It is hardly surprising that, as female Liberal Party parliamentarians have expressed dismay over the way that they were bullied during the removal of Prime Minister Turnbull, party powerbrokers have reacted by seeking to prescribe the role of the politician. Sadly, no-one has questioned the obvious bias in the offered definition of ‘parliamentarian’ as requiring toughness.
It is reasonable that there should be disagreement about what characterises a good MP. The classic formulation of parliamentary roles distinguishes three approaches. For some observers, the ‘politico’ who is first and foremost a servant of a party is the best in the Westminster system with its reliance on an ‘in-out’ system of Government and Opposition. Others adhere to the belief that a representative should seek to reflect the views of constituents. Others emphasise ‘trustee’ responsibilities in which the MP exercises discretion and judges issues with personal experience and skills.
It should be noted that none of these classic orientations includes a prescription that the MP should be tough, resilient, able to stand the heat or withstand intimidation, or that it should be male or of a particular masculinity. Indeed, if an MP is subjected to such intimidation, then there should be serious consequences for the bullies. It is an infringement of parliamentary privilege to inhibit any MP in the conduct of his or her duties.
Desperate politicians who sense that their hold on power is slipping resort to old and formerly unquestioned methods. Three decades ago, parliaments were largely male preserves. In 1920, the first female MP in New South Wales, Millicent Preston-Stanley, referred to ‘the sacrosanct seats of the Lords of Creation’ and joked about the benches being disturbed by the rustle of a woman’s dress. Male members could chuckle then but female MPs almost a century later might wonder whether male resistance to their presence has now become more vicious.
Researchers in the 1990s presented school students with a number of facial images and asked them to match faces with occupations. Most students associated the role of MP with a male face. Given that there have been many prominent female MPs since then, it would be interesting to see the experiment repeated.
My students often expressed disgust at the behaviour of parliamentarians. One even requested an alternative to a visit to parliament because the thought of the place made her feel ill. This reaction was understandable given that many of the politicians – mainly men – adopt a deliberate strategy of making the role of MP seem repugnant. After all, if they can turn the young off politics, then they have eliminated many potential competitors. In this campaign, they often have the co-operation of media which follow the untested principle that their audiences and readers like ‘blood on the floor’. They argue that if you want to change the system then the best idea is to get elected. According to their philosophy, you must join a system that is abhorrent before you can claim any right to demand reforms.
The Liberal Party power brokers who have resisted the calls by female parliamentarians to expose bullying and undue pressure are not just being sexist. They are also being anti-democratic. While paying lip service to the benefits of diversity they simultaneously take actions which are a deterrent, firstly to women but also to anyone who does not resemble them. Why should any woman, any young person, anyone of an ‘ethnic’ background or indeed anyone who does not wear suit and tie want to contribute in our parliaments? And most specifically in the current situation, why should anyone who does not subscribe to the paradigm that politics is a tough business want to engage in the process?
The notion that politics has to be brutal should be regarded as the biased and unjustified claim of a nasty elite, seeking to structure politics as they want it to be. This notion should not be accepted at all. While a number of power brokers including the Prime Minister have asserted that politics is a ‘tough’ business, no-one has given a cogent argument that what ‘is’ now must always be so. To assert this is not a neutral observation but a prescription that politics remains a game for bullies, in other words, a game for people like them. The reaction to the complaints of female Liberal MPs is both sexist and anti-democratic.
Dr Tony Smith’s doctoral thesis was on ‘Gender in the Fifty-first New South Wales Parliament’.