Despite extensive commentary on her shoes, it is doubtless that there is great respect throughout the nation for retiring federal MP Julie Bishop. I personally find her enigmatic. A woman in power identifying as a conservative is a form of self flagellation, and she does not seem the flagellating type.
At a Bold Thinking conference in November last year, she addressed the preconception that she was a moderate, claiming conservatism as a stalwart principal of hers, meaning “respect for institutions, and traditions built up over time”. It is not, she said, a “prescriptive ideology” in the Liberal party, but a moralistic choice, one that rejects the act of “revolution”.
This might explain her lack of revolt against the party. Even in her retirement speech she bent in gratitude to a room of like-minded conservatives who had failed to support her ambitions time and time again.
Bishop has yet to claim her gender as the primary reason she did not attain leadership of the Liberal party. In an interview with the WA Sunday Times she put it to party room strategy, the Liberals choosing her colleague Scott Morrison to beat Peter Dutton on what she implies was a miscalculation. There is certainly a sense that she is withholding punches, especially with some Liberal MPs calling the party anti-women, among other, less diplomatic names.
But Bishop has pointed to there being a gender “problem” in the party, recalling in this year’s International Women’s Day speech her unease when she was the sole woman in the party room when then Prime Minister Tony Abbott appointed himself the role of Minister for Women. Problem, in this instance, might be an understatement, but to her credit it is very unlike conservative women politicians to critique gender gaps in their own ranks.
It could be said that former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, for example, helped establish in her party a far more rigid system of conservatism that reinforced the glass ceiling she had slipped through. In her time in office she appointed only one other woman to cabinet, with columnist Hadley Freedman writing, “she was a classic example of a certain kind of conservative woman who believed that all women should pull themselves up just as she had done, conveniently overlooking that not all women are blessed with the privileges that had been available to her, such as a wealthy and supportive husband and domestic help.”
Thatcher, like Bishop, and like many women in the Liberal party, failed to address the lack of gender parity when they were at the height of their power. This speaks to a culture of misogyny and intimidation which we are only hearing the extent of now, from members such as Julia Banks and Kelly O’Dwyer. But even the expectation that a conservative woman might bear the responsibility to address such an issue speaks to a misunderstanding of the issue at hand.
Since the leadership spill last August, there has been a deluge of criticism drowning the Coalition for its treatment of women, for its failure to address gender imbalance, and for its tendency to rebuke and even punish women for their success. As Dr Anne Summers pointed out in her scathing National Press Club address on Wednesday, “every other party in the parliament has a significantly greater representation of women than the parties that currently form the federal government”. Summers claimed with the moves the party is currently making, they are set to hit a low not seen “since the 70s”.
Bishop herself says that what is needed for the Liberals is for the number of women to reach “critical mass” so the problem will take care of itself. She fails to identify what this number is exactly, how the party might reach it, or even what the objective is for this so-called critical mass of women. Is it to merely survive a culture of exclusion, as she has done? Or is it to be named upon retirement a “good and faithful servant” by Prime Minister Scott Morrison, a man who arguably took her job?
There is a barrier to success unique to the Liberal/National Coalition, not only for women, but also for people of colour, for First Nations People, for the LGBTIQ community, for people with disabilities, and for any other community members considered to be on the periphery. There is indeed a barrier for true representative democracy, a barrier that is comprised not only of our white male politicians, but the fundamental ideology they espouse, conservatism.
This is the conservatism that upholds traditions that are foundational to patriarchal structures, such as designating a woman’s place as an instrument of support for a man. It is a conservatism which considers abortion an aberration, supporting barriers for medical treatment, telling us that women’s bodies are not owned by women at all.
There is no separating the conservatism of climate change denial from a conservatism that supports free market traditions allowing mining companies a stake in our planet’s health. There is no separating conservatism which tells us seeking refuge in this country should be illegal from that which opportunistically claims responsibility for the salvation of any refugee who might, in spite of this, survive.
If conservatism is not prescriptive within the party, as Bishop argues, it has certainly become a laboured choice by party members to adhere to it. The marriage equality debate alone demonstrated the ways in which conservative members are not only steadfast in their so called “traditions”, they are insistent on having their moralistic sensibilities pandered to, at any cost.
While Bishop might be considered a “moderate”, she is right in describing herself as conservative for her support of a party which more and more values tradition over innovation, doctrine over science, white people over people of colour, and men over women.
If Bishop’s “critical mass” of women are conservatives, they might only serve to protect the barrier which their own ideology has created, perhaps even reinforcing it. This is all despite the recognisable hardships they will encounter in the process. There is nothing in conservatism for the advancement of women, or for the advancement of this country, and it is far beyond time we recognise that.