Turnbull must act decisively on Dutton 'witch' comments

Worse than inappropriate, such language harms the anti-violence campaign.

Remember when Tony Abbott stood in front of posters on the lawns of Parliament House in 2011 exhorting Australians to "ditch the witch", our first female prime minister, Julia Gillard? Remember how not one single member of the Coalition had the courage to damn his actions, and the posters, as misogynist and capable of giving succour to violent men?

Four years later, it's a man cut from the same political cloth, the tough-talking Minister for Immigration, Peter Dutton, who has propelled the misogynist notion of woman as witch back into the lexicon.

Tony Abbott as opposition leader in front of posters at a ant-carbon tax rally.
Tony Abbott as opposition leader in front of posters at a ant-carbon tax rally. Photo: Andrew Meares

It might have been a private text to a colleague, sent inadvertently to a temporary adversary, News Corp journalist Samantha Maiden, but what does it say about Dutton's view of women in modern Australia that he saw fit to reduce Maiden's opinions to those of a "mad f------ witch"? Has it escaped him that women accused of being witches were once put to death?

Rather than acknowledging his words as a form of abuse that could reasonably leave people believing he harbours a deep-seated distrust of women, the minister offered a meaningless apology. "Sam and I have exchanged some robust language over the years so we had a laugh after this and I apologised to her straightaway, which she took in good faith," he said with a smile.

The palpable truth is that like so many men – bosses of leading companies, members of the police and armed forces, judges, celebrity sportsmen and politicians among them – Dutton either doesn't understand or doesn't care to understand the cultural landscape that has sustained the epidemic of violence against women.

The anti-violence campaigners aren't propagandising when they point to the generations of women bashed, raped and murdered and then subjected to courtroom depictions and media commentary founded in the myth that they have provoked the violence inflicted upon them, often attributed to a flawed or "witch-like" personality.


Paraded as sophisticated legal argument, so much of what passes as probative inquiry in our courtrooms amounts to little more than character assassination of the kind contained in Dutton's text. That's why the law of provocation has been abolished in several Australian states and the courtroom remains a battleground for reformers.

Last month a Queensland Court of Appeal noted that Allison Baden-Clay "had in the past suffered from depression for which she was prescribed Zoloft", when it controversially dismissed a properly instructed jury's finding that her husband had murdered her. Her state of mind gave veracity, the court said, to the possibility that the mother of three had engaged in an "angry attack" on her husband, who had unwittingly killed her. Her supporters reacted indignantly to the finding and the implication she was "mad" or anything less than a caring and sensible woman.

It seemed those dark days of denying the state's complicity in the scourge of violence against women might be coming to an end when, on White Ribbon Day 2015, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull offered a "special tribute to the victims of domestic violence, past and present, who have borne the burden of our failure to act for too long", adding that "violence against women is the end point of disrespecting women", and that the solution lies in "significant cultural change".

How can the Prime Minister's words now be treated seriously when a key minister's default position on a woman who crosses him is that her views are those of a "mad witch"? What hope is there when men of such antiquated views occupy positions of power in Turnbull's government?

Try as they might to hide behind the excuse that the use of the word "witch" amounts to nothing more than a robust sledge, the apologists' days are numbered. Having drawn a nexus between male disrespect for women and the epidemic of violence, the Prime Minister cannot maintain the position that Dutton's comments were merely inappropriate. If he is genuine when he says only cultural change can end the violence, he must either sack Dutton or force him to deliver an apology that acknowledges the harm his words have done to the anti-violence campaign.

If the Prime Minister chooses neither of these courses of action, he faces being pilloried by the opposition.

"If little boys see their fathers disrespecting their mothers, they will grow up to disrespect their partners. If they see their mothers respected, they will respect their sisters." So said Malcolm Turnbull on White Ribbon Day. How can those words carry any weight when one of his ministers fosters the malicious idea among his colleagues that a non-compliant woman should be deemed a "mad witch"?

That Maiden appears to have forgiven Dutton for his comments should not and does not lessen the significance of the words or their implications for the government. How she responds emotionally might be her prerogative, but it has little bearing on any objective judgment, mine or the community's, on Dutton's words. As with the "ditch the witch" posters in 2011, we know there can be no escaping the implications for gender relations of a public figure calling a woman a witch. It remains a black mark on Australian political and social history that Gillard was left to her own devices to decry the posters. How different history would look had Turnbull stood with the prime minister, with both sides of politics rising in the House of Representatives to decry the posters and their dangerous implications for women. It was an opportunity lost.

If Australia was a truly democratic society, devoid of gender inequality, misogyny and chronic violence against women, Dutton's comments might have less significance. However, with homicide rates – more than 60 "domestic" murders of women in 2015 – and the violence surging, we are in the middle of a crisis in which there is no room for bystanders. Having nailed his colours to the mast, Turnbull must act. If he doesn't act decisively and publicly, he'll have lost me and, I suspect, many reformers who welcomed and praised his White Ribbon Day speech.

Phil Cleary is a writer, broadcaster and former independent federal MP.


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