As the Sex Discrimination Commissioner conducts an inquiry into federal parliament’s toxic culture, it is clear that her task is to diagnose misogyny and make recommendations for its removal. The easiest way to achieve this would be to remove men from positions of power.
In their brilliant 1992 satire of Australian political life ‘Up the Greasy Pole: A Year in the Life of Senator Frank Bragger’, Chris Puplick, John Black and Michael Macklin describe a man who brags continually but is never frank.
Senator Bragger has a great deal to say about political women and remembers with nostalgia the day when they made sandwiches, washed up and stuffed envelopes. He caricatures colleagues as Mums, Old Lefties, Career Girls, Permanent Spinsters, Jolly Hockey Sticks and Zealots. He describes their wardrobes as proletarian frump, quietly fashionable or power dressers while claiming he has respect because of his fondness for dark, expensive suits and tasteful ties. Senator Bragger likes women in their place.
Sexual assault and rape are not about sexuality but about the assertion of power. Acts of violence intended to suppress the victims – usually female. These are not private matters such as some consensual relationships might be – although it is also true that many such relationships are confused by power imbalances between participants.
Sexual assaults are public acts of violence and inherently political crimes. They are part of the process of quashing uppity females and rejecting their demands for equality. Their effects linger in creating a threatening milieu so that females are never allowed to feel comfortable or that they have a right to belong. Many are deterred from seeking a parliamentary career and those who do are reminded of a supposed inferiority and vulnerability.
Male dominance drives the devaluation of women in the workplace and the home. Assaults in workplaces including parliament resemble acts of domestic violence in that they assert masculine power and preference. There are unfortunate parallels with male monopoly of the means of violence and with the removal of social sanctions against their use. Prohibitions against hitting women are eroded by the strutting warrior stance encouraged by some sports, or at least the media coverage of them. Stars deserve to have adoring female fans.
The means of violent control include firearms. Men and firearms are a bad mix internationally and around Australia. Civil wars, anarchy and terrorism are fuelled by ready availability of weapons. Domestic violence is more likely where men have access to firearms. Firearms give inordinate power to anyone inclined to seek it. Everyone is vulnerable to firearms. Males are disproportionately likely to seek this form of power.
Firearms ownership and ego are mutually reinforcing. Men need firearms if they are unsure about their gender roles. However, such diffidence among some men is based on illusions of grandeur and power. Put simply, men who have been socialised into stereotypical feelings of inadequacy while thinking they have a right to power are dangerously deluded. No person should think that power over others is a natural right or aspire to it. Few women do.
Perhaps if we males are serious about ending violence against women, we must shun power in all its forms. We should be wary of attributes deemed to be essential in successful politicians, such as ambition and competitiveness. We should be suspicious of the ‘can do’ type who expects to be able to achieve something just because they can.
Women should not be made the sole guardians of good behaviour. In the current case of a Liberal staffer allegedly raped in the parliamentary precincts it appears that more than one male knew of the incident and similar examples, but did nothing. This is more than an issue of culture but reflects badly on leadership. The onus must be lifted from women.
It is not easy to shun the trappings of power. As a stay-at-home parent in the 1970s, I was aware of difficulties facing anyone challenging traditional gender roles. Resuming work in part time and casual positions I quickly became aware of some of the prejudices faced by women in the workforce. Being ‘only a casual’ I lacked power but found it easier to assert myself than did many female colleagues. We have all heard embarrassing stories of how a woman makes a suggestion only to have it rejected by a male manager and then see her suggestion enthusiastically adopted when proposed by a man.
What parliament needs is something that would benefit every workplace. Just as firearms should be banned because they provide immediate access to a deadly source of power disproportionate to needs, other forms of inappropriate power should also be shunned – like Bragger’s suit and tie. An immediate ‘power audit’ of parliament would establish the points at which power and dominance are easily acquired by those who are likely to use them irresponsibly. Such power nodes include the prime minister’s office, the cabinet room, the party room and the chambers. Either that, or remove males from all positions of power. Why not let parliament lead the way for a change instead of following antiquated and dangerous practices?