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Sep 22, 2015

Raining on Turnbull's lady garden party

Elevating more women to cabinet positions does not actually improve the lot of women in Australia.


Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull with the female members of his cabinet and Kelly O’Dwyer’s baby daughter Olivia

“The Liberal Party is a broad church,” said John Howard at a journal launch in 2005. The publication, The Conservative, was not to endure in print, but Howard’s description of his party did stick around. This characterisation, referenced often in recent days, is not a bad one for the Libs, who are a congregation united by a founding principle. The free market is the one god they agree to serve, and if service to that other God takes political precedence, your name might be Cory Bernardi, and it could be time to build a narrow church entirely from holy splinters to appease the Lord.

In recent years, “broad church” has been enthusiastically adopted by some feminists who believe that all feminists are as united by a single idea as the Libs. Slogans such as the very popular “feminism is the radical proposition that women are human beings” apply intellectual cohesion where there can, and should, be none. Feminism, unlike economic liberalism, is not a broad church, and to seek to baptise all at some shaky humanistic font is an ignorant act of bliss. There are some writers who propose that ending the “stigma” attached to being wealthy enough to hire a full-time nanny is a legitimately feminist goal, and then there are those of us who would prefer to end the “stigma” of a movement overcrowded with dumb ideas. One of these being that female representation in government is, by necessity, a marvellous thing.

To think of “women’s issues” as bipartisan makes about as much sense to me as thinking of Michaelia Cash, the newly appointed Minister for Women, as someone I might like to invite to tea. Still, Turnbull’s “21st-century cabinet”, which features precisely three more new shiny lady baubles than Abbott’s antique, is seen broadly, in the falsely broad church of feminism, as progress.

The idea that “a rising tide lifts all boats” is something the Liberal Party is entitled to believe. This truly broad church is founded on the idea that privilege trickles down from the top. Feminism, however, has a much richer intellectual history, and it is one that is at real risk of final burial if we continue to believe that 51% of the population is just too lofty for the dirty business of party politics.

Recent debate on domestic violence — certainly, a policy concern that needs urgent address — powerfully diminishes the authority of a partisan feminism. The views that (a) all women confront equal threat of family violence and (b) sexism is a “spectrum” that starts with wolf-whistling and ends in brutal murder are now broadly accepted. In a tremendous and surprising mea cupla for The Saturday Paper, former speechwriter Martin McKenzie-Murray sought to trace the origin in particular of this latter view. Of course, Mark Latham tried to undo the former with far less skill and much more attention. The guy is a dill, but his assertion that poverty is a risk factor for family violence is not without basis.

This is not to say that all that Cash has achieved in her role, previously as the minister assisting the prime minister for women, is useless on the matter of family violence. Her role in establishing a national domestic violence order is to be commended, and if her presence in cabinet expedites this, all the better. It is to say, however, that family violence is, like many “women’s” issues, something with a partial origin and solution outside of the “radical proposition that women are human beings”. It’s not enough to “end sexism” both through the appointment of women to cabinet and the changes they may make to legal frameworks. You have to also, for example, fund safe-houses.

And you have to ensure that not all “women’s” issues are conflated with violence. Despite the view that “it’s all connected”, McKenzie-Murray and other thinkers unafraid to re-politicise feminism have shown us that it’s not. Women, like men, are subjects produced by a range of complexes, and they cannot be legislated for only in terms of one policy issue, nor can they be socially redeemed by representation in cabinet.

To state the inelegantly obvious, the gender of a leader is no sort of policy guarantee. Nor, for that matter, is race. Political and business history gives us plenty of examples of women who did not act in womanly interest (Marrissa Mayer, Margaret Thatcher, Julia Gillard), and logic tells us that the individual move from one’s social class into a political class is irreversible. Even Carmen Lawrence, a patron saint for progressivism and of Emily’s List, must also be remembered as the politician who introduced mandatory sentencing, even against the findings of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.

But to say these things about a lack of progress at a time where so many Australians are absolutely sure of its personification by Turnbull and his ladies is a downer. Believe that the removal of Abbott is consonant with the end of sexism or its hyperbolic cousin “misogyny” and that a shift in personnel, if not economic, policy is a “radical proposition”, until that day when you cannot believe it any longer.


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11 thoughts on “Raining on Turnbull’s lady garden party

  1. Itsarort

    Yes, I agree, but could we ever get a true p<.05 result that success or failure in a specific portfolio is due to a particular gender? Certainly not with the current male/female figures at least… 🙂

  2. klewso

    “Pass the baby, it’s my turn. Where’s the camera ….?”

  3. Helen Razer

    @klewso I almost find myself liking Bishop for what appears to be her barely concealed distaste for infants.

  4. Jaybuoy

    hold the baby I need to express myself..

  5. Dogs breakfast

    “The views that (a) all women confront equal threat of family violence and (b) sexism is a “spectrum” that starts with wolf-whistling and ends in brutal murder are now broadly accepted.”

    Not by me. It’s wholly untrue, even if broadly accepted, but I think you meant it to be read that way. Didn’t you?

    A sad meditation Helen, if you don’t mind me calling the piece a meditation. But I would understand if you found the term offensive. Not sure I like it myself, but it left me melancholic.

  6. Elisabeth Meehan

    SO, we need to fund women’s refuges. Surprised?

    And class and race have more of an impact on women’s lives than gender. Profound shock and disbelief?

    “Misogyny” must be contained within quotes?

    And women with nanny’s should butt out a leave the discussion to women of colour, and those without nannies?

    Or have I missed something?

    Should female surgeons shut up and be grateful for the opportunity they have to be abused by a better educated abuser?

    Do middle class female GPs have more insight and empathy for women in their care who have been abused, not necessarily physically, than their male counterparts – having been trained by in male dominated profession?

    Is it a fact universally acknowledged that a woman who has managed to climb the greasy pole will necessarily fail to lend a hand to those on the way up?

    As a retired GP who came from a background of state school education, and a scholarship to Uni, I have a view on these matters.

    No doubt Michaelia Cash, whose father was a lawyer and politician would be formed by different experiences.

    Will she be calling “bitch” across the chamber to other women? Will she stand in front of sexist and abusive signs like Bronwyn Bishop and Sophie Mirabella did?

    She is a female, but as in the case of Margaret Thatcher, she is not a sister. Not now, possibly not ever.

  7. klewso

    Helen. I’m just glad “someone forgot” the baby oil.

  8. Norman Hanscombe

    Since Crikey still hasn’t understood what the Deaths in Custody Enquiry actually found, I guess it’s hardly surprising to find this sort of trivial article being run, is it.

  9. Helen Razer

    @Elisabeth Meehan. I understand that to you, matters like the need for funding to refuges and the understanding that particular social circumstances produce particular disadvantage are obvious. However, in recent days, these concerns have not been obvious and much editorial has been celebrating what is imagined to be the start to the end of domestic violence even in the face of recent reduction to essential services. One is compelled to write for broad discourse and not, unfortunately, just for you!
    “Misogyny” is something I place in quotation marks because its very recent and controversial inclusion in the Macquarie as something that describes sexism is a decision of which I, and many others, do not approve. We have a word for sexism. It is sexism. This caffeine-enhanced word, wielded often in Australia since Gillard’s speech and the Macquarie amendment (which I’d argue was made less for lexicographic reasons that for good press) is something I like to question.

  10. Helen Razer

    The 1988 Royal Commission found that mandatory detention of repeat offenders produced (a) no useful result and (b) increased the likelihood of Aboriginal deaths in custody.
    Lawrence was critiqued by several of the RC’s consultants at the time of introducing mandatory detention in 1992.

  11. klewso

    Speaking of baby oil – we’ll always have these pictures long after they’ve screwed us? The inevitable screwing some of us are hoping against hope we won’t cop?
    I mean, what gives with this “new order” that some of our media is trying to sell us – suspending their own usual cynicism and expecting everyone else too?
    What’s changed?
    One political bobble-head for another – with their sense of self-preservation/promotion?
    For Turnbull, with his established alacrity to prove how smart he is – as exhibited from ARC to Utegate to “pleb-standard NBN”?
    The players? Politician to a man or woman – with their recorded “idiosyncratic” histories – including “Ditch the Bitch” guest rolls?
    A leopard doesn’t change it’s spots any more than most politicians change mules? Even if Turnbull has changed, he’s going to change the “Born to Rule Mentality”?
    Where will it leave that viewsmedia when normal disservice is resumed – as it eventually and inevitably will?
    That media discredited – stripped of it’s licence to speculate … sorry “report” …. with any authority or reliability in their heard-mentality?


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