No one wants to hear politicians talk about sex. Tony Abbott should have known this when he compared the Liberal candidate for the marginal seat of Lindsay, Fiona Scott, with her successful predecessor, Jackie Kelly. He said: ”They’re young, they’re feisty and, I think I can probably say, have a bit of sex appeal.”
No, actually, you can’t say that. Who even uses the words sex appeal any more? Abbott later, oddly, excused his remarks as a ”dad moment” – although retro, disturbing or archaic would be more appropriate – and wrote it off to ”exuberance”.
As with most political disputes over sexism, reaction was divided along party lines. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd pointed out how offensive this remark would be in any workplace. His team agreed.
The Liberals all had a bit of sport with it though, and farce ensued. Joe Hockey said he was embarrassed when Abbott called him the George Clooney of Federal Parliament, although he looked chuffed to be the subject of such an outrageous slur.
Christopher Pyne then bemoaned the fact he was not called sexy, although former Liberal senator Helen Coonan insisted on ABC’s The Drum that, actually, Mr Pyne, was, in her view, smokin’ hot. Amanda Vanstone explained that Abbott could be kind of awkward socially but he was trying to be nice: ”I do not want us to get to the stage where people can’t pass a compliment,” she said. ”Women say about blokes, ‘Gee, he’s nicely packed, isn’t he?”’
Vanstone went on to explain that, even though most people understood ”packed” to refer to the contents of underpants, she meant ”good looker”. Which was a good thing, as we were about to get into Weiner territory.
It might be cute to joust about who’s hot, but these remarks showed not even the faintest acknowledgement of the history of women in Australian parliaments: where they fought to not have their appearance regularly dissected, commented on and pawed over. Not because it’s insulting – it usually is – but because it predictably provokes an inane, usually prolonged distraction from the matters they are keen to debate: the economy, immigration, decades of deficits ahead.
It is a history that has involved newspapers and magazines frequently offering ”makeover” advice for the women of Parliament, from Carmen Lawrence to Pauline Hanson. Style consultants were called on in the 1980s and ’90s if a woman’s position was in peril, and the message was not nuanced: doll up or get dumped.
When Democrats leader Janet Powell was being challenged in 1991, for example, she agreed to be made over for 60 Minutes after ”image consultants” said she looked like a mother (the shame!). It didn’t work, and she was ousted. Funnily enough, it was her leadership style, not her tresses, troubling her colleagues.
Ironically, one of the women MPs attacked for not looking hot enough was Abbott’s favoured Jackie Kelly. In 2001, when she was sport and tourism minister, she received a letter telling her she and Bronwyn Bishop required makeovers as ”two of the most pathetic frumps in Federal Parliament”.
Kelly, fondly called ”Trakkie Dakkie Jackie”, milked the moment, knowing her electorate liked her for being real, not a groomed, pearl-wearing Liberal. ”Women in public life are under enormous pressure to live up to impossible expectations, like we should all look like Elle Macpherson. I have news for you – it ain’t going to happen. I’m not paid to be a cover girl, I am paid to achieve things for my community,” she said.
As with most political disputes over sexism, reaction was divided along party lines.
Kelly is now being called sexy; when she was a minister she was called a frump.
So here’s the rub. Once you comment on appearance, you invite debate, and a whole new, offensive and distracting discussion ensues. Say Fiona Scott is sexy, and some – like Mark Latham – see this as posing an important question that must be answered. Latham weighed in: ”I had a good look at Fiona Scott on page eight of The Australian today and she doesn’t have sex appeal at all. She’s not that good of a sort.”
Latham, who experienced a week-long discussion about man-boobs after being photographed playing cricket in a T-shirt years ago, continued: ”She’s a rather plain, ordinary-looking woman and Abbott has exaggerated massively to try and win her vote among the blokes. Tony had the beer goggles on and in politics they say it’s showbiz for ugly people and I don’t think she’ll be out of place.”
As Julia Gillard found, no matter what you look like, it’s impossible to profit from, or control, public discussion of appearance. Most women in the public eye are found wanting if they’re not, say, models, as fractionally more than zero per cent of us are.
Former NSW Liberal leader Kerry Chikarovski was told to ”get a facelift”. National Party MP Ron Best told then Victorian minister Monica Gould her ”breasts were so small that her front was indistinguishable from her back”. Former Labor minister Ros Kelly said she had only ever worried about her weight after becoming a politician: ”After a while in politics, I perfectly understand why women get bulimic and get eating disorders.”
In an election defined by hard heads, hard hats, three-star generals, fluoro vests and ”new ways”, it’s jarring when we slip into old ways of talking about women: it’s risible, ridiculous and never a good thing for public debate. It should not, in 2013, need to be spelt out that sex appeal is not a qualification for political life, and is often cited as just the opposite.
The woman who had the best rejoinders will always be Vanstone, who retorted when a parliamentary opponent called her ”Fatty”: ”Better big in the backside than bulldust for brains.” Which would, frankly, be a much better slogan than: ”A bit of sex appeal.”