Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know that the Liberal National Party suffered a series of gaffes in the last 24 hours likely to further undermine its standing with female voters.
First we had Tony Abbot swing by Newtown’s Young Liberals meeting and post a photo of himself enjoying an “invigorating Q&A” session in a sea of, you guessed it, young, white Liberal men.
Then we had Queensland LNP MP Luke Howarth join the Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull at a press conference in Brisbane. When Mr. Howarth was asked by a Sky Reporter about the lack of female representation in the LNP he was heard to say, “this is f—ed”.
Mr. Howarth then painted a smile on his face and assured us he “loves working with women”, while the Prime Minister told us “we always look forward to seeing more women represented in our parliaments and that is our objective”.
The Prime Minister then, strangely, added that he just texted and spent time with a female Queensland MP Jane Prentice. Not sure how that helps, but I’m sure it’s nice for Ms. Prentice to spend some quality time with the Prime Minister.
Following Mr. Howarth’s outburst, I can only assume the Prime Minister had to summon his very best facial contortions to mask his frustration. According to media reports, the Prime Minister is keenly aware of the party’s “woman problem” and determined to do something about it – hence last week’s tour of breakfast TV to highlight his extensive knowledge of Game of Thrones (apparently that plays well with the millennial ladies) and his baby kissing photo social media shenanigans.
Then there was the mop up exercise, at which point the “f—cked” episode turned to farce. When Fairfax media later contacted Mr. Howarth to ask him about the incident, he offered a rather amusing soliloquy about microphone and camera positions before saying he found the question “frustrating” and “unfair”. Given the number of female Liberal MP’s dropped to its lowest number in 25 years at the last election, I don’t think most people would accept the argument that the question was “unfair”.
Then came the cherry on this gaffe sundae. Mr. Howarth’s colleague Liberal backbencher Craig Kelly took to the Sky airwaves to help. “Obviously, you would like to have a greater mix across society represented in Parliament, the reality is federal Parliament is a very female unfriendly place,” he said.
“We have done a lot of things, we have seen some of the members breastfeeding actually in the chamber, which I thought was a bit over the top,” he added.
Not skipping a beat after labelling women who breastfeed in public “over the top”, Mr. Kelly then went on to suggest women are at a biological disadvantage because they form a deeper bond with their children as opposed to fathers.
Thanks to the media’s sexism alert rapid response team (is there such a thing, can I join it), this series of events was quickly called out for the kind of antiquated crap it is. Forgive me, I know I, like Mr. Howarth, should not swear. Let me rephrase that: this kind of antiquated fooey. (I’ll use a PG expletive from the era in which these kinds of attitudes belong.)
Given recent events have now been thoroughly chronicled and no doubt debated at great length on social media, I would just like to take this opportunity to make one additional point. Though these comments could be described as “off the cuff” or “off script”, it’s what the LNP has to say about their lack of female representation and “woman problem” when they actually spend some time thinking about it that is most illuminating. For that, I draw your attention to the Gender and Politics Report: 2017 Update, which was published in March of this year.
According to a summary, the report co-authored by Nicolle Flint MP and Nick Cater, the Executive Director of the Menzies Research Centre, set out to “provide empirical evidence of the extent and nature of the gender imbalance in politics, discuss its consequences and construct an intellectual and philosophical framework to address the disparity based on Liberal principles”.
An “intellectual and philosophical framework” – sounds deep. But on my reading, it shows just how deep the LNP problem with women runs, well beyond the series of extremely unfortunate remarks of the last 24 hours.
As I have previously written, in the chapter entitled “the electoral imperative for change” the report acknowledges that the party is facing a Waterloo with women voters at the next election. But on my reading of the report, a significant amount of naval gazing has produced the Eureka realization that this can be solved by window dressing. Simply getting “good liberal women” in Parliament. Can I just say that I find the LNP’s tendency to refer to “good women” and “good Liberal women” just plain weird.
Yes, as I have previously written, the report didn’t quite put it that way. It talks about the importance of “retail” politics and notes the role of politicians as “media performers” and “retail appeal” requires a diverse team. Yes, you can’t imagine Liberal women making such spectacularly wrong-headed remarks, or maybe you can. Bronwyn Bishop was up for an “Elaine” award last night.
But the point is, the LNP’s woman problem goes well beyond its dire lack of female representation. It also goes to their policies, and the extent to which they help or hurt women. It doesn’t matter if it’s a man or woman espousing policies that hurt women, or fail to recognize issues that affect them and take action. Australian women are smart enough to look beyond the “optics” and seek out substance on say, the pay gap, child care, parental leave, violence against women, and the pensions gap.
Beyond this substance vs. retail politics issue, the chapter “a liberal approach to women in politics” provides more memorable nuggets of wisdom. I’m sure Liberal women and women of all political stripes would enjoy having this mansplained to them: “In recent years the arguments for the greater participation of women in politics have largely been ceded to feminists on the Left. The debate has become clouded with notions of victimhood, oppression and discrimination from which Liberals justifiably recoil. The word sexism, like racism, has been devalued by overuse.”
Eschewing quotas, which the report calls “part of the semantics of socialist collective action” it instead recommends “targeted action”. Well, good luck with that.
Judging by the pale and male audience at Tony Abbot’s “Young Liberal” event, it’s not clear the targeted action is having much of an impact on the next generation. But given the events of the last 24 hours, the LNP seems to have gotten one thing right: they could clearly do with some help with their “retail politics”. When’s Julie Bishop back from New York?