Handmaidens' tales

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Late in 2000 a swanky dinner was held in the confines of the Great Hall in Parliament House. Among those who attended was High Court Justice Michael Kirby, a champion of human rights, a law reformer and openly homosexual.

Justice Kirby was a guest of former New South Wales Supreme Court Justice Andrew Rogers, husband to Senator Helen Coonan. As a member of the High Court, Kirby does not generally attend functions hosted by politicians. But this time he was hoping to converse with a renowned international lawyer Rogers had also invited.

At the time Helen Coonan was the lowly Deputy Whip in the Senate. It was wryly observed by commentators that the socially progressive judge was ‘not the sort of company a budding conservative is supposed to keep’.

Fast forward to March 2002. New South Wales Liberal numbers man, Senator Bill Heffernan, used and abused parliamentary privilege to wrongly accuse Justice Kirby of picking up underage rent boys in his Comcar.

That the Prime Minister tacitly endorsed Heffernan’s disgraceful actions is indisputable. As Howard told Parliament, Heffernan enjoyed his affection and friendship. Despite statements to the contrary, to so publicly debase a High Court judge would never have occurred without the PM’s approval.

The ensuing frenzy was undoubtedly one of the lowest points in Australian political and legal history. Many respected and eminent figures stepped up to defend Kirby. But Coonan was not among them.

Why? As Assistant Treasurer – a position to which she was appointed after winning the tough fight for the top spot on the New South Wales Senate ticket for the 2001 election – Coonan had a lot to lose. Whether or not, privately, she thought Heffernan’s allegations distasteful or untrue [which I suspect Coonan did]we’ll probably never know. When you’re a part of this Government you do not buck the system. You do not go against your Prime Minister’s chosen position.

To do so is political suicide. Howard’s way is the only way.

That Heffernan was subsequently sacked from his Parliamentary Secretary position when the allegations were proved to be a fabrication is immaterial. Howard only removed Heffernan because the electorate was disgusted by his personally driven witch-hunt, not because the story was false.

Despite being a capable lawyer of some intellect, Coonan, probably fearing for her political future, stayed silent. But the Senator isn’t the only Liberal parliamentarian to shelve her beliefs.

Rigorous discipline within the party is ruthlessly enforced. The ‘troops’ – both male and female – know when they have transgressed. The Prime Minster will childishly and studiously ignore them and refuse to acknowledge them in any way. Those who dare speak out or take an opposing position receive a swift bollocking from a Prime Ministerial lackey; they know they will be ostracised by their peers as the news of their misfortune spreads. Demotion and disendorsement can be persuasive tools.

The not-so-subtle message is toe the line and you will advance. You refuse at your peril.

Prior to the last election many believed that moderate West Australian MP Julie Bishop was headed to the frontbench. However, in late 2001 she made mistake of saying that Australia should accept more refugees. Despite claiming she’d been misquoted and that she really did support the government’s tough border protection policy, the damage was done and Bishop languished on the backbench. She watched with frustration as others with half her abilities were elevated to the front bench. But eventually Bishop got the hang of it and kept her mouth shut, opening it only when she had something supportive to say. Bishop finally got her backside on to Ministerial leather in October last year, playing deputy to Health Minister Tony Abbott, in the junior portfolio of Ageing.

Dr Ingrid Tall is the Liberal candidate for Brisbane, another seat with a razor-thin margin. The former Queensland President of the AMA is a gregarious, media-savvy professional. She is also a lesbian. Interestingly, Tall remained conspicuously silent when the Government rammed its ban on gay marriage through the Parliament a fortnight ago.

One not so willing to blindly follow the government line is New South Wales Senator Marise Payne. Her bio reads as a list of what’s what in Committee work. The impressive and highly qualified young Senator, involved in politics for over 20 years, has never advanced to the front bench. Why? Because she frequently uses her positions on committees to ‘recommend’ changes to Government legislation. Payne was pivotal in forcing changes to the controversial ASIO legislation that the Government sought to introduce after the September 11 terrorist attacks. Her efforts ensured there was a bipartisan approach to the Senate’s eventual inquiry into the Government’s Bill. The vicious debate dragged on for over a year, because Payne’s stance endorsed changes to the proposed legislation to ensure basic protection of people’s human rights and civil liberties. The Government was forced into an embarrassing backdown, and an amended Bill finally passed both Houses in June last year. This won her no friends in powerful places.

Payne’s actions are admirable but where’s it getting her? Not into Howard’s Ministry. Yet dimwits like Veterans’ Affairs Minister Danna Vale – famous for accidentally faxing her Alan Jones fan letter to his arch enemies’ got into the Ministry. So did western Sydney MP Jackie Kelly, whose brain is infrequently connected to her mouth. Instead of hiding behind Senate Committees why doesn’t Payne have the courage to stand up and openly criticise Government policy? Punished for her history of opposing the PM, Payne was long ago relegated to the tough-to-win third spot on the Senate ticket so she doesn’t have much to lose.

It’s now widely known that a number of Government parliamentarians like many members of the general public – had strong reservations about our involvement in the war in Iraq. Not that they informed the general public. West Australian backbencher Judi Moylan was against the Iraq intervention yet would only admit to her position off the record. Deeply distressed about the decision to go to war, and under immense pressure from within the party to stay silent, when asked why she refused to speak out she could only lamely say ‘I just can’t’. Moylan has recently redeemed herself a little by writing to a constituent to re-state her anti-war stance.

Others, fond of their privileges, operate by stealth. Since ascending to the Immigration portfolio, South Australian Senator Amanda Vanstone – by her own staff’s admission has been slipping refugees out the backdoor. She’s been using her Ministerial powers to grant a variety of visas, but it’s all done on the quiet. After all, being lenient or compassionate toward asylum-seekers is not what this Prime Minister wants to be known for.

Howard has been lauded for his patronage of women politicians. He easily outstrips Labor in terms of the headcount of women charged with higher duties twelve Coalition women serve as Ministers or Parliamentary Secretaries. Yet, with the possible exceptions of Coonan and Vanstone, not one has any real power.

They just make up the numbers. All have won their positions because they have learned to play by the PM’s rules – they toe his line. Five of the women (Deanne Kelly and Teresa Gambaro in Queensland, Fran Bailey in Victoria, Trish Worth in South Australia and Jackie Kelly in New South Wales) made it because they’re marginal seat holders. They certainly weren’t promoted on talent – but without them Howard will lose this Federal election.

Like true handmaidens, the twenty-six Coalition women obediently serve and do their master’s bidding. Infuriatingly, they fail to see the little bargaining power they do have. If Howard is to have a fourth term he’s going to need every last one of them.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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