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May 16th 2012 print

John Muscat

Progressive Women’s Immunity

Gillard hasn’t been victimised because she is a woman; she has been protected because she is a progressive woman.


“Gillard being a woman is judged by a different standard, and let’s not pretend otherwise”.


This line from a recent article in The Drum, by sometime blogger Tim Dunlop, happens to be true. Only it’s true in precisely the opposite sense that Dunlop thinks. The notion that female politicians are given a hard time by the media, or the public at large, is one of the progressive elite’s cherished myths.  Judging by her quip to Barack Obama about the travails of an atheist woman, it’s a myth Julia Gillard clings to for solace.  

Gillard’s ascent confirmed that prejudices against women leaders have largely evaporated from the culture. Across a range of fields women are entering leadership positions in ever increasing numbers. On current measures of educational attainment, university enrolment and workforce participation, any persisting deficits in female achievement owe more to historical and voluntary factors than discrimination. Since the feminist juggernaut shows no sign of letting up, despite these developments, coming generations may well have to confront the relative disadvantage of men. Indeed the philosopher David Benatar, in his new book The Second Sexism, argues that the obsession with anti-female sexism is obscuring serious discrimination against men and boys.

Still, if there is any worth in the saying, often repeated in feminist circles, that “until a woman is free to be as incompetent as the average male then she will never be completely equal”, Gillard’s presence represents some sort of milestone. 

Before Labor’s self-destruction in the 2010 election campaign, and, more particularly, before her carbon tax reversal, Gillard’s public standing was quite respectable. The same can be said for Anna Bligh, whose victory in 2009 – the first for a female premier – was tarnished by an about-face of her own. The assumption that male politicians would be let off for similar conduct, so often peddled by commentators, doesn’t stand up. There are few precedents for post-election backflips as blatant and unscrupulous as these.

Perhaps Gillard and Bligh had cause to be over-confident. Double standards on gender, to the extent that they remain, are now applied in favour women leaders, not against them.

This proposition is subject to a qualification, of course. As one of the progressive establishment’s many unwritten rules, gender bias is, naturally, reserved for the benefit of progressive rather than conservative women. Consider the Bishop-Wong dichotomy, an extreme instance of progressive women’s immunity in practice. Bronwyn Bishop has long been an object of derision in media circles. But Penny Wong – a poster girl for progressive causes – can be buried under CPRS rubble and still emerge as “one of the government’s better performers”.  

Has Gillard been treated unfairly because she is a woman? Try the following experiment. Assume she is a conservative male prime minister with the same record of performance. Would she be faring better?

A case study will come in useful here. When Sir William Deane’s term as Governor-General expired in 2001 – he was a hangover from the Keating era – John Howard appointed Peter Hollingworth, the Anglican Archbishop of Brisbane. This infuriated the progressive establishment, which lay claim to the post. That Howard should appoint a clergyman, of all things, was intolerable. When a child abuse advocate launched into Hollingworth over the misdeeds of a teacher in his jurisdiction, the Church set up an inquiry that reported in 2003. Hollingworth was open to criticism for not acting promptly in a different case. Roused by a whiff of blood, the whole progressive tendency mobilised against him. The media drumbeat was relentless. Hollingworth couldn’t appear in public without having a phalanx of microphones shoved in his face. Ultimately the pressure was overwhelming and he resigned, apparently on Howard’s advice.

The Hollingworth episode was a naked display of the progressive elite’s institutional and media power. 

What does this have to do with Gillard? The point is that a conservative male leader, in her circumstances, would have suffered the full Hollingworth treatment. At the first whiff of blood – and that has been around for well over a year – the progressive attack machine would have cranked into gear. Day after day, the air waves would have been full of pundits declaring him unfit for office, legal academics worrying about damage to the constitution, left-wing economists wailing about consumer and investor confidence, clergymen wringing their hands about moral standards, eminent citizens calling on him to go in the national interest and educators fretting over the poor example to children. Fodder for the daily headlines, such sentiments would have been pursued mercilessly during interviews and press conferences. Without the fig-leaf of press gallery cover, he couldn’t have limped on as a credible primer minister.

Gillard has been spared all of this. The vultures are still lined up on the wire and ready to pounce, not on the wounded, stumbling Gillard, but on anyone who fails to show her enough respect. Two media figures have lost their jobs and others find themselves being dragged before some tribunal or other. Coarse talk-back radio comments and rude protest signs are nothing in comparison. And if stories in the Murdoch papers have discomfited her, most of them simply reported genuine leadership rumblings in caucus.

Gillard hasn’t been victimised because she is a woman; she has been protected because she is a progressive woman.

Consider two other conspicuous cases of progressive women’s immunity. There is ACTU President Ged Kearney, who presided over the appalling HSU scandal without having to answer for her inaction. Then there is Kim Sattler’s quick return to the fold at Unions ACT, after the small matter of orchestrating a riot on Australia Day. Neither has faced serious scrutiny.  

So how might the conservative male version of Gillard be faring? He would have long since been hounded out of the Lodge.

See also: What are they hiding?