A day after attracting global headlines for switching ‘repository’ for ‘suppository’ Opposition leader Tony Abbott has had another slip of the tongue.
Unlike the first, however, the second wasn’t funny and shouldn’t be dismissed as a harmless gaffe. When asked what two Liberal candidates, Fiona Scott and Jackie Kelley, had in common Abbott said this: “They are young, they are feisty”, he said. “I think I could probably say they both have a bit of sex appeal and are just very, very connected to the local community.”
Last night Abbott blamed his comments on his exuberance.
“Now, I was a bit exuberant today, a bit exuberant today. But we’re all working incredibly hard to get her elected and to give Australia a better go,” Abbott said. “Look, Fiona and I have been mates for a long time. Jackie and I have been mates for a long time. It’s obvious that Fiona is a smart, hardworking candidate.”
Another obvious thing is this: the sex appeal of a political candidate — male or female — has nothing to do with their ability to represent their constituents. That Abbott, the Liberal party leader and potential Prime Minister, referenced it, out of all the other relevant electable attributes these two women boast, speaks volumes.
Unfortunately for Abbott it reinforces the message that the former prime minister Julia Gillard made in her misogyny speech in Parliament last year. After making that speech Gillard was often criticised for even raising her gender. Doing so was dismissed as opportunistic, overreacting and playing the ‘gender card’.
And yet Abbott ‘s comments yesterday indicate her sentiments were not baseless. Abbott’s remarks yesterday, however well-intentioned they may have been, were sexist and inappropriate. Saying the same thing about two male candidates would be identically inappropriate.
The reaction that Abbott’s comments prompted demonstrates the way that sexism is alive and well. Gillard’s misogyny speech, and the commentary that has ensued since, shed light on one of the more insidious aspects of sexism that pervades: it is the individuals who take issue with sexism that are admonished more than those who perpetrate it. In some quarters calling out sexism is deemed the problem. Can’t we take a joke? Can’t we just relax? Calm down! It was just exuberance!
These sentiments flowed in thick and fast in Abbott’s defence yesterday. “Ah come on, are we all meant to wear sacks and just pretend there is no gender?” one political commentator asked on Paul Murray’s Sky News program.
Abbott’s finance spokesman, Andrew Robb, said the sex appeal comment was made in “jest”.
The NSW Liberal minister Pru Goward, and former sex discrimination commissioner, also dismissed his comment. “I think a lot of politicians are described as sexy,” Goward told Macquarie Radio.
Implicit in these comments defending Abbott is the suggestion that treating our peers with respect is somehow arduous. Something that when excitement runs high is easy to overlook.
Should we accept that? Would we accept a chief executive of a listed company, irrespective of gender, highlighting the attractiveness of a new recruit in a public forum by way of explanation for their promotion or position?
By referencing the sex appeal of two female politicians Abbott made a significant statement about the way he views those candidates. I would hazard a guess that neither Scott nor Kelley made a foray into politics on the basis of their sex appeal. Their attractiveness has no bearing on their ability to do their job so how is it relevant or appropriate for their boss to suggest that it is?
The answer is it isn’t. And if that is too difficult to do perhaps the boss isn’t up to the task.