Sexism 101: An Observation of Tasmanian Parliament

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
** Michael Ferguson, Member for Bass


About Liam Carswell & Jamila Fontana

We are two twenty something, pop culture loving, politics loving, left leaning, female rap adoring, fashion obsessive friends from Hobart, Tasmania, Almost Melbourne. On politics, world affairs, relationships, society and all things unspoken and awkward. Liam likes vinyl, Topman and coke. Jamila likes Eve, middle aged folk singers and Che Guevara (still!).
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8 Responses to Sexism 101: An Observation of Tasmanian Parliament

  1. Hey Jamila. I find it really interesting when men say “we’re not being sexist to women, we’re treating them exactly like we do other men”, because this leads directly to the quote from Germaine Greer made famous by Sinhead O’Connor – “the opposite of patriarchy is not matriarchy, but fraternity”.

    I think the higher one goes up the power hierarchy the less one treats others with consideration and decency, because one perceives no such need to inconvenience oneself by such matters. 🙂 What this leads to is people of privilege behaving appallingly with no awareness they are doing it, thinking in fact that is “normal” because in their world “everyone” does it.

    All of this of course is a tangent on your main point which was that these ignorant fools were noticeably consistent in their desire to disrupt and disrespect women, and need to be called out on it. Agree with you 100%.

  2. Jill M says:

    Sexism goes both ways, the arguments I’ve been hearing from women completely refusing to acknowledge the male perspective even though that male is not a “white middle class man” in his 50s with an outdated view on what roles women should abide by is deplorable. Seek respect give respect.

  3. Tassie M says:

    To the comments above from ‘Jill M’ – framing an argument in the ‘male perspective’ is as basic as it gets and completely misses the point. I am in complete agreement with Jamila on this issue and yet I come from the ‘male perspective’. What you are talking about is not a ‘male perspective’ it is an anti-equality perspective that does not place the rights of women in the hands of women and I completely understand why women would refuse to acknowledge it. Refusing to acknowledge it is not a lack of respect, it is self respect.

    That said, I don’t know that I accept that those specific actions of Ferguson and Hidding were necessarily ‘sexist’. Having been around a lot of parliament for a long time I have seen Ferguson behave in a much more offensive way to McKim, than towards any woman in parliament.

    The things that Ferguson, Hiddings, even Petrusma (yes I think she is a misogynist) said through that debate and other debates were far more sexist and misogynist than anything you describe and the things I have heard them say outside of parliament are even worse.

    I don’t dispute that they are sexists, but I don’t think your examples necessarily stack up.

  4. I think these comments are great and some of the observations used to disagree with my article are spot on. I’m aware that it’s bold of me make these accusations without having spent much time observing these two men and admit that Michael Ferguson does not appear as a bad a culprit, though he is disrespectful to everyone almost constantly.

    I think it’s interesting to read the blog in the context of a sole experience and an outsiders impression, I’m not at all saying my perspective would not change if I saw more. Additionally, I’ll stand by the fact that I find it sexist in a broader sense to not turn off the banter and disruption for such a serious issue. For men who defended their stance against by explaining the Parliament how serious this issue is, their behaviour was the ultimate hypocrisy.

    My point is also that not having sexist intention doesn’t mean you can ignore how your behaviour is percieved, especially by a young woman with a limited experience of Parliament.

  5. Pingback: Glitter and Goings-On | the cup thief

  6. DJ says:

    Let me preface this comment by saying that I do agree with you that a great many of the comments about the Bill in question have been sexist and inexcusable, and that the people responsible for these comments are more than likely deeply sexist. However, I don’t at all think the interjections you describe are sexist.

    Disruptive behavior has (for better or for worse) a long tradition and Australian parliaments are famous for it. To claim it is “sexist in a broader sense not to turn off the banter…for such a serious issue” unfairly downplays the seriousness of what Parliament deals with on a day to day basis. Issues that spring to mind as important as abortion law: indigenous health; environmental policy; employment regulations. Parliament is a place that deals with serious issues. It’s a shame the people we elect don’t seem to take that responsibility seriously at all times, but it isn’t sexist.

    The tone and content of the heckling may have been different when targeted towards women. Maybe. But that’s a subjective and unreliable claim, with no evidence provided to back it up. That the men thus heckled responded in kind and the women did not does not make the heckling of the men addressing Parliament any less disrespectful. By the way, heckling and disruptive behavior has nothing at all to do with “how men do politics”, it is simply how some Parliamentarians choose to behave in Parliament. A cursory glance at the behaviour of both major party front benches in Federal Parliament during Question Time should make that clear.

    I think that dubbing two Parliamentarians (that you’ve identified by name) as Misogynist #1 and Misogynist #2 based on what you’ve described in this blog post goes beyond making a bold claim and enters the territory of slander.

  7. I think the reason I’m unwilling to accept ‘long traditions’ of heckling is because I think feminism should concern itself with indirect forms of sexism. Obvious statements of sexism make easy targets, subtle and institutionalised practices that aren’t primarily sexist but facilitate sexist behaviours in a contemporary setting are just as bad – they are the future challenge.

    I wrote on the back of an emotive impression left on me during the debate and I keep defending that feeling because I believe if a woman has been left feeling like that, regardless of the history of the behaviour, it’s not okay. For me, true gender equality is also about eliminating traditions with sexist consequences and I understand that for many that might be ‘radical’.

    You’re also not the first person who has questioned how personal and direct I have been with my criticism of certain politicians. I think this is part of a broader conversation about how we use things like twitter and blogs for opinion and what rules or etiquette guide them. I’ve made the decision that because I would refer to them in such ways in conversation, I’ll also do it here. My defence being that I doubt I am the first person to use language like that in regards to politicians and that I don’t believe a personal blog should be subject to rules more similar to those that apply to journalists. Thought I understand that this is ‘published’ in a sense and I doubt I’d write it again, but I’ve decided to stay true to how I felt when I first wrote it.

    • DJ says:

      I certainly agree with you that tradition is not an excuse, and I did not intend to suggest it was. If a non-sexist tradition has a causally necessary sexist result then that tradition should be examined with a view to being replaced. An intriguing example of this phenomenon is the role of the sauna in Finnish culture. Much important business, including cabinet meetings traditionally take place in the Sauna, but Finnish non-family saunas are almost exclusively sex-segregated. Clearly will lead to sexist outcomes and I don’t think its radical to point that out.

      I don’t accept, however, that Parliamentary heckling has a gender dimension in most circumstances. I know that in the Federal Parliament, two of the most prolific and persistent hecklers are Sophie Mirabella and Bronwyn Bishop, who constantly interrupt speeches with taunts aiming to disrupt and diminish the authority of the (due to Parliamentary demographics generally male) speaker.

      I also don’t accept that “if a woman has been left feeling [the emotive impression you experienced]…it’s not okay”. It may be cause for questioning whatever has caused the feeling, analysing it, but it does not follow that the what caused the feeling is not okay. In many cases people are left with feelings as a result of being mistaken. A thug may anger because a fellow bar patron accidentally spilled his drink while sidling past in a crowd – the thug may well be in the wrong. I’m sure you can imagine examples more compelling than what I have provided.

      Be wary about publishing anything you would say in conversation. Whether or not you think defamation law should apply to personal blogs; it does. I don’t think this post risks anything, but I think you’re being unfair by inferring that the Parliamentarians named are misogynists from the behaviour you’ve described.

      I agree with you wholeheartedly that we still need feminism. I also agree with you wholeheartedly that it’s still okay to call men out for sexism, don’t worry about overreacting! But misogyny is a powerful word, and I worry that when it is used without care it loses potency – and now, perhaps more than ever, we need that word to describe those men with black souls who truly hate women.

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