Bullying in politics is not just a Liberal problem: it’s a political ideology

Article by Lauren Rosewarne /
September 06, 2018 /

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Slut-shaming and bullying aren’t new concepts. They’re not Australian Parliament-specific problems, they’re not #MeToo era problems and they’re not social media/political-correctness-gone-awry or weak-willed women’s problems.

Rather, they’re symptoms of something awry — something broken — in party politics, party ideology and political life.

When Liberal MP Julia Banks resigns because of bullying and intimidation, when Liberal senator Lucy Gichuhi threatens to name and shame her workplace tormentors, when Labor MP Emma Husar quits because of slut-shaming and when Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young claims to have endured over a decade of it, a picture is emerging of something ugly.

Politics is an industry in which airing such accusations regularly sees women publicly condemned, ridiculed and, un-ironically further marginalised. It’s why such claims are almost never made.

So when a small number of women dare to come forward and share their horrible experiences, it’s reasonable to assume that there are many others looking on, thinking “Yes! Me too!”, but who aren’t yet ready to send their own tweet, hold their own press conference or sacrifice their own political career.

The clock’s ticking

On one hand, politics is like every other workforce: sexual harassment and bullying occur there because it occurs everywhere.

Over the past year #MeToo has offered us a crash course into the perils of being female: being female anywhere, but particularly so in the workplace.

On the other hand, politics is an industry that bakes in some additional hazards that make holding office that little bit harder for women.

Public office and political life have long been the province of men. While women have held office in Australia since the early 1940s, political culture has been very slow to evolve to include women equally and wholeheartedly.

It remains a workplace dominated by those with the loudest voices and with personal lives most conducive to spending large amounts of time away: ie a wife to keep the home fires burning.

It’s a workplace geared around men — their “strengths”, their values, their rules — and which doesn’t offer the equivalent of a boy’s club-buffer to cushion the experiences of those women who break into their ranks.

The problems inherent in politics as a game, an industry and a workplace, hold no party affiliation: bullies and sexual harassers ply their trade in parties across the ideological spectrum.

It is, however, no surprise that two of the women voicing bullying claims are representatives of the Liberal party.

Saying ‘toughen up’ rationalises abuse

When shockjock Alan Jones tells female MPs to “toughen up” — in the thoroughly oblivious way that only a white, middle-class, 77-year-old conservative can — he is vocalising the sexist mentality that leads to, and that ultimately rationalises, women’s abuse in the workplace.

The ideology of conservative groups like the Liberal Party is undergirded by a pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps mentality.

Recognising that the playing field has never been level and that there are limitations to the capacity for individuals to change their own circumstances is simply not in the party’s ethos. Born-to-rule trumps helping those needing a leg up every time.

Conservatism, by its very nature, doesn’t want equality. Certainly not in the context of gender. When Julie Bishop distanced herself from the F-word in 2014, she did so as a member of a political party that has never seen the necessity for, or the benefit of feminism. To Ms Bishop’s eventual demise, it’s worth noting.

To vanquish the abuse of women in politics — akin to weeding out domestic violence or terrorism or, truth be told, most other crimes — we need to accept that there is something distinctly gendered going on.

Australia as a country and certainly the Liberal party as an organisation diligently dodge discourse about the highly troubling ways that “being a man” in our culture impacts women.

Doing so however, limits the ability to rectify the gendered problems that female politicians experience and further dissuades women from seeking office.

We each need to care about this

Nobody likes a visitor coming into our home, running a finger over our dusty bookshelves and shaming us for our slovenliness. American writer Maureen Dowd doing so — spotlighting Australia’s toxic frontier masculinity — was thoroughly unpleasant, completely embarrassing, but also, alas, startlingly insightful.

For women’s experiences to improve not only do we need to hear from victims, but more importantly we need a consensus that there is a problem in Australia that merits attention.

We then need to be sufficiently motivated to act. I’m not convinced we’re there yet.

We might complain about the #MeToo movement being stuck in the consciousness-raising stage but Australia seems reluctant to even listen to the plights of victims.

We each need to care about this because our elected officials must reflect our values.

We also need to care because we’re paying their salaries of every elected official, which means which we’re buying every single aspect of their output: the good and the wretched.

© Lauren Rosewarne 2018