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Christine Milne: Destroying the Joint Is About More Than Being a Woman in Power

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Christine Milne 26 Jun 2013

This is Christine Milne's chapter from the Destroying the Joint anthology.

What did Alan Jones mean when he said ‘women are destroying the joint'? Was it, as some have characterised it, nothing more nor less than a howl against the rise of women into positions of power and influence? Was it purely and simply an angry man's general tirade, steeped in misogyny? Or was it a deeper fight back against the slow but sure progress towards a fairer, more compassionate, more forward-thinking society?

Pondering that raises a perhaps more important question: What do we mean when we talk about ‘destroying the joint'? Are we happy simply to see women occupying powerful and influential positions in increasing numbers? Or do we need to go further? Is it not enough unless we use those positions to drive deeper change?

For me, destroying the joint means challenging the power structures that say that might is right and that today is more important than tomorrow. Destroying the joint means building a new system in which it's not OK to allow people to be marginalised, exploited and discriminated against; it's not OK to ignore the needs of future generations; it's not OK to wreck this extraordinary, beautiful, fragile planetary environment that sustains us - our Mother Earth.

We don't want power and influence just because it's time for men to share. We want power with a purpose.

All my life I have been challenging the status quo. I can't help myself - if something seems really unfair to me, then I just have to become involved in trying to fix it. I've often wondered why some people feel that need and others don't. To what extent is it innate and how much are we the product of our upbringing?

I grew up in the 1950s and '60s, in a conservative farming community in north-west Tasmania. My sister Gaylene and I were brought up on the family dairy farm before we were sent to a Catholic girls' boarding school, St Mary's College, in Hobart. It was the story of many other girls of my generation who went on to be resigned to, happy with, or successful within the status quo. So what made some of us want to rattle the cage and why did we do it?

Looking back, I realise that, while the seeds of my passion for destroying the joint were sown then, it was not the intention of my parents or the nuns at St Mary's to turn out radicals. It was certainly their intention to give us the skills to get to the top, to achieve our greatest potential. But, looking deeper, they made it clear that getting to the top was never just for ourselves; it was for the betterment of all people and of society at large, now and into the future.

That is the gift that has driven some of us to keep on trying not to just get to the top for ourselves, but also to remove the barriers that prevent other women, and other marginalised people, from getting there. Therein lies the rub.

Getting to the top makes you a role model for other women and girls, regardless of what you do when you get there. And fair enough too. Women are half the population and deserve half the representation regardless of the views we hold. But being at the top does not automatically make you a role model for advancing women's rights.

Some women in positions of power and influence have found ways around or through the barriers to entry but, because of an unwritten law not to upset the apple cart, have deliberately or inadvertently denied similar access to women who come after. By reinforcing the foundations of the status quo, they have effectively held back women's rights. I would go so far as to say that, in many cases, they have been preselected, by both men and women in factions or on preselection committees, specifically for that purpose.

Frequently it has been a religious perspective that has overridden a women's rights perspective. How many female MPs, for example, voted against RU 486, or against equal marriage, or against funding women's reproductive health programs through overseas aid?

Frequently, the way through has been dynastic succession. How many women in countries where there are now quotas for women MPs are the wives, sisters, daughters or mothers of the powerful men already at the top? Are they role models for women? Yes, of course they are. But are they advancing or stalling women's rights? That depends on what they do when they achieve their position.

But often, particularly in the Westminster countries and in the USA, it has been simply the gravitational pull of the status quo that has held back progress despite the rise of individual women.

Take Margaret Thatcher, for example. The Iron Lady learned the rules of the joint and played them harder than the men in British conservative politics for over a decade. Thatcher did nothing to improve the chances of women in Britain or anywhere else in the world, and she plunged Great Britain into the Falklands War. But she remains undoubtedly a role model to this day, in the sense that she proved a woman from a working class background could be a successful prime minister.

Getting to the top is destroying the joint to the extent that it shows that women can do whatever we set out to do and take our place on the road to equal representation, even within the existing framework and structures.

Women of all political persuasions - Julia Gillard, Bronwyn Bishop, Rachel Siewert, Julie Bishop, Larissa Waters, Tanya Plibersek, Connie Fierravanti-Wells, Lee Rhiannon, Nicola Roxon, Sarah Hanson-Young, Penny Wright and I, together with all female MPs - have this much in common. We share stories of how hard it has been, of how what we wear or how we look is criticised when it's not the same for men. Remember how Joan Kirner was always mocked in cartoons for spotted dresses, and how Julia Gillard's jackets are constantly under scrutiny. We've seen the same in newsrooms, where women have historically struggled to maintain positions as they have aged or become pregnant.

Just as those who have been destroying the joint in politics have had some successes, so have those in the media. It would have been unheard of once for a pregnant woman to read the evening TV news, or to be preselected in politics, but that has now happened in Australia on more than a few occasions, and it is fairly common for women in politics to become mothers as sitting MPs.

Parliament, its buildings and its sitting hours have historically been family unfriendly. When I was first elected to the Tasmanian Parliament in 1989, there was no place to take children who came to the parliament to visit sitting members, especially since the offices we occupied were like broom cupboards. So I argued for 7pm adjournments and the setting up of a spouses' room in the parliament as a family lounge room. We succeeded in both, but sadly the spouses' room was rarely used. It was ahead of its time in terms of the number of members with young children, so it was eventually converted to another use.

Preselection for winnable seats is changing for the better in all political parties, but that is a relatively recent phenomenon and an indication of the power of women voting for women and organisations within parties, like Emily's List. The Greens have always had a proud record in this regard and we remain the only party in federal parliament with more than 50% of our representatives being women.

In some ways, the language of politics has also changed for the better, hard though that might be to remember, given the standard of our current debate. Back in 1989, when it was unusual for women to be in Tasmanian politics at all, let alone in the balance of power, my colleague Dianne Hollister and I were shouted at and abused by prominent Liberals across the House of Assembly as ‘political sluts' because we dared to support a Labor Government. There were five Greens MPs, but it was we two women who were accused of prostituting ourselves for political power. The recent examples such as Prime Minister Gillard being referred to as Bob Brown's bitch are just as offensive, but thankfully would no longer be accepted inside the parliament.

Nevertheless, the description of women's behaviour by the media and by male politicians still demonstrates the discriminatory overtones women endure to this day. How many male MPs are described as ‘shrill', or as stamping their feet when making a strong speech in the parliament? Former Tasmanian Premier Michael Field used to start sentences with: ‘Christine Milne can stamp her feet as much as she likes, but Labor will ... ' It is and was a put-down, suggesting that women are unable to debate the point but rather resort to temper tantrums. The irony is that it is often the failure of men to be able to argue the point that leads them to make sexist remarks instead. The same goes for references to female MPs as witches - the none-too-subtle idea being to drown them for their blasphemy, their daring to challenge accepted mores.

I was very lucky to grow up with role models willing to take on the status quo through their actions.

My life's experience was of both parents working, both parents cooking and growing food, and both parents running the farm, as Dad did the physical work and Mum did the books. Having two daughters meant that there was no discussion about boys inheriting the farm or questions as to what the girls would do or get. All options including farming were on the table for my sister and me, but it was as hard to make a living on a family farm then as it is now and my mother was passionate about her girls getting an education. She had been a St Mary's girl, sent by her parents from a farm at Sheffield to board in the 1930s. She subsequently went to teachers' college and, quite radically for the 1950s, went back to work as a Home Arts teacher the year I started school in 1958, in large
part to pay for Gaylene and me to have the education she so ardently valued as the key to life's opportunities.

At St Mary's, the teaching staff were overwhelmingly nuns of the Presentation teaching order. In word they never challenged the mores of the male-dominated Catholic Church to which they had dedicated their lives, but their actions did challenge accepted wisdom about gender roles. Historically, and to this day, it has been the women's orders who are the most passionate advocates for social justice and environmental stewardship within the Church. Nuns did everything in the day and boarding school. Not only did they teach in the daytime, but they marked books, cooked and cleaned, taught piano before and after school, not to mention looking after the boarders.

When I was there, nuns got drivers' licences for the first time. Some also enrolled in university and drove themselves there dressed in the full black and white garb. They set up missions in developing countries and we were read the letters from nuns in what seemed then exotic and dangerous places. These reinforced the martyrdom stories we were told of people who had paid with their lives for standing up for what is right - ‘our fathers chained in prisons dark were both in heart and conscience free'. So, when nuns told us ‘girls can do anything', it was pretty obvious that we could. They inculcated the idea that you must have the courage of your convictions, that there is no such word as can't; it simply means you are not trying hard enough.

But all this was nevertheless meant within the strict rules of the Church.

It was a hard life, and I used to envy the day scholars going home after school, but there was no tolerance for tears. How many times, as our letters home were torn up to be rewritten, did we hear that our parents had not made sacrifices to provide us with a good education to be rewarded with complaining letters? Tears were a weakness, an indulgence in self-pity, not to be tolerated. They were also an outward indication of vulnerability and it was made pretty clear that, to make it in a tough world, one didn't wear one's feelings on one's sleeve.

This is one of the many lessons of those years that I find fascinatingly reflected in politics. Since the assumption is that men are strong, when male politicians such as Bob Hawke or Peter Beattie cry, it is applauded and rewarded. They are deemed to be sensitive, caring and empathetic. But because female MPs are assumed to be not as strong as their male counterparts, when they cry, they are deemed not to be coping, not up to the job. Equally demeaningly and utterly unfairly, if they don't cry, it is because they aren't caring or sensitive enough, they are somehow lacking in femininity, ‘unsexed' like Lady Macbeth.

A similar disparity applies to disparaging references to Julia Gillard's ‘empty fruit bowl'. Parallel references to Joe Hockey's basic digs in Canberra, and those of so many other senior male MPs, are made as gentle jibes, rather than a question of their competence to hold the job. Clearly a lack of domestic homeliness is a criticism of a female MP but appealing in a male. Apparently it is heart-warming to think he needs a woman to look after him!

When I started teaching in high schools on the north-west coast of Tasmania in 1975, sexism was pretty well entrenched in teaching career structures. There were some very senior female mistresses but virtually no female vice principals, let alone principals, and it was not compulsory for female married staff to contribute to superannuation. Thanks in no small part to teachers' unions across the country, this has now changed. Indeed women in the union movement have been front and centre of campaigning for better pay and conditions for women in the workforce.

But, at the time, the different values and expectations regarding long-term career prospects placed on male versus female participation in teaching was stark. One example was that the male staff from some schools used to drink on Fridays after work at the Devonport Gentlemen's Club, where a sign at the door said ‘No Ladies Beyond This Point'. Since prospects for career progression without relationship building were limited, this held women back. Equally, at the athletics carnivals, it was the open boys' 100 metres that was the prestige event, and it was the boys' cricket and football that commanded the greatest kudos in the school communities. Needless to say, my female teaching colleagues and I took this on in various ways. It soon became a thing of the past for senior male staff to socialise in men-only bars, and we ended once and for all the staff versus students tug of war being for males only.

When I became the spokesperson for the Wesley Vale farmers in the campaign against North Broken Hill's billion-dollar pulp mill, it was both a strength and a weakness to be a female leader. Part of the strength was that, as a young mother campaigning against corporate greed and pollution, the message about organochlorines and health and children cut through particularly visibly. Woman, wife, mother, full-time unpaid campaigner - it said it all, really. But when the serious conflict and campaigning got underway, I remember going to Hobart to meet Environment Minister Graham Richardson. Door-stopped by media outside Wrest Point casino, I will never forget the local ABC radio reporter (a man) asking me why I thought as a housewife from Ulverstone I would be able to influence the federal minister. Little did he know, or even think to ask, that I had already met the minister privately to discuss the next steps of the campaign. His prejudice cost him a scoop.

All of these experiences from before and after politics are common to female MPs across party lines. Such anecdotes and stories together form the narrative of what it's like for women in politics - and I dare say in the media, the law or most professions. It is the ongoing story of the sisterhood, and it is why women everywhere cheered when Prime Minister Gillard took on Tony Abbott when he tried to lecture her about misogyny. There was a collective roar from women who had been itching to say that to a man and hadn't found the courage or opportunity to do so. It was the political ‘I am Woman' Helen Reddy moment.

But to destroy the joint, we need to do more than just defy the odds and make it in spite of the ongoing sexist frames through which we operate to this day and more than just stand up and give male counterparts a blast.

If we are really to make a change, we need to challenge, restructure and rebuild society's foundations so that marginalised people or ideas, excluded from serious consideration for structural reasons when we achieved our positions, are no longer so regarded. I hasten to add that this will only lead to a better society if it is driven by justice and fairness, and not by populism or fear. After all, fascism and totalitarianism were marginal ideas that were made mainstream by those who succeeded in destroying the establishment of the day.

This is why I was not as impressed as many by Julia Gillard's misogyny speech.

Powerful and necessary and inspiring as it was, it would have had immensely greater power if it had been backed by considered and consistent actions of the prime minister born of a conviction to improve the lot of all women, rather than a political strategy. It was a speech designed to appeal to the basic role model case of a woman's right to be in power, and it was ready to be delivered at a politically appropriate moment: to blur the inconsistency between the prime minister calling Tony Abbott out on sexist language, but not equally condemning Peter Slipper for his sexist text messages. It was not a speech timed or motivated by a desire to advance the cause of women, it was a speech delivered to hold on to power.

While much has been written in the mainstream media about the political context of the speech, what is far more troubling, as highly regarded feminist Eva Cox said at the time, is that much of the commentary failed to recognise that Prime Minister Gillard made the speech on the day she slashed support for single parents. Surely the bigger issue is that the speech is out of alignment with a series of decisions that entrench the marginalised position of women.

How much better would the speech have been if it had not come on the very same day as Prime Minister Gillard's decision to cut support payments for single parents - who overwhelmingly are women - putting a political surplus ahead of women struggling with poverty? How much more impressive would it have been if it had not come after her decision to extend the Northern Territory Intervention and income management, denying many vulnerable and Indigenous women agency over their limited financial resources? What does her decision to deny equal marriage to same-sex female and male couples say about her commitment to genuine social change? How much more power would her speech have had if it hadn't been preceded by her decision to abandon guardianship for unaccompanied refugee children so that they could be sent off shore to detention centres, or her decision to stop family reunions, leaving men in refugee camps with no hope of reuniting with their wives and children and family members?

The Gillard Government has cut Australia's foreign aid program, much of which goes to programs to lift women and children out of poverty, including through women's reproductive health programs. Childcare remains a key element of ensuring women can access the workforce equitably, yet the government has failed to tackle the structural changes needed to make childcare more affordable and accessible. This government has cut over 4000 Commonwealth public service jobs in the last two years, job cuts which tend to disproportionately affect women. Australia's low female workforce participation rate and growing gender pay inequity mean that many older women struggle to find the financial resources to live well in retirement. The government has failed to make our superannuation system fairer by increasing tax on the superannuation of higher-earning (usually male) employees to pay for measures to assist workers with low superannuation accounts, usually women.

For me, destroying the joint means more than just saying it's not OK to see women, children, refugees, Indigenous or LGBTIQ people marginalised, discriminated against or subject to violence; it's not OK to destroy the physical world in which we live and to drive species to extinction; and it's not OK to ignore the needs of future generations.

We must take consistent political action to deliver on these goals. That is the point of political power: not for its own sake but rather for a purpose, for justice, for now and for future generations, for Australia and for the world. That's why women need more than female role models in politics; they need role models who get there and take on the status quo. That's why I'm a Green. That's why it is also wrong to discount the roles of men who clearly don't qualify on the first level as role models for women, but sometimes are stronger role models to advance the cause of women than some women in power. Bob Brown was by far a stronger advocate to empower and advance women than Julie or Bronwyn Bishop have ever been.

At the height of the campaign to save the Franklin River, I remember smiling in the police van on the way to Risdon prison and thinking: I wonder if this is what the nuns at St Mary's expected to reap when they had sown the idea that, above all else, we girls needed to stand up for what we believed in, to stand up for justice's sake, to use our god-given talents to improve the lives of others because we had been afforded so many opportunities denied to millions around the world, not least in the missions.

I know many of them would have been proud to see us destroying the joint then and to this day.

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