While their commitment to feminism is lukewarm at best and hostile at worst, the Liberal women speaking out about bullying and intimidation in their party room and the parliament merit praise. Since the botched coup to install Peter Dutton as prime minister, Kelly O’Dwyer, Julia Banks, Linda Reynolds, Lucy Gichuhi and Julie Bishop tentatively acknowledge that the strong-arming and testosterone-bombing that defines the M.O. of some Liberal MPs has a sexist dimension.
Those who retort that politics is a tough game and snowflakes need not apply only prove the allegation of sexism is correct because that argument, grounded in gendered attack, itself amounts to bullying. When women comprise less than a quarter of Liberal MPs, there’s a poisonous faux-logic to assertions that the stereotypically feminine attributes implicit in references to “princesses” and “shrinking violets” are incompatible with the natural way of things in Canberra.
“Politics is ... not for the faint-hearted,” Bishop said last week. “[But] when a feisty, amazing woman like Julia Banks says this environment is not for me, don't say: ‘Toughen up, princess.’ Say: ‘Enough is enough.’”
Common sense tells me the #MeToo zeitgeist, the eruption of long-suppressed rage about men in high places abusing women with impunity, galvanised these Liberal women, even if subconsciously. As others have pointed out, what makes their naming of sexism especially potent is that alleging systemic discrimination against women stands in uncomfortable opposition to their most cherished conservative principle: individualism, the idea that with hard work and a pinch of talent, anyone can succeed.
In the case of women this philosophy is embodied in the notion of “merit”, a word that literally sticks in the throat, I find. In this version of meritocracy, women should only land plum jobs if they’re deserving and not because of their gender. The concept has seductive appeal — until reality punches you, or Julie Bishop, in the nose.
Corporate gurus like to say that leadership is not a popularity contest — but politics is a popularity contest, and among the three contenders for the Liberal leadership, after Malcolm Turnbull’s dispatching, Bishop had the most electoral appeal. And more than sufficient qualifications and experience. And her elevation would have made good strategic sense for a party needing to boost its standing among women voters.
But hey, Merit. The best candidate prevailed in the US presidential elections, right? While we’re on the topic of bullying, in last week’s perverse entertainment from the States, we were treated to teasers from Bob Woodward’s upcoming book <em>Fear</em>, about Donald Trump’s “Crazytown” White House, as his own chief of staff, John Kelly, reportedly described it.
The book includes an account of the President’s charming dressing down of his commerce secretary, Wilbur Ross: “I don’t trust you … you’re past your prime”, a remark that breaches so many workplace and equal opportunity laws it’s a legal code red.
And The New York Times published an anonymous op-ed from a current official in the Trump administration, who referred to Trump as being amoral, prone to making half-baked, ill-informed and occasionally reckless decisions, anti-trade and anti-democratic.
A not entirely dissimilar message about the Liberals’ predicament can be discerned from the cautious refrain of the Liberal women and the party’s moderate faction.
Bully-boy intimidation is by no means exclusive to the conservatives, as we know from the vile “slut-shaming” — I’m on record for disliking the term, hence the quotes — of Labor’s Emma Husar and allegations that complaints from women about sexual misconduct and harassment in the Greens received short-shrift within the party.
But the problem is worse in the conservative movement, which finds itself in existential crisis as different factions fight for its soul, a fight, roughly speaking, between what still passes for centrists and a feral right flank, rallying, until recently, around “insurgents” Peter Dutton and Tony Abbott.
Little coincidence that the more rightward you travel in the party, all the way to the Young Liberals at the fringes, the more the rhetoric flatters men resentful about social change and nostalgic for an idealised past in which marriage was exclusively between a man and a woman, and no one talked about the “gender pay gap” or “micro-aggression”.
In the Liberal Party, bullying is not just a question of process but increasingly one of policy, and definitely one of strategy. As Turnbull said at his curtain call, despite having consistently appeased his “outstanding” immigration minister: “We must never allow the politics of race or division or of setting Australians against each other to become part of our political culture.”
Conservatism still has plenty to offer. But it’s also true that too much of what successive conservative governments sought to pass off as decisive policy or moral clarity amounts to glorified bullying.
The bullying of unemployed welfare recipients, which arguably hit its nadir under the Turnbull government’s proposals for drug testing. The bullying of asylum seekers with cruel measures that go far beyond the stated rationale of deterring people smugglers, and to which, if I’m painfully honest, even I’ve become desensitised. The bullying of refugees and African-Australians.
So while I wish the Liberal women success in endeavouring to change their party’s culture, perhaps they’re also due for personal reflection. Did they help feed the monster that’s turning on them?
Julie Szego is an Age columnist.