It’s about time we had some faceless women
The term ‘faceless men’ is thrown about pretty freely by Tony Abbott. This week for example he got it into one sentence three times.
The phrase was actually coined half a century ago by the then Liberal prime minister RG Menzies. He used a photo of Labor leader Arthur Calwell and Gough Whitlam kicking stones around outside a Canberra hotel while the ALP platform was being settled inside. The optics were awful and Menzies immediately capitalised, decrying Labor’s “thirty-six faceless men’‘.
It was a devastating critique which has also proved durable.
But like Menzies’ before him, Mr Abbott’s beef is not with gender so much as the optics of union bosses and factional schemers pulling strings in smoke-filled back-rooms.
He’s hardly in a strong position to complain anyway with just two women in his shadow cabinet.
The Liberal “back-room’’ is nothing to boast about either.
The party’s website features proud photo-bios of all 15 past federal presidents dating back to 1945 and only one is a woman (Chris McDiven 2005-2008).
Yet it is arguable that these days, it is the fact that the faceless men are just that, men, that rankles with voters more than their union connections - certainly among women anyway.
If there is one clear lesson from the surprising cut-through of Julia Gillard’s “I’ve got a scream’’ speech in Parliament recently, it is that women voters have long felt voiceless and that they resent a structural/cultural under-representation in the corridors of power.
And why not? Women have been equalling and often besting men in law schools and other university courses for years, but the political class has been slow to reflect this merit-based shift.
This weekend, South Australian Labor’s 200 delegates decide on Labor’s senate team for the 2013 election.
When the votes are counted, Julia Gillard’s most prominent and senior figure in the state Penny Wong, will be listed at number 2 behind the Right’s Don Farrell.
Men on all sides say this is not a result of sexism because Ms Wong’s gender has literally nothing to do with it.
They say it is simply about numbers of which the Right has the majority which means its candidate will prevail and Ms Wong will have to settle for second.
But voters may not see it that way. Just as many were unconcerned about the “Slippery” circumstances of Ms Gillard’s speech - the video of which has clocked over three million internet hits - most voters couldn’t care less about Labor’s internal machinations or its affirmative action policy which guarantees one of every three Senate candidates is a woman.
What they will be wondering about is why the PM’s straight-talking clarity across the dispatch boxes at Tony Abbott, is absent when it comes to male factional bosses and their denial of the merit principle for one of her best ministers. Why it is that the PM who promised to name sexism wherever she saw it, has stayed aloof from this battle?
Officially her position is that preselections are a matter for the party.
This reasoning should be seen for what it is: merely the standard fudge leaders offer on all but those occasions when suddenly they decide to act. Ms Gillard made one such exception as deputy PM in 2009 when she intervened to rescue a supporter whose NSW seat had become unviable.
Presumably Ms Gillard also shares the Labor view that nothing about Ms Wong’s consolation prize constitutes sexism.
But this is true only if sexism is narrowly defined in the deliberate and in the particular - that is, if someone argued that Ms Wong should not be elected first, despite her obvious merit, because she is a woman.
Unsurprisingly, no one is running that line. But then, they don’t need to. The system of power has already seen to that. Indeed, if sexism has nothing to do with the final order on the ticket, merit has even less.
Think about it this way.
If the sheep in Labor’s factions were given a free vote, how many of the 200 delegates would really conclude that it is smart to put Mr Farrell ahead of one of the highest profile and most senior ministers in the Gillard cabinet?
The fact that they intend to do so reflects not their individual sexism, but the discrimination against merit on the part of the system. And given that a strict application of the merit principle would have seen many more female leaders in the past, it can be said to be a discrimination which serves a sexist end. Q.E.D.
This week the Government’s manager of business, Transport Minister Anthony Albanese slammed the looming snub of Senator Wong.
Many female voters would agree with him.
What’s more, many of the thousands of women who recently retuned their antennae to Gillard-FM might even expect their new champion to take the same view.
Their hands are on the dial.
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