Peter Smith

Voting for sex

Affirmative action – election style

According to the last Nielsen poll on preferred prime minister; Julia Gillard enjoys a far higher margin over Tony Abbott among women than she does among men. In the Great Debate; when Ms Gillard was speaking, the women’s worm stayed stubbornly above the men’s, as it stayed below when Mr Abbott was speaking. While the latest NewsPoll reported in the Australian on Monday (26/7) showed some drift back among women to the Coalition, there may still be a preference among some women for Ms Gillard simply because she is a woman.

There is a potential parallel between this preference and the preference accorded to Obama in the last US presidential election because of his African-American background. There was a very high turnout of supportive black voters. It seems clear too than numbers of white voters were persuaded to vote Democrat because of the significance of having the first black president.

Having the first elected woman prime minister is also significant.

It is understandable that black voters (and others) in America would be attracted to idea of a black man as president, as women voters (and some men) in Australia would be to the idea of a woman as prime minister. There is nothing amiss in this unless it replaces all of the tests normally applied to judge fitness for office. Then it becomes a species of affirmative action, where skin colour and gender trump merit. That is a very risky thing to have happen.

Affirmative action is an interesting phenomenon. You are waiting to have brain surgery or, alternatively, to fly in a jumbo jet. You are given the choice of a surgeon with consummate skills or one who scraped through medical school and has a sketchy success rate in the operating theatre. Or, in the case of the jet, a choice between a pilot with an impeccable record or one who has been particularly accident prone. As a believer in affirmative action, you bravely choose the hapless surgeon and the hopeless pilot because they both belong to a perceived disadvantaged group. Perhaps not; believers in affirmative action would rather talk the talk than fly the plane.

Affirmative action is usually only supported when the consequences are distant and disguised. After all, who would have known in New Haven Connecticut whether fire fighting became less effective as a result of some fire fighters being denied promotion, because too few black fire fighters passed the tests? It would be subjective. Yes, some people might lose their lives but it could never be traced conclusively to affirmative action. Nonetheless, affirmative action will always have adverse consequences because merit is relegated to second place.

Accepting the logic of this, should we allow affirmative action to predominate when choosing a president or prime minister? Is being president or prime minister as important as surgery or flying a plane? Evidently, ‘not always’, is the answer

Would a young one-term senator, with no executive experience; who had attended a hate-filled church for twenty years (under the reverend Jeremiah Wright); who had mixed in the same circles as a terrorist bomber (Bill Ayers); who had represented the radical community group ACORN; and who had a far left voting record, have ever been elected as president if he’d been white? So far he has been as incompetent and radical as would have been expected, if his record had been properly brought into account. He would not have passed the merit test.

Equally, Julia Gillard does not pass the merit test.

She has co-authored everything the Rudd government did to ‘lose its way’. In only four weeks as prime minister she has instigated a deeply flawed process of deciding Australia’s taxation policy with three mining companies; presided over the Dili diplomatic fiasco; and proposed a ‘citizens’ assembly’ charade.

She also seems to have trouble with the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. As lawyer she would know what that means. It means you don’t stand up and tell the Australian people that you have made a deal with the mining industry that has cost $1.5 billion when it isn’t true. You don’t pretend that the Dili solution was a media mistake when you have floated the idea and not extinguished it. You don’t pretend to Kerry O’Brien (19/7) that Teach for Australia is your program when it isn’t. And how about the bald-faced evasion about whether she ever told Rudd he had lost his way. Everyone knows that she didn’t. She simply took her main chance.

There is everything right about a black president and a woman prime minister provided they get there on merit and are subject to the same rigorous scrutiny and testing as would normally be applied. Affirmative action has no place in deciding who runs a country. Hopefully it will play little part in the forthcoming election.

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