Heading out to the Ernie Awards for Sexist Remarks, I’m filled with a mixture of anticipation and dread. Hanging out with lots of boisterous women laughing at the remarks made by men is always a great night. But, after 22 years, shouldn’t the Ernies be running out of material? In 2014, why are people still making such appallingly sexist comments — in public?

The dinner was held at the Strangers’ Dining Room at New South Wales’ Parliament House, where  about 400 women and a few men sat down to decide the winners of this year’s awards. They were started in 1993 by NSW Labor member Meredith Burgmann and others to celebrate the retirement of the Australian Workers’ Union secretary Ernie Ecob, who had said that women only wanted to be shearers for the sex. Burgmann famously replied to this: “But that’s what we thought the sheep were for.” The awards (motto: Keep Them Nervous) have grown so popular over the past two decades that there are now several categories, with a Gold Ernie for the best overall winner.

Winners are decided in a “boo-off”, with the assembled guests loudly voicing their disapproval. If it’s a close result, the final two nominations are read out, with “boo monitors” deciding the winner. There’s always a dress code — as it is 120 years since women received the right to vote in South Australia, this year’s theme was “suffragette” and the room was full of crinolines and “Vote for Women” sashes.

Burgmann sounded a sober note, saying that although she thought that overall the situation was improving, having a female prime minister seemed to have triggered a great deal of blatant sexism. “Having a woman in power, it somehow gave permission for people to be sexist again.”

Federal Education Minister Christopher Pyne was the overall winner, taking out the Gold Ernie for claiming that increases in uni fees wouldn’t disproportionately affect women because “women are well represented amongst the teaching and nursing students. They will not be able to earn the high incomes that dentists and lawyers will earn.” (In fact, women are now a majority of law and medicine graduates.)

The Media Silver Ernie went to News Corp columnist Piers Akerman (a repeat offender) for his vile calumny against one of the nation’s sweethearts:

“The ABC has tried to foist its left-wing agenda on the nation. Even the cartoon character Peppa Pig pushes a weird feminist line that would be closer to the hearts of Labor’s Handbag Hit Squad than the pre-school audience it is aimed at.”

Barrister Philip Strickland SC received the Judicial Silver Ernie for suggesting that former Labor MP Jodi McKay’s recall of a conversation might not be accurate because she was in “an emotional state”.

After a hotly contested boo-off between Wicked Campers and Libra feminine products (motto: We absorb more than you did in maths class), Wicked Campers was declared the winner with a collection of painted slogans including, “Inside every princess is a little slut who wants to try it just once”.

My particular favourite, however, was the oil and gas company Chevron, whose job application form included questions about “have you ever been pregnant and if so, did it result in a normal child, one under 2kg in weight or one with birth defects?” Have I missed something, or is the health of your baby now relevant to your employment?

One of the most hotly contested categories is the Elaine (named after Elaine Nile) for the remark least helpful to the sisterhood. After much booing and arguing it was finally given in a dead heat to Michaelia Cash, the Minister assisting the PM on Women, who said, “In terms of feminism, I’ve never been someone who really associates with that movement. That movement was a set of ideologies from many, many decades ago.”

Her co-winner was News Corp columnist Miranda Devine, who wrote:

“After rising to the top of her party through affirmative action, out first female prime minister cynically played the victim card. Her unscrupulous complaints about sexism and misogyny just empowered the worst kind of women to excuse their own failings, and justified every sexist stereotype.”

The Sport Silver Ernie (nicknamed the “Warnie” — the trophy was a gold-plated mobile phone) involved the lengths a men’s swimming club went to in an attempt to exclude women. South Coast Winter Swimming Association won for moving two motions:

“That the name of the South Coast Winter Swimming association should be changed to the South Coast Men’s Winter Swimming Association.”

“That member affiliation of the South Coast Winter Swimming Association is limited to males.”

I’m not sure why anyone would want to hang around with a lot of old blokes in their sluggos in winter, but the would-be member was there in person last night and happily collected the prize, to tumultuous applause.

Kyle and Jackie O are always popular nominees and they cleaned up the Clerical/Celebrity Ernie (aka The Fred) last night with a stellar performance that included an on-air questioning of sports journalist Erin Molan on how many sportsmen she’d had sex with and whether she’d had a boob job.

Tony Abbott won the Clinton Award for repeat offenders.

The Good Ernie, for Men Behaving Well, went to Mark Lennon, Secretary of Unions NSW, for giving female staff 2% more superannuation than men. He did this, he said, to acknowledge the structural issues that lead to women having one-third of the super savings of men when they retire.

As I stumbled into the night, ears ringing from the booing, shouting and laughing, I pondered whether we would ever get to a year without nominations because no one had made a sexist remark. Not in my lifetime.

Peter Fray

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