The Dawn Chorus

Fresh Australian Feminism

Spill fever and the feminist fallout

Posted by Nic Heath on December 9, 2009

Politicians, pundits and the public alike have been giving women’s role both in the electorate and in elected office a fair amount of thought recently following the spill fever in federal and NSW state politics.

First off: the Liberal spill that led to Tony Abbott’s surprise ascension to Leader of the Opposition. As the Twittersphere lit up and the nation tried digesting this unexpected development one thread of analysis looked at Abbott’s somewhat erratic relationship with female voters.

I must admit I rarely pay mind to anything that flows from Miranda Devine’s pen, but now I’ve read her defense of Abbott’s inherent appeal to women (or rubbishing of “the aggressively secular, paleo-feminist, emasculating Australian broad, for whom unabashed red-blooded blokeishness is an affront of biblical proportions”) I might as well take a moment to disagree with her.

In Abbott’s real trouble is the sisterhood Devine’s premise is to refute the claim that the “popular perception of the new Opposition Leader is that women can’t stand his blokeish, confrontational style.” This is a deliberate misinterpretation of the reason women voters may steer away Abbott. By pinning the problem on Abbott’s style, Devine skips over the real problem – which is the substance of Abbott’s views on social policy.

What women voters are more likely to find worrying than political bluster is Abbott’s previous history of blurring the line between his personal religious beliefs and his public role in federal cabinet. A notorious example of this is Abbott’s handling of RU486. As Health Minister Abbott was seen to make a decision based on his personal morality rather than for the overall good of Australian women’s reproductive rights, which effectively constituted a violation of trust.

I would argue that the big issue here is not Abbott’s attitude to women per se, but how his Catholicism affects his political and social views. Is it acceptable in Australian secular society to have the country governed by leaders who have trouble separating religion and politics? It strikes me as dangerous territory.

So what makes Abbott potentially divisive to the electorate lies in his conservative views and whether you are sympathetic to them or not, rather than your sex. Miranda Devine for one is clearly unperturbed by Abbott’s views on abortion (she probably thinks he’s a bit liberal). It is likely though that an openly religious politician whose faith directly informs his politics such as Abbott has a greater chance of alienating women when his religious views clash with reproductive rights.

More worrying than his perceived ‘blokeish’ demeanour is Abbott’s reshuffled front bench. As Crikey’s Bernard Keane puts it:

“In the event of an Abbott election victory, this line-up would almost certainly drive action on abortion and other social policy touchstones in government. Eric Abetz tried to stop Medicare funding for abortions in the last term of the Howard government. Hardline Catholic Kevin Andrews first came to prominence striking down the Northern Territory’s euthanasia laws. Barnaby Joyce, another Catholic, has described abortion as “carnage” and has said he wants sexual assault victims to take a resulting pregnancy full-term. Bronwyn Bishop, Phillip Ruddock and Sophie Mirabella all voted in support of retaining the ban on RU-486”.

It remains to be seen whether this conservative shadow ministry will campaign on conservative social policy, or will Abbott as Opposition Leader put his electoral responsibilities before his faith? This comment made by Abbott on the 7.30 Report isn’t at all encouraging:

“Well, I’m not gonna try to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes – women’s or anyone else’s. I will be myself. I will not try to remake myself. I imagine that as my political circumstances change, people will see different aspects of my political character, and they’ll make up their own minds.”

It will be interesting to see how women vote in next year’s federal election.

Meanwhile, Kristina Keneally has the dubious privilege of becoming NSW’s first female premier. Dubious of course because it is NSW, and a privilege because Keneally has made one more crack in the glass ceiling.

Or has she?

Much has been made of Premier Keneally’s ties to factional heavyweights in the Labor Government, with the epithet ‘Puppet Premier’ appearing in dozens of headlines reporting her promotion last week.

So is it true, as Tory Maguire suggests, that “those looking for a feminist victory to celebrate should probably look elsewhere”?

Is it fair that every female politician in leadership roles be assessed for their suitability as a clear-cut feminist role model? What makes a ‘feminist victory’ anyway? Keneally is an imperfect candidate for the post of premier in much the same Nathan Rees was 15 months ago. She’s inexperienced and at the helm of a government flawed by its factions, so we’d best wish her luck.

So where do I look for my feminist victory? Can it be argued that KK makes the cut? Julie Bishop – Stepford Deputy?  Who in Australian politics constitutes a bona fide candidate for feminist success? Who can we be proud of?

My vote is for Julia Gillard, but comment with any other suggestions of female politicians who float your boat.

10 Responses to “Spill fever and the feminist fallout”

  1. Ms Black said

    I agree, with reservations, that Ms Gillard is one of the few candidates who could maintain the title feminist. Maybe Joan Kirner with all her draw backs, the democrat women. I don’t think a feminist victory can exist in politics. Female politicans are too often anti-feminist victories, celebrately held in opposition to feminism.

    Abott is enlightenment disadvantaged for sure. But I don’t think that rules out popularity with lady voters. Has anyone noticed the ‘agressive’ return to religion and ‘family.’

    • Nic Heath said

      Perhaps it is the case that to be a successful politician, of any sex, one must make real-world compromises that conflict with ideology?

      And I read this piece by David Penberthy in the punch crossing Westpac CEO Gail Kelly off the feminist winner list too.

  2. Julia Gillard as feminist victory, absolutely. Am interested to see what Marise Payne does, but I always feel she’s in the wrong party. As for Abbott, let’s not forget his joke about John Brogden’s suicide attempt. And that he’s connected to the Endeavour Forum – those cheery folks who are anti-feminist, anti-abortion, homosexuality is a psychiatric disorder and single mothers shouldn’t have rights.

  3. Annarose said

    Well done for a well written, thoughtful and rational piece! Whenever I write about People Skills I find it hard not to slip into hateful rhetoric or hysteria… I do so loathe the man. Yet your calm and reasonable argument is far more persuasive than my childish name calling (Budgie Smuggling Woman Hater- I mean, what?). Good work Nic!

  4. caitlinate said

    She’s a Victorian MP but Colleen Hartland is the only one I can think of that I would immediately identify as a feminist female politician – she did heaps of amazing work on the decriminalising of abortion down here.

  5. Jaa said

    Pru Goward.
    *dry heave*
    I jest.

  6. The Amazing Kim said

    I’m quite the fan of senator Sarah Hanson-Young and former senator Kerry Nettle myself. Unapologetic feminists and not afraid to propose progressive legislation, even if it didn’t have a hope in hell.

    Fran Bailey, my local member, has also done a heck of a lot of good work for her electorate, though I don’t know her philosophical position on anything.

  7. Flo said

    How about Judith Troeth (Liberal Senator for Victoria)? She spoke quite passionately for the Pregnancy Counselling (Truth in Advertising) Bill 2006 and also spoke against the proposed removal of the Medicare rebate for second term abortions.

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