During the Abbott era it was customary to describe the Coalition’s disconnect with female voters as its women problem.
However, given the past weekend’s events it’s clearly time to call out the true nature of the difficulty: the government doesn’t have a problem with women, it has a problem with sexism.
When Tony Abbott was at the helm, winding up the outrage machine every couple of days, it was fairly easy to overlook that he wasn’t the only man in the Liberal and National parties with seriously outdated views about women.
As Opposition Leader, Mr Abbott resorted to gendered criticism of Prime Minister Julia Gillard, ranging from telling her to make an honest woman of herself, to being nonplussed about standing in front of placards and banners denouncing Ms Gillard as a witch and Bob Brown’s b**ch.
During the election campaign he lapsed into objectification of the women around him, at one time commenting on the sex appeal of a female Liberal candidate and at another saying he was the guy with the “not-bad looking daughters”.
And then after the election Abbott justified his decision not to appoint more than one woman to his first Cabinet with the claim that no other woman of merit was ready for promotion while a number of male duds still managed to get seats at the big table.
The rest of the Abbott era was distinguished by the PM’s overtly masculine behaviour, including the munching of onions, staring matches with journalists, and bizarre boasts of needing to “throw a punch to be the best and fairest”.
But now that he is mostly gone from our screens and daily news feeds, the case of Jamie Briggs’ inappropriate behaviour towards a young woman suggests that Mr Abbott was merely the most obvious member of what appears to be a boys’ own club within the Government.
It’s bad enough that Mr Briggs got himself into a situation where a young woman felt so uncomfortable about her superior’s behaviour that she not only complained about it on the night, but again a few days later to his chief of staff, and then in a formal note to her department.
Even if we were to generously dismiss the former minister’s behaviour as misdirected enthusiasm instead of a lack of respect for the young diplomat, his distribution of her photo after the complaint was lodged is at odds with his stated claim of wanting to protect the woman’s privacy. In reality it seems squarely aimed at discrediting her claims of distress.
Then there are Mr Briggs’ (universally male) supporters in the government and media, who have lined up to stress what a decent bloke the disgraced former minister is, and downplay the seriousness of his actions. The unspoken implication of this hearty support has also been to undermine the woman who complained, and cast doubt on the veracity of her distress.
Among the mates who’ve drawn the wagons around poor Briggsie is the Immigration Minister, Peter Dutton, who incidentally also comes from the Abbott camp.
You may recall Mr Dutton from previous hits such as “Get on your broomstick Nicola” and “People are very concerned about the conduct of the Speaker and these outrageous and shocking texts that appeared in the newspapers”.
The irony of course is that Minister Dutton snatched the spotlight from his good friend this week by inadvertently sending his own outrageous text message, meant for the ex-minister, to a News Corp journalist instead. Unfortunately the text slammed the very same journalist for her scathing weekend column about that night in Hong Kong, along with denouncing the scribe as a “mad f***ing witch”.
The thing about sexism, much like racism or homophobia, is that its perpetrators can be ignorant of its existence. To them, sexist language is just another way of expressing themselves, or more likely abusing or sledging someone else.
However, sexist language and the attitudes that underpin it are not harmless.
Overtly masculine behaviour naturally evolves into gendered abuse, which can be interpreted as condoning a woman being subjected to unwelcome attention and physical contact.
From there it is only a small step to discrediting the woman, with the aim of dispelling any notion that the whole vicious cycle has anything to do with sexism.
The only way for this cycle to end, at least within the Coalition Government is for Malcolm Turnbull to lead where Tony Abbott left off but in the other direction. In attitudes, words and deeds, the PM must demonstrate that sexism is not acceptable and that women must be treated with the same respect that would be afforded to any man.
Mr Turnbull may well be nervous about disciplining Abbott-supporters who’ve behaved badly, but when that bad behaviour is directed at women, the PM has no other choice than to move quickly and decisively.
Granted, Mr Turnbull made it clear that Mr Briggs’ position was untenable with a little help from his friends on the Cabinet subcommittee but the PM kept silent for too long on the shenanigans that have taken place since Briggs’ resignation.
Now the PM has belatedly stepped into the field, personally intervening to prevent the details of the young woman in question from being published by the media and slamming those who leaked against her. He also made the obvious point that such moves to discredit the women would deter other victims of sexual harassment from coming forward.
This is a good but unacceptably late start from Mr Turnbull to address what is arguably one of the government’s most insidious and potentially destructive problems. If the PM is not prepared to wage a war on sexism within his own government’s ranks, there’s no chance it will ever be eradicated from the community.