As anyone in my Twitter feed would know, I fall into the (reformist) category of those who defend Gillard as the lesser of two evils. An Abbott government would be catastrophic for this country and, in the absence of any coherent movement on the Left, I believe the wise course of action is to support Gillard – directly or preferentially – not simply to defend the integrity of the office (which I happen to think should be defended) nor on the basis of an anti-sexism campaign but also because the minority government under her leadership has undertaken policy initiatives and reforms that are of benefit to the population.

    This is not to ignore those critical areas where there have been genuine and dreadful policy failures. However, to take a case in point, compare the developing Gillard debacle on refugees (boosted by Abbott’s nasty intransigence on the development of a regional solution) with the LNP’s determination to “stop the boats (make a difference)” on “day one”. What can this mean? Well, as I said on Twitter some weeks ago and is now being confirmed in the media, it means revoking Australia’s participation in UN conventions on refugees. This would be a highly controversial but decisive and symbolic measure that would provide an emphatic demonstration that Abbott had delivered on a key election promise. It would also be a direct swipe at Left liberalism. Compare this with the kind of painstaking, consultative, pragmatic and difficult work of finding a workable solution undertaken by Gillard, notwithstanding the appalling results of the government’s failure to date. (As an aside, I find the “open borders” argument fanciful.)

    This example points to what I believe is a lingering problem with Tad’s analysis in that it fails to acknowledge the necessity of pragmatism in any political strategy. It’s all well and good to posit ambitious alternatives to a less-than-ideal present. But the question of implementation of any vision comes down to what is possible at any given time. Like Van, I believe that the continuation of a Gillard government is vastly preferable to a pumped up LNP regime and, therefore, worth defending albeit at arm’s length. The very fact that Gillard’s survival will perpetuate a flawed status quo provides an opportunity for a revitalised Left to cohere without running the very real risk of multiple terms of office for the Tories.

    1. If it’s any help in this, Boris, I have always intended to preference Labor above the Coalition, and would prefer the return of a Gillard government to Abbott. I’m not someone who welcomes the Right into power, but then I lay the blame for a Right that is so mistrusted being within a breath of a landslide win with the failures of the Left of politics. And because I am part of that Left, I feel the responsibility to make arguments about what I think is better way forward (or against what I see as dead ends).

      My piece in The Guardian the other day was precisely on the matter of how the ALP could win this election if it wasn’t so mired in its crisis.

      I would contend, therefore, that I am putting a more pragmatic argument than you are. It is simply unrealistic to tell people to vote pragmatically for Gillard when in fact they are so set against doing so. It is instead incumbent on us to try to grasp the reasons for Labor’s electoral problems and, even if we don’t think there is an immediate solution, to be hard-headed about what’s gone wrong.

      Hence why, even though I think the government has been a failure on many policy fronts, I don’t think that is the only (or even the primary) problem it faces. Indeed, Gillard has done much less evil to the Australian working class than the much more popular Hawke-Keating governments achieved.

      I have written repeatedly on the structural crisis of the political class because I think that is more important than the performance of this or that government. It is why the old style of pragmatic argument, to vote for the Left over the Right, has been so destabilised in practice. The pragmatic argument is not dead, and it is not delusional, but it has less basis in reality than any time since the Great Depression (and maybe even before WWI).

  8. Tad, you’re right about needing to grasp why swinging voters and Labor voters are fairly emphatically going over to Attilla the Abbott. What you’ve constructed as “the crisis of politics” etc is a reasonable abstraction to do so and your observations about how sexism is being used so publicly because of that crisis, are fairly astute and interesting.

    However, I think it’s been put more simply and perhaps usefully elsewhere: ALP and LNP are slinging this kind of mud about because their policies are so damn close there’s not much point arguing policy detail. Well, a few details, not many. Sexist abuse is getting rehabilitated because that’s an easy weapon in a mud slinging contest.

    On the other hand, this sexism is getting dragged into it because Australia is still full of vile sexists as some of the comments here point to (and many of my female friends feel quite sharply in everyday life). After bringing sexism and the “political crisis” together for analysis (which is interesting) you appear to have kept them artificially together for purposes of proposing an alternative (which is not so useful).

    In answering these two, now related, problems, if people want to go off and organise independent campaigns against sexism – as a revitalised women’s liberation movement has been starting to do for about 2 years now – I think that’s excellent. I don’t care if it in itself solves the other problem of political hegemony; if such a movement exists (and remains independent of the “women for gillard” type campaigns) it will be a great pillar of any resurgence of the left that could challenge the political hegemony of the current establishment.

    But that question, unanswered, is what’s hinted at in your article. We do need a resurgent, coherent, relatively more united left that can challenge this bleak situation. How we’re going to get such a new left is another question, none of us have all those answers yet. But I think on one key aspect, you’ve actually got your priorities the wrong way around. A new left isn’t going to form without both input and strength from strong grassroots movements — feminist, trade union, indigenous, environment etc — and even more, a central orientation to building and supporting said movements.

    Currently the politicos on the left are all embroiled in parliamentary manoevres (or party-building routine) while this crucial work of rebuilding grassroots power is mainly being done by another subset of the left, who don’t overlap so much with the first group.

    1. Hi BCC

      For much of my political life I would’ve agreed with you on this, but in recent years I have come to the conclusion that the approach you suggest is one-sided. The proposal I would put to you is that the question of political hegemony is present in each and every argument, struggle and organisation. And that means even the most radical civil society struggles immediately find themselves abutting on the way that politics is currently structured.

      I totally agree that we need a grassroots resurgence, social resistance on a greater scale. But we also need to ask ourselves why since the great Seattle protests a series of wonderful resurgences — against corporate globalisation, for refugee rights, against the War on Terror, against WorkChoices, for serious climate action , etc. — have briefly disrupted or shifted things but then we seem to be left with very little politically better on the Left. Indeed, I would argue that while the radical Left has engaged and built all those struggles, seemingly paradoxically the reformists (Labor, Greens) have gained far more politically. Worse, since 2007 those movements have largely evaporated, leaving organised radicals even more isolated.

      My argument (and here I’m being very general) is that the Australian radical Left has not understood how to be political in a way that can build a truly different type of hegemony. We have often been great activists, have built organisations and have argued a lot of ideological positions. But we have not built a new hegemonic project. And part of that comes from a movementism that starts from a correct rejection of bourgeois parliamentarism but thinks that you can merely counterpose subaltern resistance to it. You cannot; we need our own politics — not in a sense that overrides the tremendous disruptive and creative force of mass movements, but a politics that understands how and how hard we have to fight against the structuring and disorganising politics that centre around the state.

      1. What will be the content of this hypothetical “truly different type of hegemony”? More mass rallies? (that’s the default of the far left). More election campaigns? More movement building? Alliance construction? Marxist education of cadres? You are grasping at abstractions.

        This is precisely the kind of argument where “being very general” is in fact to not say anything very profound at all.

        And you have totally missed the impact of all this very public sexist bigotry on motivating action against sexism. Now there’s an opportunity to do something and build on where people are at now and maybe win some victories or score some points in the mainstream.

        I also think your examples of the recent movements are some of the more fleeting and shallow “movements” that we have seen. Look further back at the Movement Against Uranium Mining. The 1980s anti-tertiary-fees movement. The Franklin Dam campaign. What’s emerging now with Lock the Gate. The movement to ban asbestos on the job. These are more worth of the term “movement”, as opposed to a short flurry of protests.

        The growth of issue-based movements and campaigns is not guaranteed to create a “new hegemony” nor is it the only way to do so (consider the very different revolutionary developments in Venezuela versus those in Bolivia). But it is the kind of thing that if the far left were to lead (instead of tailing behind as usual) we could also use it as a springboard to bigger things – as the Greens did with uranium and the Franklin Dam in the 1980s.

        1. And you have totally missed the impact of all this very public sexist bigotry on motivating action against sexism.

          No I haven’t. My argument is not about that — it is about what direction that response is taken. Not all action against sexism has the same effect. And what is to be built on in this debate? This is not a debate where people are saying “let’s protest against anti-Gillard sexism and then organise against other kinds of sexism”. Rather, it is people arguing that the road to fighting women’s oppression, the Right, etc., is through re-establishing the authority of the prime minister and getting this government re-elected.

          I also think your examples of the recent movements are some of the more fleeting and shallow “movements” that we have seen.

          That’s a neat thing to say in hindsight, but with each one the radical Left was virtually unanimous in extolling their significance. The very problem I am highlighting is that these movements rose and fell without the radical Left building out of them. If truth be told, the organised Marxist Left is almost certainly weaker 14 years on from Seattle than before it. You raise the need for the radical Left to “lead” these movements at a time there are no movements of similar significance and social weight to the ones you disparage as “shallow”.

          If we don’t start from the need for us to understand politics as it is (rather than how it was in the past or how we want it to be) then we’ll constantly get disoriented by what is happening. Like in this case.

          I’m not proposing rocket science stuff here (nor grand generalisations). I’m saying we need to take the crisis of politics seriously in how it impacts on us as well.

          1. Personally I think the Lock The Gate and anti-coalmining movement is deeper and of more direct significance to Australian politics (though sadly, not to much of the left) than the Seattle/S11 movement or Occupy. Which movements were shallow in social impact (especially Occupy) if not in political content.

  9. Jeff Sparrow, you write:

    But, of course, that’s precisely what our hypothetical indigenous Laborite PM would do, isn’t it! One would expect an intense campaign along the lines that, if you don’t uncritically support his or her policies, you are a racist, an objective supporter of the Right.

    But why is this necessarily so? There is nothing axiomatic in the kind of response that has occurred in the last nine months. Indeed, Gillard brushed off the initial sexism of the Coalition and its loonier supporters (which predates the Alan Jones episode last year). It is only as her authority has further crumbled that she has highlighted the issue as a way of shoring up her base, and now her supporters have become increasingly obsessed with making this the test of the Left’s credentials. So I disagree that social democrats “always” play this kind of card against the Left. They manifestly haven’t for most of the last three years.

    But the current debate does put those of us whose entire political lives have been focused on principled opposition to oppression in a bind, because we have to deal with both the degenerate state of politics and the use of tropes of oppression and anti-oppression for narrow political ends.

    It means there is a clash of principles, and the pro-Gillard camp is demanding we prioritise one response over others. They are also winning the argument among key Left people we work with, in part by drawing on moral appeals to absolute principles around fighting sexism. Yet absolute principles are not what is driving their arguments — they are making a political decision to prioritise one aspect of women’s oppression (the abuse of the PM) over others, and then making us feel uncomfortable when we say these are not the right priorities in fighting oppression.

    So I reject your characterisation of my argument as being able to be read as “anti-sexism is a distraction from the real issues”. My argument is about strategic priorities, and it is only when one accepts (at least in part) the priorities put by the Gillard camp — that the road to a better society, and therefore less misogyny, cannot happen except through first and foremost fighting the sexism arrayed against her.

    Unless we see how politics structures oppressive behaviour and the responses to it, then we become disoriented by the desire to prioritise whatever fight against oppression is currently happening. Not just recognise, not just agree with the general thrust of, but prioritise. And that means we end up making political concessions to the right-wing nature of some campaigns against aspects of oppression, even if only because we are unwilling to take on the hard argument for fear of being labelled apologists for oppression. And if the reformists convince us of this now, we will go into future struggles against oppression even less clear of how to deal with the politics within them.

  10. Nice article. Too many factors are jostling for attention at the one time. Different people value them differently.

    However I think it is useful to fillet the debate about gender discrimination, even while decrying as convincingly as one can the sexist language thrown at the PM.

    It is also useful to consider that while some of the problems are of her own making, many others come from the issues that her party failed to address after defeat in 1996.

    From this perspective personalising the government’s problems is looking in the wrong place. Whatever one thinks of Gillard, Rudd or anyone else in the ALP, the problems are bigger than any one person.

  11. Oh dear. Comparing outage over Jill Meagre as exemplery of majority sentiment on violence against women? The article list me at that reference.

    1. I wasn’t citing it as “exemplary of majority sentiment on violence against women”.

      But there is a bigger question, I think, which lies behind some of these debates — and that is whether there has been a recent sharp rise in sexism, misogyny and gendered violence, or whether much of the recent public concern, protest, etc., about it is a reflection of a new and welcome willingness to push back against the oppression so deeply embedded in our society.

      In addition: The big increase in vile sexism directed against Gillard since she became PM may not have any direct association with patterns of frequency and intensity of sexism outside the political elite. I think in articles like Van’s there is too much presumption there is a direct, automatic relationship, when in fact such an argument is unevidenced.

  12. It’s worth taking a step back here, and itemising what the sexist attacks on Gillard have consisted of:

    1-remarks that she shouldn’t be PM because she’s ‘deliberately barren’ (Bill Heffernan)

    2- Alan Jones call to ‘put her in a chaff bag and drown her’

    3- that she shames her family, specifically her dead father (also Jones)

    4- is a bitch/witch (assorted farmers)

    5- that she has a ‘big bum’ and dresses badly (Germaine Greer),

    6- should be assessed purely on her breasts, thighs and pudenda (‘joke’ menu)

    7- shows too much cleavage (Grace Collier)

    8- that she’s in a mariage blanc, her partner’s a gay man, implicitly that she’s a political automaton who married for show (Howard Sattler, Piers Akerman)

    9- Steven Ciobo’s remark about ‘slitting her throat’

    Clearly something is going on here. Violent language rare in Oz political discourse – ‘backstabbing’ is a dead metaphor, throat-slitting isn’t – a focus on the PM’s gendered embodiment and sex life, rudeness that would not be shown to a male PM. But it has come fairly consistently across the last couple of years. Nor is it a confection of the Right exclusively. Greer, feminist icon, was the first to make remarks about Gillard’s body and appearance, and Labor circulated a menu that appears to have never been used or known about by the Liberal Party, and is just a crappy pub joke – of which hundreds will be told today and everyday – written down. Did things become more more sexist as ‘the piping shrike’ blog suggests – or has the appearance of a crisis of sexism been engineered – coming from the circulation of the menu coinciding with Sattler’s illegitimate question? It was further inflamed by Gillard’s inept remark about a Coalition government by ‘men in blue ties’ which further suggested that she and her spinners didn’t really take seriously the reality of gendered power.

    The degree to which this stuff comes from right and Labor, men and women, suggests a somewhat autonomous process. The reality of a female PM stirs up political and personal anxiety manifested as hate, from people like Jones who are neurotic misogynists of a certain type – and who see Gillard, single inner-city, once-leftish woman as embodying everything they hate, standing in the way of Tony Abbott who embodies everything they love. But Labor have undermined a stand against it by helping circulate it and using notions of gendered power so flippantly. Given that, it is a bit rich to be asked to hold the line against public sexism. Furthermore, there’s a contradiction in some of these accusations. Should violent metaphorical language not be used against Gillard, simply because she’s a woman? Is that progressive or regressive?

    Surely from the Left the answer is to a) name the specific process underway as misogynist in nature and made possible by deep cultural/political currents, make that structural argument more visible, but respond to it with b) a general argument about the exclusion of particular private life – family, body, sexuality etc – from public discourse, and a general discouragement of viscerally violent language. That arises out of respect not for authority per se, but for a republic, a res publica, which allows for the maintenance of a private sphere, and a regard for the enemy, qua human being, that does not preclude a forthright – even literally violent – contestation with them.

    1. I think I agreed with most of that, Guy, except maybe the very last bit. The ruling class may only be personifications of the logic of capital (or “the system”) but they are also conscious carriers out of that logic. It is therefore blurred about how we should treat the corporeal aspect of those people.

      Surely the better place to draw the line is politically rather than on defence of private life itself: To say we reserve the right to attack private lives on a specific political basis, and therefore the argument about the nature of the attack is also political.

      Hence why we would oppose sexist attacks on Gillard but expose her desire to be photographed for Women’s Weekly knitting for Kate & Will’s bub; and why we would differentiate our approach to dealing with the sexism of the political class from the sexism of some working class men.

  13. I’m a conservative blow in.

    Whilst I agree people have said nasty reprehensible things about our PM, so have people done similarly to Abbott, this time coming from the left. Disparate groups/people such as Christians, refugees, Margaret Thatcher, likewise have to put up with a lot, usually not complaining. I’m afraid there are and always will be nasty people – a thick skin is required and mostly she has demonstrated that thick skin, the ultimately counter productive misogeny speech excepted.

    I suggest the PM has compounded her own problems through knifing Rudd, breaking promises, ramshackle Government, etc.

    As a conservative, and leaving aside the political implications, and I have met both in lobbying situations, the PM comes across as the more sincere, approachable and likeable person. Policy wise and politically neither comes anywhere close to Hawks, Keating or Howard – however I digress.

  14. This is an important discussion which Tad is right to see as part of the necessary conversation among the Australian Left about our political crisis. There has seldom been the kind of political sophistication on the Australian Left that Tad craves, but it’s never too late to start to create it. Part of Anne Summers’ analysis is to compare today with the experience of young women in the 70s, but hers is a partial remembrance. Women’s oppression was challenged by women from the unions and the campuses as a Women’s LIBERATION Movement, With the decline in struggle in the later 70s, the movement fragmented into three main strands called the Women’s Movement:
    Women who continued to see the need for liberation and blamed society, continuing campaigns; women who recognised a way forward for some women through reform by the state for equal rights or at least a better life; and women who blamed men and wanted to marginalise men. Needless to say the majority supported an attempt at reform. However, as Summers explains in her new book, “The Misogyny Factor”, the reformists didn’t attempt to guarantee that reforms would continue, as they left the wider social struggle (campaigns outside parliament etc) to work within the bureaucracy and political institutions. The reforms were rolled back starting with the Fraser then Hawke governments.
    The woman question was fragmented and disassociated from its social causes so that today most people see an abstract phenomenon, “sexism” and now “misogyny”, which needs to be challenged separate from the actual causes of oppression identified by 70s women as more than inequality and anti-women attacks. Capitalism relied on unequal position of women in the workplace to divide workers and unequal pay to pull down all wages. Such inequalities needed to be reinforced by ideology about women’s role, itself reinforced by structuring that role for women as child raisers, care-givers.
    Marxists recognise that the freedom measures in society closely follow the position of women, and that the inequalities at the base of the system also flow throughout, so that all women suffer from oppression.
    We must fight oppression/sexism wherever it arises, defending Gillard, but also orient the struggle to challenge the basic material manifestations. So, Gillard’s attack on supporting parents was a serious setback for women’s liberation and reform.
    If Labor want to restore their credentials with working class women this issue, along with actual equal pay, affordable available childcare, legal abortion, etc must be addressed and that would start to raise women’s status and challenge the horrendous anti-woman violence.
    Why am I restating all this? to show that the campaign to defend Gillard is one-sided and while all women benefit from ideological opposition to sexism, it’s like treading water with your feet tied together if you think you will actually undermine oppression just with this campaigning. Thus Left activists need to argue wherever they can to defend Gillard against sexism, but at the same time stress that her policies are undermining the fight. Eva Cox has said some of this but too quietly. It’s not a matter of Gillard achieving on any basis as a bulwark against the Coalition; it is the re-working of a serious comprehensive anti-sexist policy framework that Labor need not an abstract ideological call. Unless supporting parents situation is addressed before the election, working people cannot take the campaign against misogyny as seriously as they otherwise would. Sorry if this seems like a rant I find it hard to use this comment box.

  15. Hi – this isn’t a comment on all this great discussion but just one point of Tad’s, which seemed to suggest that the misogyny voiced about the former PM was an issue confined much more to the super-superstructural than I think it really is:

    ‘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’

    That a slight majority of voters is troubled by the sexism they are aware of does not mean that there is not yet more sexism which they do not recognise as sexism, and do not oppose. Additional poll questions to distinguish concern for women from the growing concern about sexism against men by women (the increasingly believed-in ‘misandry’) might also have been illuminating.

    I’ve expanded here –

    1. Hi Ginny. Thanks for raising this because it’s an important point that I should clarify.

      I wasn’t trying to downplay the fact that sexist views were voiced towards the PM by people outside the political elite, nor to downplay how much sexism there is in society. The point I was trying to make was that those who claim that the sexism against Gillard is merely a reflection of wider sexism did so with no evidence. The part of the Essential poll you don’t quote is that public concern that sexism is a significant problem increased as the issue gained prominence (although I’m not saying it’s a causal link, it does contradict the idea that the misogyny towards Gillard in turn created a general increase in acceptance of sexism).

      My point is to underline the conscious way that the Right mobilised sexism against Gillard as part of a battle within the political elite, rather than the Right’s actions being a mere expression of a problem that all of society must take responsibility for. The way that the Gillard camp then responded to it — with a type of feminism that put defending Gillard and whitewashing her politics more generally, as well as reducing all of Labor’s problems to gender issues, above all else — actually pulled anger at her treatment in a right-wing, dead-end direction.

      I think this is especially a problem because it lets the Right and Left of the political class off the hook — they are simply infected with our sexism and only enlightened politicians can save us from ourselves. In reality, if we are to fight oppression politically rather than at the level of trying to correct oppressive behaviours by individuals, we will actually need to direct our struggle at the political class and the state, rather than expect them to save us.

  16. Thanks for clarifying Tad. Unfortunately, I think it can be true *both* that the public, misogynist invective against Gillard highlighted the public awareness of (and opposition to) sexism *and* that it has helped reinforce aspects of sexism.

    That wasn’t particularly the point *I* was making, of course – just reflecting on the complexities of this issue.

    I do agree with you that any position that the treatment of Gillard is merely a reflection of wider sexism would be wrong. (And that relying on these pro-bourgeois political figures to save us from sexism is basically capitulating to the status quo.)

    Just that it’s important to express this without giving any idea that sexism has only minority support in society.

  17. Sexism was never the total context for Gillard’s demise. She became unpopular in the polls because of the mistakes and failures of the government. Just as Rudd lost support when he failed to deliver on the ETS and mining tax. No matter what the personal and political campaigns against her, she could have remained popular (?)/favourable(?) if her government was not faltering. However, as well, the nature of Australian mainstream politics must be examined. Tad says politics in Aust are ‘hollowed-out’. Let’s look at it: Party leaders have become more important compared to previous periods and the political arguments have become less substantial. This is because there are fewer differences between the major parties, as social democratic politics have adopted neo-liberal policies. Labor and Liberal seem closer together than ever, so the arguments are about who is best manager of the economy/state (rather than who has best politics), and it’s a short step to who has the “ticker” or the most superior “character”, the personalisation of politics, and media support for that. In that environment attacking on the basis of gender is also more likely. Now someone is attacking an ALP MP because he swore on the Koran! Significantly it has become NEWS.

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