Two days ago I spent 9 hours sitting in the speaker’s box in the Tasmanian lower house watching a debate on legislation that proposed the decriminalisation of abortion. The legislation is both controversial and sensitive and it will come as no surprise to any of you that I support it. During the debate, thanks to where I was sitting, I had a direct view of facial expressions and reactions, as well as being able to hear cross-floor conversations.
The proposed legislation would allow women equal rights under Tasmanian law, as terminations are the only health procedure covered under the criminal code. Prior to the debate I expected some of the more conservative politicians not to understand this and I expected them to offend me. What I did not expect was to see members of the parliament, specifically from the Tasmanian Liberal Party, be blatantly sexist during the entirety of the debate.
I find it no coincidence that under the leadership of women, the most progressive legislation in Tasmanian history has been introduced into the parliament. I also find it no coincidence that overwhelmingly, conservative men oppose and undermine it. These are men who tick all the boxes; white, privileged, older, overtly religious – the stereotype seems to be so often true.
It began when member for Lyons, Rebecca White, stood to speak for the bill. Bec is a popular, intelligent and strong female presence in the parliament. She is also young, in her first term, incredibly well dressed and attractive. Can you guess what comes next?
As she spoke Misogynist #1* turns to his parliamentary colleagues and starts having seemingly irrelevant and certainly not urgent conversations, loudly. He also mumbles objections, loudly. At this stage I wasn’t sure if what I was watching was blatant sexism, but then he sealed the deal. He pulls out a laptop, sits it (appropriately) on his lap, thrusting it open so it makes a loud bang against he desk and then closes it not long after. There is no doubt in my mind that it was intentional. One of Bec’s staffers begins to fume, I look at her and she says, ‘He always does this’.
Next, his sidekick Misogynist #2** picks up his water glass. Does he take a sip? Is he, as you would expect, thirsty? No. He picks it up only to move it across his desk and slam it down noisily and again, in the middle of Bec’s contribution. This is also the man who thinks that if we decriminalise abortion women will not hesitate to demand abortions up to 9 months, committing a, “terrible assault on the unborn”. This is a blatant misrepresentation of the legislation.
From that point onward, any female MP in the Green or Labor party had to endure the same treatment. Admittedly, Misogynist #1 was rude to males but the tone and persistence was different. Furthermore, the men he heckled responded and it was clear it was some kind of macho-off or power struggle. When the females spoke they turned away from him and did their best to hide their frustration.
Some people will tell me that this is just how these men do politics, that it’s their style. My response: that doesn’t mean it’s not sexist and I believe our society is too apologetic of such behaviour.
I left the parliament with incredibly mixed reactions, the bill had passed, now making its way to the upper house and on the other hand, I had watched our top political institution demonstrate it wasn’t ready to treat me as an equal. Reactions to my comments on Twitter and conversations with other women who were there only seem to confirm my observations and their frustration and weariness of such treatment was clear.
This is why our Prime Minister still needs to make speeches about misogyny.
This is why it’s OK to still call men out for sexism, you’re not overreacting.
This is why we need to decriminalise abortion; because a political environment such as the one I described proves current legislation is an insult to the idea of gender equality.
This is why we still need feminism.
* Rene Hidding, Member for Lyons http://www.renehiddingmp.com/
** Michael Ferguson, Member for Bass http://michaelferguson.com/