May 5, 2007
The Canberra Times

It’s time to give that effing, huffing Heffernan the chop

Bill Heffernan deserves to be castrated. As least that way he’ll stop wearing his 4am ”horn” on his head.

That pre-dawn erection – affectionately referred to by Heffernan as his ”horn” – is the blight of all men, including priests, according to the Liberal Senator. And of course Heff would know, because he’s one hell of a man.

Aw shucks, he says, I’m just a wheat farmer and ”the most disgraced Senator” in the land. But OK then, ”I sincerely apologise to Julia Gillard and anyone else who I have offended, so there you go.”

Oh Heff, no there you go. Again. To say Bill Heffernan is a national disgrace is putting it mildly. International news media are lapping it up and laughing out loud. And why wouldn’t they? The story of the Australian ”senior lawmaker” and ”close friend of Prime Minister John Howard” who reckons ”deliberately barren” women are unfit for political leadership, is just so quintessentially ”Ossie”. Oi oi oi.

Once again, the foul-mouthed thugs and philistines who run the colony are brutalising their women, with a metaphorical slap into place. The world might be changing and countries globalising, but good ol’ Down Under is still relaxed and comfortable with its mysoginist roots and chauvinist world view.

And while Australian women remain frozen in shock (or is that submission), and the men around us think it’s all a bit of a joke that will ”blow away”, we will remain forever at the ”arse end of the world”.

This is the nation Peter Costello said he wants to make ”the most female friendly place on Earth”. Well, Pete? Now’s your chance. Your mate, the PM’s ”enforcer” and chief ”confidant” is at it again. What are you going to do? Not much it seems.

At a doorstop interview on Wednesday afternoon Costello was pushed several times by journalists. They wanted to know if he thought Heffernan should apologise to the Deputy Leader of the Labor Party for insisting she was ”deliberately barren” and therefore incapable of understanding the wider community, and the relationship between ”mum, dads and a bucket of nappies”. Costello’s sidestep was worthy of a foxtrot. He couldn’t bring himself to say that Heffernan should apologise.

Initially, neither could the Prime Minister.

”I mean people say funny things all the time,” he said. Funny? Who’s laughing?

We already knew that Heffernan’s fear of childless women in politics verges on repulsion.

”We’ve got a few on our side as well,” he told journalist Greg Bearup last year. ”I mean, anyone who chooses to deliberately remain barren they’ve got no idea what life’s about.”

It was a spectacularly unenlightened comment coming from the man said to be the Prime Minister’s ”eyes and ears”. In fact, so powerful is Heffernan’s influence on Federal Government thinking that the Jesuit activist, Father Frank Brennan, says Heffernan ”is Howard without the spin”.

Which is all the more concerning when we witness how reluctant the PM, the Treasurer and many other Government members were to severely reprimand Heffernan this week by demanding his resignation.

Was he mouthing what they all really think just – without the spin?

Heffernan chose his words well. By suggesting a woman is ”barren” is like suggesting a new born child is a ”bastard” – it strips the human being of legitimacy. Like women burned as witches, because they had a boil on their nose, Heff seems intent on demonising childless women as being unnatural and dangerous. Smart, ambitious and childless women are an enormous threat to men like Heff who believe running the world is a bloke’s job. These energetic women are snapping at their heels.

I suspect Heff and his friends are less afraid of women in politics who are mothers. Maternity makes women vulnerable, and in politics that vulnerability is easily exploited. When push and punch comes to shove, mothers will put the needs of their children first. That’s why we see so many capable women with powerful political potential often stand back and let leadership opportunities pass them by.

But the 21st century has given rise to a new breed of woman – the childless woman. As an increasing number of Australian women remain childless it might finally dawn on the men around us that this is not a ”choice” for most women. We are a product of the times. The demands of modern life, education, work and career building mean more and more women either don’t find a partner, or partner too late in life to have children. Some will argue it’s a ”non- choice”. It just turned out that way.

The Government Minister Julie Bishop is also ”barren” in Heff’s eyes. Yet no one could seriously suggest she lacks an understanding of relationships. She strikes me as a very loving person. As do Condoleezza Rice, Angela Merkel, and Helen Clark – all childless political players.

You don’t need to be doused in nappies to understand families. Just like you don’t have to be ”conventionally married” – as the Prime Minister describes himself – to have a deep understanding of relationships and commitment.

Families, parents and Bill Heffernan don’t have a monopoly on love and compassion. I don’t need to be a single dad to feel a strong empathy for them, nor do I need to have a disabled child to open my heart to the families and parents of disabled children. Similarly Peter Costello doesn’t need to be a woman to know how hard it is for working women to find a foot hold in the workforce. As Julia Gillard said herself when first attacked by Heffernan, ”No one person can encapsulate everyone’s life experience. A man doesn’t know what it’s like to be a woman, a person with children doesn’t know what it’s like to be a person without children.”

Gillard is right in suggesting Heffernan’s comments are the ramblings of a man of the past. And she is right in suggesting Australian women will decide for themselves how best to live their lives.

However, she is wrong to accept his apology.

What Heffernan said was timely in its double edge. It points to a crossroad of attitude. You either believe such sentiment holds an inherent truth. Or you don’t.

And it’s time those who don’t get very angry with those who do. Now – where’s my horn hacker?

Virginia Haussegger is a Canberra journalist and director of the 50/50 by 2030 Foundation at the University of Canberra.

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