Bob Brown & Sexism


A slightly edited version of this piece originally appeared in The Age

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Senator Brown’s claims of sexism this week is that, in the absence of examples, he appears to suggest that the frequency and force of criticism is itself sexist. It’s nonsense, and will come as a great surprise to the swell of female commentators and critics of the Prime Minister.

In fact, the solemn contortions of Brown’s political correctness risked collapsing into its own form of sexism, as pointed out by John Birmingham in Tuesday’s Sydney Morning Herald.

The Senator did hint at a genuine problem though with his phrase “unrelenting criticism”. Yes, it is unrelenting. In fact, it’s speeding towards a fever pitch of dull indignation masquerading as political analysis.

Oh, I know I play my part. Where once I enjoyed privately dramatising the decline of politics over a Canberra pint, I now publish my impotent scorn in a broadsheet, contributing to the heavy atmosphere of ill-feeling.

So, Mr. Brown, I’ll relent. But not today.

The criticism is relentless, but its cause isn’t sexism. It’s the preponderance of idiocies, fecklessness and the existential wobbliness of minority government. There’s a medley of criticism to be made, as arch misogynist Annabel Crabb did so elegantly in a long piece in The Monthly last year.

By not telling the story of Rudd’s ousting, Crabb wrote, “there’s a gap at the centre of Julia Gillard’s identity as prime minister. It stunts her ability to talk to people, once her most natural gift. If she cannot be frank in her explanation of how she came to be here, how can she be trusted as a faithful correspondent on other matters of significance?”

In truth, the entire government’s communication is stunted, and if this isn’t grounds for criticism, what is?  I have seen too many crimes committed against language by this Government, and I can only think that a focused, visionary and courageous leader would inspire a more articulate one—a fair criticism and not a sexist one.

Want more? Have you ever wondered why Labor politicians seem to only quote Democrat US Presidents? Of course you haven’t. But let me tell you anyway. One of the witless habits of partisanship in this country is the patrolling of an imaginary demarcation between the two major parties (there are two lines of demarcation—a genuine one, and a rhetorical one. Sometimes they meet). One of the more facile detours this line takes is down through the list of US Presidents, as if there’s some kind of mythic consistency between the Democrats and the ALP. So immutable is this rule, that it extends to plagiarising fictional presidents for speeches.

Political advisor: PM wants you to launch body scanners today.

Minister: What’s their effectiveness?

Political advisor: For revealing genitals, or thwarting terrorists?

Minister: The latter.

Political advisor: Minimal.

Minister: We done a cost-benefit analysis?

Political advisor: Nope.

Minister: Quote from FDR should fix this.

Political advisor: Agreed.

Minister: He was a Democrat, right?


If the Prime Minister and the government she leads cannot articulate themselves with any strength or suasion, they deserve to be hammered.

Anyway, like Bob Brown I’ve allowed myself to get distracted.

Our politics and conversations are a swirl of pathologies, and we do well to collectively separate vileness and bigotry from muscular and useful debate. But Brown’s imagined sexism does a disservice to the Prime Minister’s strength—grace might not be the right word—under pressure and to the journalists and voters whose primary demand is of transparency and quality, not sex.

Up until now, Gillard—quite rightly—has not made an issue of her gender. If troglodytes want to fulminate about the evils of a female Prime Minister in the privacy of their own caves, so be it. But the vast majority of Australians don’t care. Admittedly, political placards are made in these caves and taken out to aid protest—”Ditch the Witch” and more vulgar variations have given me pause for thought, but I still insist that these shrill, misogynistic proclamations are made by a small, if vocal, minority.

Idiotic name calling is not new, and I fail to see why these are any worse than the ubiquitous Nazi comparisons which stain street protests. Comparisons were made between Hitler’s mob and Malcolm Frasier in ’75, John Howard and George W Bush during the beginning of the Iraq war and, more recently, with Barack Obama and his push for health care reform. Marks of ignorance and shrillness all, but let’s leave it at that. The Prime Minister is a big girl, and doesn’t require Senator Brown’s paternalistic attention.

What’s more, the Prime Minister tells us that she is the best single person in the land to govern the country. The corollary of that is critique. Incessant, needling critique. Her gender is—should be—irrelevant, and Gillard has done very well to dismiss any questions which get at it. In considering Brown’s hand-wringing, I’m reminded of a quote from Joyce Carol Oates about the sadly debilitated Muhammad Ali. She said “and who is to presume to feel sorry for one who will not feel sorry for himself?” Of course, Oates was at least referring to an affliction that was real.

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