The Coalition’s man problem

It is becoming a cliche to say the Coalition government has a ‘woman problem’. This is nonsense: it has a man problem. From the ‘big swinging dicks’ posse in parliament to the silence on the disproportionate suffering by women in the pandemic, Australian conservatism is a deeply masculine sphere. The stream of female colleagues lining up to accuse Scott Morrison and his enablers of bullying is shocking, but not a new phenomenon. Women in Australian politics have recorded for years the sexualising, sidelining and offensive ‘banter’ they face, not only from the conservatives in politics. More specifically, however, the political character of the Coalition reflects the degree to which the Australian Right is no longer merely conservative, but part of the worldwide resurgence of patriarchal authoritarian politics.

The latest Jenkins report found 51 per cent of people employed in federal parliamentary workplaces experienced at least one incident of bullying or sexual harassment. One participant in the investigation into Canberra said: ‘It is a man’s world and you are reminded of it every day thanks to the looks up and down you get, to the representation in the parliamentary chambers, to the preferential treatment politicians give senior male journalists.’ The ABC television series Ms Represented recounted an appalling work culture in the first-hand accounts of a range of women who have left politics. Only 31 per cent of MPs are women, and women constitute a mere 19.5 per cent of the ranks of the Coalition. Women are leaving, including possible leader, Julie Bishop, who described the ‘appalling’ behaviour that is taken as the norm. Australia has slid to 50th in world rankings of female representation in parliament.

The Coalition parties seem to have contracted a more serious variant of the misogyny. Most of us recall the Julia Gillard speech recounting her treatment in parliament but some may have missed the appalling trail of abuse, gendered and sexualised, she was constantly subjected to by conservatives. Remember Tony Abbott standing in front of the banner to ‘Ditch the Witch’? Remember the 2013 Coalition fundraising dinner where the menu boasted ‘Julia Gillard Kentucky Fried Quail: Small Breasts, Huge Thighs and a Huge Red Box’? Dr Anne Summer’s ‘Her Rights at Work’ speech detailed the pervasive nature of the sexist abuse.

Over the last decade, this reactionary, often brutal, style of politics has had a significant impact. The treatment of every class of people requiring support has been cruel, with empathy portrayed as a weakness, most especially towards refugees. Women trapped on Nauru were made to line up for each sanitary product one by one, forced to consider exposing themselves in exchange for adequate water to wash, and treated appallingly when they needed an abortion, and worst of all assaulted and raped. The recent scandal over the partisan nature of critical support for those devastated by the NSW and Queensland floods has led to additional stress for family violence survivors, with support workers fearing women would turn to suicide. The 2022 budget was only superficially generous, while actively working to funnel much greater quantities of money to fossil fuel donors than to the emergency response that so many new carbon emitting projects will effectively demand. Tax cuts bent towards the wealthy were cemented, while the end to temporary tax cuts for the Lamington set was masked ahead of the election. Cynical small cheques to tempt voters could in no way address the cuts to Medicare coverage challenging pensioners and the minimal lift in Jobseeker payments still left it disastrously below the poverty line. As always, women are disproportionally affected by this Chicago School-approach to economics.

The lack of empathy inherent in these funding decisions is matched by the inability to express fellow feeling for suffering, despite the expensive hiring of ‘empathy consultants’. The overtly ‘manly’ inability to deal with emotions other than rage is not just a reflection of toxic personalities—male and female—rising to leadership roles: the blokey larrikin manner explored recently by Lech Blaine is a strategy design to project ordinary, supposedly working class values.

A similar performative masculinity is at the forefront of the Republican movement in the US, so often a role model for Australian conservatives. This has given us the routine spectacles of Ivy League graduates adopting the condescending image of a labouring ‘real man.’ In one recent instance, Rep. Josh Hawley, who waved a fisted salute to the 6 January mob ready to ransack the Capitol, spoke about the Leftist project being the ‘deconstruction of American men’ which would lead to the deconstruction of the United States itself. Extreme misogyny is a central ingredient of the Far Right movement that is devouring the Republican Party. The subset of the Right concerned with performative faux masculinity has been referred to as the ‘manosphere’. It combines the patriarchal ideas of Rad Trad Catholics, Evangelicals and Eastern Orthodox Christians with the violent white supremacist ideas of the neo nazi militias. Keeping women in their place unites all of these strands, well represented in Australia’s anti-health policy protests.

The regressive attitude towards women, with additional contempt for women who are queer and/or BIPOC, is prevalent through the American Right. One speaker at a MAGA rally recently pointed to a group of Proud Boys and declared them to be ‘single real men over there looking for housewives.’ This ‘family values’ push to destroy feminism’s impact on women’s choices is part of an international surge in fascist politics that celebrates nostalgic patriarchal roles. Authoritarian nations where far-right nationalism is overtaking democracy celebrate masculinity as strength, and femininity as weakness. This is perhaps most distinct in Putin’s Russia where Orthodox leaders are central to his glorying of a primal, proudly Russian machismo. By contrast, as Yevgenia Albats explains, ‘women have a single role: that of a subservient and silent subordinate who knows her place.’ Putin’s disgust at the ‘infertile and genderless’ West, has been part of the rhetoric about his invasion of Ukraine which, as Emil Edenborg argues, has been presented as a war on homosexuality as much as a war on purported Nazism.

The manufacturing of an existential threat to a normative in-group such as ‘legacy Americans‘ is a classic strategy of fascist politics: in nations where this form of nativist authoritarianism is ascendant, perceived threats to white, straight, male identity are suppressed. In Hungary, the recently re-elected Orban has led a frontal attack on abortion and rights for LGBTQI people. The founder of the Italian League, Umberto Bossi characterised members of his movement as having a perpetual hard-on (the so-called ‘celodurismo’). Britain’s Tories are deploying anti-Trans fears for political purposes. In Brazil, Bolsonaro said he would rather a son die than be gay, as well as characterising the birth of his daughter as a moment of weakness. In the USA, alongside a raft of legislative measures, the language used by Republican politicians and pundits threatens the very existence of trans people and reeks of the propaganda that precedes racial violence. Thought leaders like Joe Rogan push the line that the Woke are silencing men while paid $100 million from Spotify alone to produce around 9 hours a week of podcasts, often fostering male grievance in his worldwide audience of eleven million.

Women, of whichever intersecting identity, share the pain in concrete ways. In Russia, domestic violence was decriminalised, despite the substantial crisis of abuse. Masha Gessen left Russia when a threat to remove the children of her rainbow family was used to silence her. It also manifests in laws such as Texas’s S.B.8 which imposes a bounty on anyone who assists a woman to obtain an abortion after eight weeks’ gestation. These misogynist trends deploy a deeply nostalgic form of (mostly) Christian religion to dictate that the only acceptable societal structure should be traditional patriarchy, and that feminism, and the marginalised identities it seeks to protect, poses nothing but threat to the family, the status quo and the nation itself. Now Amanda Stoker, Assistant Minister for Women in the Morrison government, is doing her best to draw the anti-choice movement into Australian government.

In the 2022 election there have been attempts to bring a new female presence to Canberra. Echoing the Indi experiment with a truly representative community candidate, several climate and integrity-driven independent candidates are standing, mostly women. They have been greeted by the Coalition and media mates with misogynistic dismissal: professional women with a range of accomplishments were derided as ‘doctors’ wives,’ and David Sharma described his independent opponent as on a ‘mid-life frolic’ or campaigning ‘as a hobby.’ Alexander Downer disdained them as ephemeral even in victory, robbing Frydenberg and Sharma of their right to become “truly great men.” This is emblematic of the Coalition’s conception of politics as a male game, which helps explain why it is much less likely to preselect women for safe seats.

Australia needs dramatic change in our politics to make women’s experience as much part of the shaping of the nation as men’s. It will take a thorough overhaul of our political structures to flush this fashionable authoritarian sexism from our government. Watching so many former democracies embrace misogynist authoritarianism shows us that it’s not only the climate at stake. The outcome of this election is critical in every way.

Lucy Hamilton

Lucy Hamilton is a Melbourne writer with degrees from the University of Melbourne and Monash University.

More by Lucy Hamilton ›

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Related articles & Essays