Enter the Dinosaurs


We all know that Bill Heffernan is a repulsive dinosaur and so it’s hard to feign shock and horror at his comments about Julia Gillard.

Of course he thinks women are like cows, valuable only for their ability to produce offspring and milk. Of course he thinks that the purpose of a wife (apart from aforesaid breeding and feeding) is so one has a means of relieving one’s ‘horn’ at 4:00am. This is simply the way repulsive dinosaurs think and only other repulsive dinosaurs could possibly need to have the depth of this man’s ignorance and irrelevance pointed out to them.

The people we should be concerned about are the ones who hold alarmingly similar views to Heffernan, but express them in a polite and politic manner, thereby avoiding the outcry and censure. There are plenty of them out there running the nation or running for Government, chattering away on the airwaves and filling newspaper columns, all of them deceptively un-Heffernesque in manner, all of them espousing the view that the whole point of even having women is that they incubate, deliver, feed and care for babies.

Take the apparent ‘condemnation’ of Heffernan’s comments reported last week. Peter Costello said that he didn’t ‘think whether you have children or you don’t have children is something that should be an issue in a political debate.’ His boss took a similar line: ‘I’m conventionally married and have children,’ John Howard said, ‘but if people for whatever reason choose not to, well that’s their business and it should not be a subject of comment.’

It’d be funny if it wasn’t so sickeningly hypocritical. Costello and Howard have never held back on commenting on the marital and parenting ‘choices’ of gay and lesbian people, and the most quoted sound bite of Costello’s career was a direct call to Australian women to have babies for the good of the nation.

Notable also was the way Howard slipped in that ‘conventional’ to make it clear that there is, if not a right way, then at least a normal way to conduct one’s private life, and that way is to be married with children. It’s a code Costello would have understood, having previously expressed a clear view of how families work: ‘The focus of my attention as Treasurer is families,’ he said last year. You know, people ‘on average wages’ trying to ‘support a wife and a couple of kids and pay a mortgage.’

Old Bill was rightly hammered for saying a childless woman has no understanding of families, yet all the time we hear the word ‘family’ used to mean exclusively a married, heterosexual couple with small children. It’s an insulting and antiquated definition.

Every childless person I know has a family and every family I know has at least one adult member who, though non-reproductive, is valued and valuable. One childless woman in my family has recently taken time off work to care for her seriously ill brother; another is the full-time carer for her elderly father. Contrast the family values and experience of these women with that of family man Christopher Pyne, who although actually paid to be Minister for Ageing, reportedly told a fundraising breakfast that he avoids aged-care events because he’s too busy and too young. (Pyne has denied making these comments.)

And what about the ‘out of touch with the community’ thing? The Australian Bureau of Statistics reckons that 24 per cent of Aussie adults will never have children. That’s a pretty damn big group of people to assign to the fringes of society.

It’s also a bloody big proportion of the population to rule out as fit for leadership. Yet Deputy Prime Minister Mark Vaile goes almost as far as Heffernan in this regard. Talking (as these fellas like to) about Gillard’s childlessness back in January, Vaile said that parenthood ‘equips you [for Government]far better than any other academic or professional qualification.’ So he didn’t say childlessness makes you ‘unfit’ for leadership he’ll leave that to his cruder colleague only that it makes you less qualified. Yeah, huge difference.

Thanks to Sean Leahy.

Labor is not on particularly high moral ground on this point either. When whispers began that Gillard would make a leadership bid in 2005, unnamed ALP sources made sure the media knew about concerns ‘that she was unmarried and childless.’ And Liberal MP Sophie Mirabella (at the time, Sophie Panopoulos) reported receiving no support from Labor pollies when she was treated to similar jibes from Labor’s John Williams.

The obsession with the past or potential occupancy of women’s wombs was also evident in the other big political story last week. Discussing Labor’s newly announced IR policy, Howard said that the parental leave provisions meant running the risk ‘that some employers will avoid employing women, in particular with young children.’ Discussing the same policy on ABC TV’s The Insiders, commentator Gerard Henderson said that, as someone who runs a small business, he thinks the policy will ‘of course’ discourage people from hiring young women. ‘You’re not going to hire a young woman if you’re worried she’s going to go off for a year,’ he said.

Talk about retro. As Gillard and her colleagues Tanya Plibersek and Penny Wong pointed out in a joint statement last week, the same arguments were made back in 1979 when maternity leave was introduced, but the participation rate for women in Australia had grown from 43.3 per cent in 1979 to 57.5 per cent today.

Leaving aside the fact that Howard and Henderson
seem to assume employers will react to such a policy by engaging in illegal hiring practices (to discriminate on the basis of gender is illegal), both men demonstrate their Heffernesque thinking by equating ‘parents’ in the policy with ‘women’ in practice; and equating ‘young women’ with ‘soon-to-be pregnant work-shirkers.’

The other telling aspect of the ‘parental leave means women won’t be hired’ line is that those espousing it obviously believe as Gillard pointed out that ‘from the point of view of employers [women’s] contribution is optional.’ For these relics, it is men and men alone who keep the economy running while women just tinker around the edges of the workforce in between confinements.

Perhaps the most obvious indication that Heffernan is not the lone misogynist he’s been portrayed as is Howard’s response. First, the affirmation that ‘Bill remains a very dear friend of mine.’ (Who was it that said ‘you can judge a man by the company he keeps?’)

Second, the insistence on an apology only after the toxic message had been endlessly repeated in the media and so was sure to stick in voters’ minds, regardless of any recanting by Heffernan.

Finally, the acceptance by Howard and his colleagues of the shamelessly insincere apology. ‘So there you go,’ Heffernan said. And there they went, assuring the world that the Senator’s brain explosion was an aberration and a lamented one at that.

The fact is that many of our elected representatives, along with certain commentators and public figures, judge women according to how well they perform their assigned primary role of reproductive unit. No doubt Heffernan will, before his time in public life is through, again articulate this position in his special sociopathically bigoted way, and no doubt, he will again be widely condemned.

I’m looking forward to the day his subtler, more diplomatic fellow-thinkers receive the same condemnation.

That will be real news.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.