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Sexism in politics, or just politics?

By Jocelynne Scutt - posted Tuesday, 29 May 2007

For the past week or so, Sydney Morning Herald readers have been expressing their opinion on commentary and interchanges involving federal politicians. One view seems to accord with Prue Goward’s opinion that politics is the “most sexist” field she has ever experienced: “Bearpit sexist, says new MP Goward”, (SMH, May 10, 2007).

With a total of 7,413 votes counted, the Sydney Morning Herald poll of May 25, 2007 found 71 per cent saying Therese Rein should not give up her business in support of her husband’s becoming prime minister: she “should be able to keep running the company she built from scratch”. Only 29 per cent responded “yes”, the business should go, because “there should be no conflicts of interest”.

On May 23 2007, figures in the “Joe Hockey v Julia Gillard” poll showed 8,245 people registering their view of Hockey’s comment that media focus on Gillard is a consequence of her being “prettier”:

  • face it Joe, she's smarter than you on IR issues and that's why she's polling better - 59 per cent;
  • it's just a harmless off-the-cuff comment - 17 per cent;
  • a sexist put-down - 18 per cent; and
  • all is fair in politics - 6 per cent.

As for Bill Heffernan’s “barrenness doth not deputy prime ministerial material make”, on May 3, 2007, 10,366 voters addressed the charge that Julia Gillard’s lack of maternity bars her from ministerial qualification. Poll numbers showed a clear lack of support for Heffernan, an apparent triumph for Gillard:

  • his apology is enough - 12 per cent;
  • his apology was a joke - 12 per cent;
  • he should be sacked - 52 per cent; and
  • he is irrelevant - 24 per cent.

All this is declared by commentators to support the proposition that women remain the odd-ones-out in politics, and sexism remains the order of the day.

Yet is this really the case, or is it purely and simply politics, with sexism a great bit fat red herring?

The media, along with Senator Heffernan and the Liberal Coalition, would have us believe that Heffernan’s comment about Julia Gillard’s lack of children was all his own work, spontaneous, unplanned, and unknown to John Howard, his leader, until widely reported by the press. Yet is this likely? Far more credible is that it was planned all along: Heffernan having appeared so often to be a stalking horse for his party, raising uncomfortable and sometimes unsustainable charges and challenges against members of the opposition or personalities whose lives do not accord with his sense of “right” and “wrong”.


Whenever the going on matters of substance becomes tough for the Howard Government, in comes Heffernan with statements immediately latched on to by the media - and the hares are running, matters of substance forgotten. This was precisely the outcome of the “Julia-not-ministerial-material” charge. It served as a diversion from the subject matter of Gillard’s shadow portfolio, industrial relations.

Where was the government on that topic at the time? And where was Gillard? No prizes for guessing: the government was well and truly on the back foot. Gillard was winning, hands down, both sounding and appearing calm, measured, ministerial.

There she was, day after day in the media - putting calm, measured, ministerial arguments as to the flaws in so-called “WorkChoices”, and the substance of the ALP’s industrial relations platform. Yes, Gillard was being challenged on her relations with business. Yet this was a part of her job, in any event: she is obliged, as shadow minister, to deal with business, just as she is obliged to deal with the unions, to communicate with employees and employers, employer and employee representatives. This is the substance of her job.

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About the Author

Dr Jocelynne A. Scutt is a Barrister and Human Rights Lawyer in Mellbourne and Sydney. Her web site is here. She is also chair of Women Worldwide Advancing Freedom and Dignity.

She is also Visiting Fellow, Lucy Cavendish College, University of Cambridge.

Other articles by this Author

All articles by Jocelynne Scutt

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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