It was with a sense of irony that on Saturday August 25th, a few hours after the parliamentary Liberal party concluded days of ugly self-mutilation by electing Scott Morrison as Prime Minister and Josh Frydenberg as deputy liberal leader, I attended at Old Parliament House Canberra a government sponsored launch of an exhibition to honour 75 years of women in the federal parliament. In 1943 Enid Lyons, Liberal, was elected to the House of Representatives and Dorothy Tangney, Labor, from Western Australia became the first woman senator. Despite Lyons’ earlier history as a Labor party member, and her marriage to Joseph Lyons who entered federal parliament for Labor but ratted and became a liberal prime minister, modern liberals have taken great pride in owning the first woman in the House. Last week they could have provided themselves with further cause for self-congratulation. They could have elected Julie Bishop as the first female liberal prime minister.
Why didn’t they? When the rumbling tank aimed at destroying Turnbull’s prime ministership became unstoppable, it seemed certain that the chief tank commander Peter Dutton would grab the prize. His numbers grew alarmingly and very publicly. To the relief of most observers, including I suspect many Labor supporters, at the last minute two more candidates appeared. They were Scott Morrison, with lower personal approval ratings than Turnbull, and Julie Bishop whose approval ratings according to several polls were much higher than Turnbull’s. In fact, she was one of the most admired women in Australia. She had longer and broader parliamentary experience than her two male opponents, had proved herself over many years as a reliable, competent, and loyal deputy and put in several years’ service as a highly regarded foreign minister. As Foreign Minister, her work was not divisive within the Australian community and had attracted respect from all sides as well as internationally. She was free of the electorally polarising baggage of stopping the boats and persecuting asylum seekers in off shore detention, though these actions were the boasts of both her opponents. There was even a sub contest between them as to which man had the stronger claim to stopping the boats.
Adding to Bishop’s appeal was her potential impact on the long standing internal and public criticism of the Liberals for failing to achieve anything like reasonable numbers of female MPs or ministers. It appeared that through the week the Liberals had created a terminally poisonous situation with the voters. Now the willingness of Bishop to run could save them from destruction. Her decision to run gave them their best chance . They could elect as their leader a popular, respected, and experienced MP who would significantly improve the party’s standing generally and in particular with the crucial cohort of women voters. Bill Shorten would have struggled. In the ballot that followed, Bishop was excluded first, attracting a pathetic 11 votes. Of the remaining two men, the least bad prevailed. Bishop resigned from cabinet and signalled that she would sit on the back bench loyally until released from her agony by the next election, which Labor is now highly likely to win.
Is this heaping of self-destruction upon self-destruction explained by sexism? Even by the misogyny that former Prime Minister Gillard so damagingly accused Tony Abbott of using? There seems no other available explanation. As well as his primary role in lighting the fuse that created the Turnbull bushfire, Abbott’s misogyny as reflected in this vote has done further damage. In response to the destruction of Bishop, Morrison has appointed six women to his “new” cabinet, making eleven women out of forty members of the full ministry, where men still dominate women four to one.
This sexism exposes modern Liberals as having abandoned yet another Menzian tradition. When Menzies after the collapse of his UAP had to build the new Liberal party, he knew he needed the support of the powerful Liberal women’s organisations. To get it he agreed that women would have equal representation on liberal party committees. These days Liberals one and all, conservative or “progressive” energetically resist any affirmative action measures to give women a fairer go at pre-selections. They maintain this position while being painfully aware that that the parliamentary Labor party, after years of affirmative measures is nearly 50% female, and has strong shadow cabinet representation, with stars like Tanya Plibersek, Penny Wong and Linda Burney, who are backed up by plenty more excellent female colleagues. Labor is streets ahead in its inclusion of women.
Liberal women are outraged by the rejection of Bishop in such insulting terms and mourn the loss of her leadership position. From this perspective the conventional portrayal of the Liberal party as torn between conservatives and progressives just doesn’t fit. When it comes to women there are no progressives, or maybe just eleven. Virtually all of them support and sustain the sexist exclusion of women from their parliamentary ranks and have now, with the exception of the eleven, taken part in a very public and humiliating execution of their best woman.
And to return to their first woman, despite the considerable public relations value Enid Lyons brought them, they refused to give her a cabinet portfolio, only allowing her to sit in Cabinet in an executive role she found insulting. Expressing bitterness and disappointment, she resigned. After 75 years, they haven’t learned much.
Susan Ryan was the Labor senator for the ACT 1975-1988. In 1983 she became the first woman to serve as a member of a Labor cabinet