Empty or exploitative, self-serving or heartfelt, rambling or masterful — take your pick — it is now thoroughly documented that the Prime Minister received an apology from broadcaster Alan Jones this week. Other women didn’t fare so well from his exercise in grudging humility.
Indeed Jones — in the course of his meandering apologia to Julia Gillard over remarks about her father’s death — marshals a vast community of nameless, faceless, also grieving, largely vulnerable, frequently beaten, financially impoverished but formidably spirited women to his cause. And stomps all over them.
These are some of the world’s most marginalised, brutalised, neglected but resourceful citizens — our Pacific sisters. And for the second time in a matter of weeks, Jones assaults them and all they aspire to achieve for their families and communities. He does this when he rubbishes the merits of efforts by them, and for them, to elevate their status and standards of living.
They were mere collateral damage in the “destroying the joint” blast.
This week, Jones came for them again around the 40-minute mark of his press conference, when he delivered a righteous spray of indignation over media misreporting of his infamous, echoing declaration a month earlier.
You see, he explains, it’s all about context. He had not been having a crack at the PM with that remark. No, no. His opprobrium was reserved for the likes of Christine Nixon (“and no one would concede, surely, that”) and provoked by the most extenuating circumstances.
The PM had, after all, just offered up $320 million at the Pacific Islands Forum for a 10-year program to “expand women’s leadership and economic and social opportunities in the region”.
This funding recognised that Pacific nations, which are our nearest neighbours, have the lowest level of female political participation in the world. Not coincidently their women also endure some of the worst indicators for health and education, are economically hamstrung and wear the scars of what a UN Special Rapporteur recently documented as horrifying, epidemic and endemic violence.
It was the PM’s offending largesse and the underpinning assertion that “societies only reach their full potential if women are politically participating” that provoked Jones’ declaration that “women are destroying the joint … Honestly!”. On this assertion, he resiles not an inch. The notion that giving women some voice or power might improve conditions in their countries is just anathema.
As a journalist who has had the privilege of close engagement with hardworking, activist Pacific women and men, I’ve been brooding on this. Where to start?
Putting aside more cynical interpretations and focusing on the possibility it is an earnestly held belief, it has got to stem from one of a handful of places. The most powerful of these I can’t do much about beyond raising a son who respects and regards women.
The others are to do with ignorance, willful or otherwise, about the realities of life just a short boat-ride at low tide from Australia’s northernmost shores. In this Jones has plenty of company.
Another dimension is disconnection — that while the geographic distance between Australian and Pacific realities is small, the social, technical, cultural, political and economic divide has become so wide and deep we aren’t able or inclined to find a way across it.
Maybe part of the problem is the language embedded in development mantra — “empowerment”, “participation”, “stakeholders” — which can seem so hollow, pious and obscure. Indeed it’s said that even jaded aid workers amuse themselves at conferences by playing bingo with the buzzwords.
So how do you get beyond these words, all these hurdles, into the reality? How to get into the villages and marketplaces where real people engage in real projects — sweating, laughing, weeping; brave, angry, passionate.
At this point I want to load the Jones boy onto a flight to Port Moresby, and from there another hop to Goroka — though I heard the airport was closed? Something broken? Last time I was up there it was the hospital that virtually shut down because of equipment failures.
Maybe we’ll go in through Mt Hagen. And last time I was there the hospital phones were down because someone had failed to pay the bill, the consequences reverberating for miles around because those few remote aid posts still working couldn’t call through for basic supplies.
In the hills outside Tari, not far from where Exxon is preparing its $US16 billion gas project, they had not so much as a pair of plastic gloves to deliver a baby. The numbers of deaths in childbirth in PNG are amongst the highest in the world, and were estimated in 2007 to have doubled over a decade, rising to a rate almost 100 times that of white Australia.
We will find a 4WD and bump our way along the bush track which is the Highlands Highway, the nation’s only road from east to west, and get to Kundiawa — hopefully without interference from raskols. There we will meet Mary Kini and ride a troopie up to Kup — probably under police escort, because Mary’s role mediating local disputes means she has to take care.
There we can listen to the extraordinary story of how Mary and her friends Agnes and Angela brought about a revolution after enduring 30 years of bloody tribal war. While the men fought for power, prestige and pigs, the teachers and health workers fled, homes were burnt, girls could not collect water and women could not gather in crops for fear of r-pe.
Then the women began to meet secretly, and at great risk, as custom declared they should not even talk to each other. They colluded behind racks of second-hand clothes in the market. “Enough was enough,” Agnes declared.
They rallied hundreds of women to march through their home valley. They wailed and sang behind banners declaring “tears and love”. Stunned menfolk shut up and listened.
They told them of the pain of raising children only to have them slaughtered. “Our houses are burnt down, and the kids are with no food.” At the end, one of the chief men stood up and declared himself to be ashamed. As Agnes recalls: “He said, ‘From now on, I am finished with tribal fights. From right now, I am wearing a skirt. I no more wear trousers that say I am a man — I want to become a woman.'”
He gave the women power and authority, which they used first to broker peace — planting themselves between fighters on the battleground — and then to bring back the teachers, police and nurses. Aid agencies came, and with them programs on law and justice, maternal and infant health, agriculture, sanitation, youth engagement.
But this is no country for happily-ever-afters. In Kup it’s been two steps forward, one back. After years of peace, there have been outbreaks of trouble. And last I heard the women were fighting amongst themselves. It happens — part of the journey. But the legacy of their effort will endure and gain strength. The message spreads and inspires.
In the national election this year, three Papua New Guinean women won seats in the 111-member Parliament. This represented a tripling of the female representation in the last Parliament.
If this was a fairytale, maybe by the end of a night feasting and listening in Kup, Alan Jones would be in a grass skirt himself. But perhaps we’re best abandoning the cultural journey just about there.
*Jo Chandler — a former journalist at The Age — is an honorary fellow at the Alfred Deakin Research Institute