CANBERRA OBSERVED: Gillard unleashes gender wars against Abbott by national correspondent
by national correspondent
News Weekly, October 27, 2012
Julia Gillard lit a match to ignite a “gender war” against the leader of the Opposition during a fiery speech in parliament that is now being celebrated in feminist circles as a seminal moment in the advancement of women.
For feminist commentators, particularly those geographically a very long way from the reality of Australian politics, Ms Gillard was holding aloft a torch for women victims of sexism and misogyny everywhere.
As Susan Mitchell, South Australian author of Tony Abbott: A Man’s Man (Melbourne: Scribe Publications, 2011), said of Gillard’s speech: “Whatever happens, Gillard’s words will never be erased. They are proof that words can change the world.”
But while the video of Gillard’s speech went “viral” as a result of some savvy media work inside the Prime Minister’s media office, and through motivated international feminist websites, the actual words in the speech fell well short of concrete examples of Abbott’s alleged “hatred” toward women and his supposed “repulsive double standards” as charged by the Prime Minister.
The former union lawyer’s prosecution of Abbott’s misogyny consisted of five pieces of evidence.
Exhibit 1: In 1998, during a round-table discussion with New South Wales former Treasurer Michael Costa on the dearth of women in power, Abbott asked rhetorically that if men “have more power, generally speaking than women, is that a bad thing?”
Costa’s reply was: “I want my daughter to have as much opportunity as I do.”
Abbott response: “I completely agree, but what if men are by physiology or temperament more adapted to exercise authority or to issue command?”
This is not something that any politician would want to prosecute as a policy, and Abbott has never sought to do so. It was a rhetorical line thrown up in a discussion 14 years ago.
Exhibit 2: Gillard extracted a phrase from a 2004 speech during which Abbott said that “abortion is the easy way out”. In fact, this was part of a much longer, and indeed thoughtful, speech during which he also said: “Even those who think that abortion is a women’s right should be troubled by the fact that 100,000 Australian women choose to destroy their unborn babies every year.”
The context of the phrase is also important in understanding the actual intention of Abbott’s words: “To a pregnant 14-year-old struggling to grasp what’s happening, for example, a senior student with a whole life mapped out or a mother already failing to cope under difficult circumstances, abortion is the easy way out. It’s hardly surprising that people should choose the most convenient exit from awkward situations.”
Exhibit 3: At a dry-cleaner near Canberra last year, during one of his interminable anti-carbon tax exploits for the nightly television news, Abbott warned that the higher cost of electricity would impact on “housewives” who did the ironing or who had their clothes ironed commercially.
Abbott recognised that his words were clumsy and said he was wrong to claim it was only women who did the ironing. In this case, Abbott was guilty of hyperbole, but feminists can’t have it both ways. There can’t be justifiable calls for men to take up their fair share of housework, but also complaints when a politician states that a majority of women are doing the housework.
Exhibit 4: During parliamentary exchanges Abbott has said to Ms Gillard: “If the Prime Minister wants to, politically speaking, make an honest woman of herself….” Presumably, Ms Gillard interpreted this statement as a reference to her unmarried status rather than her truthfulness. Ms Gillard said this was something that would never have been said to any man sitting in this chair.
Exhibit 5: Abbott stood by a placard at a protest rally outside federal parliament which said, “Ditch the Witch”. Shortly after he started speaking, a person standing directly behind him raised a placard which said, “Juliar, Bob Brown’s bitch”.
Abbott should certainly avoid being identified with such signs, but this raises the bar for political guilt by association. It means that neither Labor nor Liberal politicians may ever stand in the vicinity of a slogan that is not politically correct.
In the cold light of day the catalogue of Abbott’s alleged anti-women behaviour, over a couple of decades of politics and thousands of speeches and interviews, is thin at best.
The vast majority of Australian media commentary, including prominent female journalists, said so, roundly rejecting Gillard’s claim that Abbott is a misogynist.
Abbott is a pugilistic politician; he is combative; he is tribal in his politics. He is also fiercely and irrepressibly competitive. His social views, on some issues, run against the grain of modern feminism, but are nevertheless shared by millions of Australians. Abbott is prone to exaggeration, but he is not a woman-hater.
All the Prime Minister has achieved is to debase the word misogyny.
Ironically, Gillard’s celebrated “Misogyny speech”, which will presumably be taught at the dwindling women’s studies courses at universities as her finest moment in politics, will only reaffirm the loyalty of left-wing women who already vote Labor or Green.
As an election year approaches, Labor has started a “class war” on one front and a “gender war” on the other, yet there remains considerable doubt whether either will secure the party more votes.