Tuesday, June 25, 2013

POLITICS: Australian politics needs to be dragged from the gutter

There was a time when Aussies wondered about the political immaturity of our relatives across the ditch. Your obsession with the sex lives of your politicians was making you, our soft, cuddly Kiwi cousins, more resemble scratching koalas wounding the fur on each other's faces.

It got to a point when, in September 2006, your then-Prime Minister Helen Clark was point-blank asked by a reporter whether her husband was having an affair. Her response seemed to end the matter.

"I've been married for 25 years. I have a happy marriage. I've always had better things to do with my hard-earned money than waste it pursuing smut-mongers."

Ho ho ho, we laughed like a bunch of bloated sun-drenched Santas. Things in Australia could never get so bad.

Fast-forward almost seven years and it is time for you, my Kiwistani brethren, to have a laugh. I wish I could say the last laugh, but it probably won't be, given how damned sexist we ditch-dwellers are.

Ever since Julia Gillard kicked her predecessor Kevin Rudd in the proverbials and took over the top job, all kinds of things have been said about her anatomy, her sexuality and that of her partner of many years.

Where do we start? Perhaps with Ms Gillard's refusal to become Mrs Tim Mathieson and make babies. As far back as May 2007, Liberal Senator Bill Heffernan issued this fatwa: "I mean, anyone who chooses to remain deliberately barren - they've got no idea what life's about." This was followed up by Liberal Senator George Brandis who declared: "She has chosen not to be a parent; she is very much a one-dimensional person."

But obsession with Ms Gillard's private parts goes further. At a recent Liberal Party fundraiser, the menu included the following items that were thankfully not served: "Julia Gillard Kentucky Fried Quail - Small Breasts, Huge Thighs & A Big Red Box." And in the last few days, Liberal MP Don Randall tried to inject some industrial policy into the mix by claiming: "The problem is that the mining industry is being pussy-whipped by Julia Gillard."

I'm not sure what happened to that journalist who asked Helen Clark about her husband's sexuality. But Howard Sattler, Fairfax Radio shock jock from Perth, didn't last long after a lengthy exchange with the Prime Minister during a recent interview. Apparently before the interview, Sattler had cleared with the PM and her staff that it would be a frank exchange that would include aspects of her personal life. Ms Gillard agreed.

What she wasn't expecting (and no doubt what Sattler's listeners also weren't expecting) was to answer suggestions that her partner Tim Mathieson was gay because he had worked as a hairdresser. The shock jock's spirited on-air defence of his line of questioning consisted of: "But you hear it. He must be gay ... You've heard it. It's not me saying it, it's what people say."

This happened this month. This week, the publicly funded youth station Triple J was also caught out when one of its regular commentators suggested that the PM showed way too much up top in Parliament.

And no, columnist Grace Collier wasn't suggesting that Ms Gillard don a burqa.

"I don't think it's appropriate for a Prime Minister to be showing her cleavage in Parliament. It's not something I want to see. In my opinion as an industrial relations consultant, it is inappropriate to be in Parliament, it is disrespectful to yourself and to the Australian community and to the Parliament to present yourself in a manner that is unprofessional."

In response (and perhaps as a slap in the chest to South Asian men like myself), feminist Eva Cox declared: "Men don't have breasts to show."

Opposition leader Tony Abbott, on the other hand, is quite happy to show his breasts and much more on the beach in his role as a surf lifesaver. As an avid bike rider, Mr Abbott's bike shorts are also quite revealing to anyone who cares to look.

With an election due in September, Australian voters can only hope that there is much less talk about sexuality and nether-regions and more about policy.

Irfan Yusuf is a lawyer, author and former Liberal Party candidate. This column was first published in the NZ Herald on Tuesday 25 June 2013.