Calls to end the culture of slut shaming of women in Australian politics

Article by Fiona Wingett /
The Daily Telegraph /
September 28, 2018  /
Click here to view original /

When Senator Sarah Hanson-Young was told in Parliament to “stop shagging men”, after years of abuse enough was finally enough.

She called out Liberal Democrat senator David Leyonhjelm, who instead of apologising, repeated his abuse, told her to “f… off” and went on to make further accusations about her private life on air, slut shaming her to win an argument, she claims.

Now Hanson-Young is calling for a new code of conduct, Saturday Extra can reveal, which would see those who transgress excluded temporarily from attending the chamber and force politicians to lead by example.

Her plan, which would include financial penalties and exclusion from chairing committees that come with a pay bonus, is already winning backing.

Hanson-Young is suing 66-year-old Leyonhjelm for defamation, a case that will come back to court next month.

But she is far from the first parliamentarian to face abuse borne entirely from her gender. The misogyny speech by Australia’s first female prime minister Julia Gillard in 2012 went viral as she called out not just the Leader of the Opposition, but all those who judged her for her gender, her childlessness and her appearance, and who chorused “ditch the witch” in their campaign against her.

But in 2018, when the advances women have made are myriad and they hold some of the highest offices around the globe in politics, business and elsewhere, why is the Australian Parliament such a toxic place for women who face a “toughen up, buttercup” attitude from some of their male counterparts, and what can be done?

Women MPs face a vicious double standard, one where they are judged for their looks, their body, their clothes, for not having children and, paradoxically, also for being mothers who, by the very structure of Parliament, often have to leave their children in the care of others for days while they do their job. And they are regularly on the receiving end of overt sexist abuse in the chamber.

Former foreign affairs minister Julie Bishop’s liking for smart clothes and jewellery and her lack of children have all been used as reasons to denigrate her. Chief adviser to former PM Tony Abbott, Sky political presenter Peta Credlin had her reputation dragged through the mud with whispered, and completely untrue, allegations she was having an affair with her boss. She was a powerful woman in politics and Abbott’s opponents targeted her to get to him, trashing her reputation and using it as their political football.

“I can’t be any clearer — it is about as low as it gets,” she said at the time. Dr Lauren Rosewarne, lecturer in political science and gender at the University of Melbourne, says she cannot see a legislative answer to the problem, but agrees with Hanson-Young about a new code. “In the context of sex, you can only make so much legislation. But a code of conduct is definitely one route. Most employers have a sexual harassment code that is often harsher than legislation.

“They represent the values of that organisation and what it wants their employees to be complying with.” But she believes drawing a code up for Parliament would cause endless arguments about what constitutes slut shaming or bullying because of the very issue that is at the heart of it.

“The Australian Parliament is very white and very male. The idea that people who have never experienced this and who would find it hard to understand would be the majority of the people drawing up the code — that is a problem.” Hanson-Young believes the behaviours which degrade, insult and harm women MPs should be called out — something which, in itself, is a difficult thing to do.

How often does the victim have the strength to stand up to the bully? “People have to be held accountable; there have to be consequences,” Hanson-Young says. “At the moment in Parliament there are none. Yes, there was the censure against David Leyonhjelm, which is seen as very serious, but beyond that he still gets to rock up to work every day.

“We have to shame the shamers and that means getting the courage to speak out and supporting women who do name it.

“Men in the chamber have shouted out the names of men they say I have had sex with. After I started speaking about it people, including men, within Parliament contacted me to say they knew people who had said things like this. But they didn’t feel empowered to speak up for me, either.” Labor MP Emma Husar resigned after unfounded allegations she had carried out a Sharon Stone-style Basic Instinct move in the office of fellow MP Jason Clare.

Although she admits there were other issues, such as her management of her office, the allegation that was most destructive was the one where she is said to have crossed her legs, not wearing underwear, in front of her colleague.

After weeks of relentless coverage over the issue — a “shit storm”, she calls it — she finally resigned, unable to cop the abuse any more.

“Slut shaming is nothing new,” she says. “It’s used as a method of power and control, to keep women in check and to tell women ‘know your place’, ‘if you rise above your station we are going to start vicious rumours that are at the very core of who you are. We are going to talk about your gender or talk about your sexuality or things that are really no one else’s business’. It doesn’t happen to men.” She cites Barnaby Joyce and his affair with staffer Vikki Campion as a case in point. Indeed, Joyce slut shamed his own partner, when he questioned the paternity of their then unborn child.

“Men are treated in a completely different way. Barnaby knocks up his girlfriend, he keeps his job, people have affairs and keep their job and I have some unfounded allegation made by a disgruntled ex-employee that has absolutely no basis in fact and I lost my job.

“I didn’t run my office well, I didn’t need an investigation to tell me that, I had been asking for help for two years.” Professor Catharine Lumby of Macquarie University agrees women are judged differently. “The fact that Jacinda Ardern is a mother is seen as her defining characteristic in a way that it wouldn’t be for a man. If you are a young woman there will be comments about your sexuality. If you are an older woman who is larger, there will be comments about that. There’s a lot of cultural baggage that women carry with their bodies.” She believes quotas would be the start of addressing the issue of sexism and slut shaming in Parliament. “However, we are dealing with complex issues — we are really talking about raising awareness and cultural change. I wish it were easy, but it takes a very long time.” ALP Maitland MP Jenny Aitchison spoke this week in NSW Parliament about her medical difficulties and subsequent weight gain, which she says was used against her.

“I put on about 12kg because of the pain I experienced, and had to endure the taunts of those opposite, particularly from the member for Baulkham Hills (David Elliott) calling me the ‘member for weightland’,” Aitchison says.

“I don’t care, I have no regard for his opinion, but I look at the example he sets every day, of the disrespect and the nastiness, and I wonder who else in this chamber is suffering from some unknown issue, and how his and others’ bullying behaviour would just be adding to someone’s pain and suffering.” Hanson-Young is publishing a book on slut shaming on Monday titled En Garde, which she describes as a clarion call to women to call out sexism.

She adds: “I’ve been really disappointed to see the debate in the last few months around bullying and intimidation. There’s an attitude that it’s just part of the rough and tumble (of politics). That’s an excuse, the ‘toughen up princess’ approach, when the reality is we are all pretty tough in that place.

“Some of the least tough people are some of the blokes, who have very fragile glass jaws. To think that the public accept that as an excuse is doing a huge disservice to the people we serve.

“There is a line and the stuff I am describing crosses that line well and truly and there must be consequences.

“It is time for a code of conduct within Parliament, something that all politicians and all political parties sign up to and abide by. We expect these standards in normal work-places. Financial penalties could be considered or exclusion from chairing committees, which comes with a pay bonus. But ultimately, the Parliament should be able to decide that if your behaviour isn’t appropriate, you are excluded from the chamber from time to time. It would sharpen people’s minds very quickly.” Husar is a forthright woman, her sentences peppered with expletives, but it is hard not to empathise with her.

Her voice cracking with emotion, she says: “I have been called a slut, I have had my reputation tarnished, I’ve had everything about my integrity questioned … I don’t know that I will ever get a job other than cleaning toilets.

“This is the terrible reality. When you are dragged like that through the media after putting yourself out there … I don’t know that I will ever recover. I am a single mother with three children and I may never be able to get a job again because the blemish to my reputation is so significant.” Perhaps the sooner sanctions are put in place, the sooner it will change.