Kathy Marks: Cynical manipulation an ugly counter to sexism

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Julia Gillard's attempt to capitalise on anger towards misogynistic behaviour is insulting. Photo / AP
Julia Gillard's attempt to capitalise on anger towards misogynistic behaviour is insulting. Photo / AP

When Julia Gillard comprehensively demolished Tony Abbott in Parliament last year, calling him a sexist and misogynist, women around the world cheered.

When she warned last week that women would be marginalised and their abortion rights threatened under a Coalition government, even her most ardent female fans cringed.

Regardless of context - Gillard was defending a man (the former Speaker, Peter Slipper) whose text messages compared women's genitalia to shellfish - her parliamentary speech was impassioned, forensically detailed and above all sincere.

Her speech to a new fundraising group, Women for Gillard, was entirely unconvincing, sounding like a final, desperate throw of the dice for a Prime Minister facing certain defeat.

Had a certain, now notorious menu not emerged less than 24 hours later, to be followed by an excruciatingly bone-headed grilling of Gillard by a now ex-radio host, her critics - who included some of Australia's leading female commentators - would have received more air time.

But although those two episodes triggered a rush of public sympathy for the country's first female Prime Minister, they have not revived her flagging political fortunes.

An opinion poll in yesterday's Fairfax papers found that Labor's support has fallen 10 per cent among men and risen only 2 per cent among women. It put Labor's primary vote at 29 per cent, compared with 47 per cent for the Coalition, with the latter 16 points ahead on a two-party-preferred basis.

It's hard to be a woman in Australia these days, torn between distaste for Gillard's cynical attempts to manipulate female voters and revulsion at the depths of misogyny being plumbed by antediluvian sections of the male population.

Never mind whether the "joke" menu was actually distributed at the Liberal National Party fundraiser for Mal Brough - the Mal Brough whose fingerprints are all over the Peter Slipper affair and who is now standing for Slipper's Queensland seat. With its crude description of Gillard's figure and genitalia, it was typical of the highly offensive material which has been circulating on the internet since she replaced Kevin Rudd.

Would a male prime minister - or a male politician, or any male, for that matter - be described in such terms on a menu? Obviously not.

Would a shock jock interrogate a male prime minister as to whether his female partner was a lesbian? Clearly not. And yet Gillard has undermined her own cause by scaremongering about abortion and female voices being silenced under Tony Abbott, in a manner insulting to most women's intelligence.

The fact is that, during her three years in office, Gillard has done little to advance female equality. There are only three women, apart from her, in Cabinet. (Abbott only has two.) She has reduced state benefits for single mothers. She has resisted calls to preselect a female candidate for the safe seat of Batman, vacated by the retiring minister Martin Ferguson, instead supporting Senator David Feeney, one of the "faceless men" who helped her oust Rudd.

It's also a fact that Australia is still a deeply sexist society. The menu and radio interview were not the only incidents last week. Holger Osieck, coach of the Australian soccer team, was caught on camera remarking that "women should shut up in public". And yet another sex scandal engulfed the Australian military, with revelations of a ring of more than 100 personnel, including senior officers, who had made and circulated "demeaning and explicit" photographs and videos.

Add that to the slap on the wrist received by Collingwood president Eddie McGuire for "joking" on national radio that the Aboriginal AFL player, Adam Goodes, could help publicise the new musical King Kong, and contemporary Australia starts to look very ugly indeed.

Debate on this article is now closed.

- NZ Herald

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