The culture of disrespect

Article by The Political Sword (Blog) /
June 16, 2013 /
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In the week just gone there was an extraordinary coincidence of events that starkly reminded us of just how much disrespect contaminates our society, most of it directed towards women. It is a scourge that dates back for centuries, one though that the forward-looking fondly believed was losing ground as more enlightened attitudes appeared to be emerging. What happened last week calls that hope into question.

When Julia Gillard made her speech at the launch of Labor’s Women for Gillard campaign in Sydney last Tuesday, she let surge into the open the simmering undercurrent of sexism and discrimination against women that we all know continues to afflict our society, one that many prefer not to see or acknowledge.

Albeit unintentionally, as if to confirm her point, later that day at the post-match press conference after the Socceroos four-nil win against Jordan, coach Holger Osieck set the ball rolling when he made a sexist slur that “women should shut up in public”. The following day Jason Hickson, president of the Cessnock Hunter Young Liberals branch, tweeted: “Fairly certain Socceroos coach was referring to @JuliaGillard last night . . . not women in general. Heres [sic] to Holger if that’s [sic] the case! #auspol.” This earned him suspension from the Liberal Party by NSW Liberal Party state director Mark Neeham.

The PM’s message was that Labor supported women in a way unmatched by the Coalition, and that if Tony Abbott should become PM, women would “once again [be] banished from the centre of Australia’s political life”, reinforcing that with her claim that ‘men in blue ties’ would marginalize women. Labor’s front bench of one woman in three against the Coalition’s less than one in five, goes some way to validating her assertion.

She also put abortion back on the agenda with: “We don’t want to live in an Australia where abortion again becomes the political plaything of men who think they know better”

Fuming with righteous indignation, Julie Bishop quickly labelled her speech as indulging in the “base politics of fear and division”, of “waging a gender war”, insisting it was “patronising and insulting”, and “a speech not worthy of a prime minister”.

The reaction to PM Gillard’s speech among women was mixed. Some felt uneasy that the gender issue had been raised in a political context, and that abortion had been resurrected as an issue. Even some feminists and commenters on Hoopla expressed concern, some dismay. Of course, male columnists and several female, notably Janet Albrechtsen, were delighted to agree with Julia Gillard’s critics. Even a couple of Labor backbenchers expressed concern.

However, in PM right to put gender on the agenda in the Sydney Morning Herald, Leslie Cannold, Melbourne academic and writer, and President of Reproductive Choice Australia, pointed out that Tony Abbott had made many statements about abortion: “I think it is a tragedy that we have as many abortions as we do…” and “I’m a bit like Bill Clinton…who said that he thought it should be safe, legal and rare. And I underline ‘rare’”. In Abbott’s words, a last resort.

Cannold goes on to quote Abbott again:“I certainly have always said that the whole issue here was to try to ensure that we empowered women…[and] gave women in a very difficult position all the support they needed to make what was for them the best possible choice”. (For those confused by that gobbledygook, that was Abbott signalling to his anti-choice supporters that his government could return to the Pregnancy Support Measures of the Howard era designed – and here I quote Abbott – to “reduce abortion numbers through pregnancy support counselling”.)” Cannold fears that the shaming and stigmatizing of the one in three Australian women who have an abortion will escalate under an Abbott government.

Abbott’s unsuccessful attempt when he was Health Minister to assume control of the use of abortion drug RU 486 is another indication of his past attitude to abortion.

On the Jon Faine show on ABC 774 radio on Friday, Cannold said she had looked for any sign that Abbott had changed his attitude to abortion, but had seen none. She believes that Julia Gillard was right in raising this issue.

So unless Abbott has undergone an epiphany on the subject of abortion, expect that an Abbott government would take a regressive attitude.

No sooner had her speech hit the headlines than, seemingly out of the blue, a report emerged of a highly offensive menu at a dinner for twenty in March to raise funds for endorsed Liberal candidate for Fisher, Mal Brough. It described our PM as a quail dish, elaborating on her physical features and her genitals in a deeply odious way. Descriptions on the same menu of two Labor males, Kevin Rudd and Wayne Swan, although grossly rude, carried no sexual connotations. Tony Abbott and other Liberals quickly denounced this sexist attack on Julia Gillard, and Mal Brough apologized. Joe Hockey, a special guest at the dinner, said he never saw the menu, and came over all offended, accusing the PM of calling him a ‘fat man’ in parliament, and insinuating that her reaction to what the journalistic fraternity now insist on calling ‘menugate’, was unfairly directed at him.

Then it emerged that Brisbane businessman Joe Richards had written the offensive menu. He passed it off as ‘a lighthearted joke’, which he had created with his son, a joke that he never intended to be made public. But when Chef David Carter posted it on Facebook it became very public. Subsequently Abbott declared that the menu had never left the kitchen. It was stylishly printed though, and as Brough immediately apologized for the menu, describing it as “deeply regrettable, offensive and sexist”, it is curious that he did this, as now denies knowledge of the menu.

In the light of the Richards story, instead of trying to weasel the Coalition out of the firing line, as Abbott would characteristically have done, he suggested that it was time for everyone to ‘move on’. I wonder how much he really knows about ‘menugate’?

News Limited papers, by attempting to connect Labor figures with Richards, are now trying to limit the damage this episode has done to the Coalition, I suspect in vain.

I expect we will never know the full story, but the fact that the menu was for a Liberal fund-raiser, suggests the involvement of Liberal supporters, and will reflect adversely on them.

Whatever the true story, the undeniable fact is that this menu reflects deep-seated disrespect for our PM and deeply sexist attitudes towards her. No one has defended the menu, and politicians from all parties have been outspoken in condemnation. It is yet another example of the culture of disrespect that afflicts politics today, disrespect that is often directed to the nation’s first female Prime Minister.

As Julia Gillard’s speech was being dissected and critiqued, another event intervened: General David Morrison, Head of the Australian Army, reported on an extensive study of sexism in the Army, revealing investigations into as many as 90 serving officers who might be guilty of producing what he called “highly inappropriate material demeaning women” distributed across the Internet and Defence’s email networks. He added: “If this is true, then the actions of these members are in direct contravention of every value the Australian Army stands for.” He bluntly told those involved that if they could not accept the Army’s values they should ‘get out’. Much more will be revealed about this scandal in the weeks ahead. Defence Minister Stephen Smith said that the culture that allowed such actions to occur was not recent; it was decades old and represented a major eradication challenge for the Army.

Although not related to the political events of the week, the Morrison report highlighted the widespread nature of disrespect for women in the Army, one likely reflected in the community generally.

Then came the most infamous event of all, the interview of PM Gillard by shock jock Howard Sattler on radio 6PR in Perth on Thursday evening.

His insensitive probing at the very beginning of an arranged interview with the PM into the sexual preference of the PM’s partner Tim Mathieson with the blunt: “Tim’s gay”, and his persistent questioning along these lines, has brought him universal and strident condemnation from politicians, commentators and the media, including such outspoken shock jocks as Derryn Hinch, and even Ray Hadley. Alan Jones seems not to have commented; I suppose it’s a case of ‘people in glass houses…’. Sattler was subsequently suspended and sacked; Fairfax apologized. Sattler was unrepentant; ‘he had no regrets’. So much for his attitude to Julia Gillard, whom he regards as ‘fair game’! There’s no need to go into details; you probably know them already after all the publicity this event attracted. If you want to, take a look at the video in this piece.

What is important is that here is a radio personality of long standing, who thought it was appropriate to be grossly disrespectful to the nation’s Prime Minister. Would he have been so had the PM been male? Would he have asked about the sexual preference of the PM’s partner? You know the answer.

Julia Gillard’s fear was that an interview like this might deter young women from undertaking a career in public life and in politics.

On Friday’s episode of ABC’s The Drum, where there was condemnation by all the panellists, Mary Crooks, Executive Director of the Victorian Women’s Trust, and author of A Switch in Time – restoring respect to Australian politics, added her words of denunciation about the disrespectful and sexist attacks on our PM.

Anne Summers reinforced Julia Gillard’s assertions about the paucity of women in the Abbott team, and his longstanding attitude towards abortion.

On Friday’s PM on ABC radio, Martin Cuddihy interviewed a Sydney hairdresser who said: “It’s really rude to talk to the Prime Minister about her personal life”, and when asked what he thought about the implication that because the Prime Minister’s partner is a hairdresser, he’s gay, he replied: “Really I don’t know man, but I feel really sorry about the Prime Minister, the way he talked to her and she felt a little bit embarrassed and I think this is really rude and bad.”

Cuddihy then turned to Dr Lauren Rosewarne, a Senior Lecturer in the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Melbourne, who when asked her opinion, said: “I think what it really was about was yet another example of Julia Gillard being interrogated in very intimate personal ways that we have not see any other politician being interrogated before and being slandered and slurred and derided on the basis of personal intimate things.” When asked what Sattler was trying to ask about her, she replied “He was basically trying to imply what kind of a man would be interested in being with Julia Gillard. What kind of a person is she? Is she desirable? The inference, of course, from his perspective, is no and therefore it’s a slight on her sexuality and her appeal and her desirability and what kind of a woman she is”. In Rosewarne’s view, the thrust of Sattler’s question went well beyond the ‘gay partner’ query. 

On the ABC’s AM yesterday, former Premier of Victoria, Joan Kirner, expressed her outrage at Sattler’s questions and went onto say “Men are rarely questioned on their spouses or their partners, and nor should they be. And the question to ask is why is this done to women? And the answer is because we still see women as appendages to males and not standing there with their own rights, with the capacities to exercise power.” She too suffered at the hands of the media; cartoonists regularly depicted her in a polka dot dress, sometimes so offensively that her daughter would advise her: “Don’t look at the cartoons today Mum!”

There’s no need for any more evidence about what has been a week characterized by one sexist episode after another, unrelated, but pointing to the worrisome residue of sexist behaviour in our community, in these examples directed towards service women, women in general, and PM Julia Gillard in particular. Her speech on Tuesday along these lines, criticized by many, including feminists, seems to have been vindicated by subsequent events: ‘menugate’, the Army scandal, and the Sattler interview.

How has this come about? It seems as if all the efforts of those who have fought for equal rights and recognition for women for so long, still have a battle ahead of them.

Who is responsible?

The Army scandal appears to be the persistence of a culture of disrespect towards women from Army men. The recent exposure follows a long line of similar, although perhaps less pervasive episodes. It points to widespread cultural problems that so far have not been addressed, or have defied correction. This time, General Morrison seems determined to root out the offenders and cleanse the Army of this scourge. We hope he succeeds.

But what of the poisonous sexism and disrespect that pervades our body politic, where menus demeaning the PM in an offensively sexual way are printed, where she is subject to grossly inappropriate questioning by a Perth shock jock? Who is responsible for that?

As in all complex issues there are multiple factors. No one person or group is wholly responsible. But to avoid looking for some of the culprits is simply a copout. The Fourth Estate will not even attempt to ask why we are in this position, nor will it look for the perpetrators. Only the Fifth Estate will dare.

If we look for how the level of disrespect and sexism has come about in Federal politics, the first place to look is at the leadership of the Coalition.

Look at the track record of the Leader of the Opposition. Here is a man with a long past history of aggression and disrespect towards women who have defeated him in political combat. Here is the man who punched the wall near Barbara Ramjan after she defeated him in a student politics battle, who kicked in a glass door after another defeat. His supporters argue that was many years go when he was at university, but we have seen similar behaviour more recently. Ever since he was outmanoeuvered by Julia Gillard in the negotiations with the Independents and she became PM in a minority government, Abbott has called her prime ministership, and her Government ‘illegitimate’. He still insists the prize should have been his. As he has done in the past, he has set himself on a path of destruction of her and her Government.

This path is littered with demeaning insults. He has persistently used the terms ‘she’, ‘her’, and ‘this Prime Minister’ to diminish her standing. She is not the only object of his disrespect. He persists in calling the parliamentary Speaker, who has requested that term be used, ‘Madam Speaker’, just as he called the student chairperson who defeated him back in student days ‘Chair thing’, a sign of his disrespect that continued all year.

In parliament he attacks her like a rabid dog, over and again, as do his front bench: Christopher Pyne, Joe Hockey and Julie Bishop. Read Political hatred: its genesis and its toll, and take a look at their faces contorted with rage, hatred and disrespect. Just this week, Joe Hockey tweeted about Julia Gillard: “She has never deserved respect, and will never receive it.” Think of that for a moment before anyone tries to argue that Abbott and Co. have not generated disrespect for the most senior political figure in this nation, for the high office of Prime Minister. Of course they have.

It was Abbott’s echoing in parliament of shock jock Alan Jones’ slur that her father had ‘died of shame’ because of his daughter’s behaviour, which precipitated her famous and inspiring so-called ‘misogyny speech’ that found favour all around the world, especially with women, who understood exactly what she was saying.

At doorstops, Abbott endlessly repeats his mantras: ‘the worst Prime Minister in Australian political history’, presiding over ‘the worst government in our history’, and ‘a bad government, getting worse’. He paints her as grossly incompetent, as having poor judgement, and as an untrustworthy liar. Both his frontbench and backbench faithfully echo his mantras with almost religious fervour, as do his media sycophants, uncritical of him or his disrespectful assertions. He can rely on Paul Kelly, Dennis Shanahan, Chris Kenny, Janet Albrechtsen and their ilk to back him in with all his disrespectful rhetoric.

Alan Jones’ infamous ‘Juliar’ interview, his ‘put her in a hessian bag and take her out to sea’, and his repeated vilification of our PM in the most offensive terms, have created an aura of disrespect for her and her position. Ray Hadley has joined in the demonization. Tony Abbott, Bronwyn Bishop and Sophie Mirabella standing in front of ‘Ditch the Witch’ signs at an Alan Jones’ sponsored carbon tax rally in Canberra screamed disrespect for PM Gillard.

Is it any wonder that there is so much disrespect abroad that even school kids feel able to throw sandwiches at her?

We ought not be surprised that journalists and shock jocks feel free to ask her insulting and demeaning questions.

I lay most of the disrespect directed to PM Julia Gillard squarely at the feet of the would-be PM, Tony Abbott, and the rest of it at his front bench, his back bench, and his media supporters. By creating an aura of disrespectfulness, day after day, month after month, year after year, they have given ‘permission’ to every Tom, Dick and Harry to do the same, from school children throwing salami sandwiches at our PM, to shock jocks throwing insolent questions at her. If Abbott and Co had drawn a firm line below such disrespectful talk and action, if they had insisted that politics should be above this type of behaviour, or to use a favourite Abbott phrase: ‘We are better than this’, the gross level of disrespect that exists and has been exhibited so grotesquely last week, would not have occurred. Prove me wrong.

You won’t see anything like this in the Fourth Estate. You know why.