May 26, 2007
The Canberra Times

Joe blow: another pretty poor effort for working women

Joe Hockey is neither pretty nor smart. The former he admits; the latter he now knows. Surely. But then if we could all just get back to being relaxed and comfortable, and those uppity women would return to being ”simply appendages of middle-aged men”, neither Hockey nor his mate Kevin Rudd would be in the hot water they are.

Ironic isn’t it? The Sunrise twins both found themselves suffering under the TV sun guns this week. Hockey for suggesting his political nemesis Julia Gillard is too ”pretty”, and Rudd because his wife Therese Rein is too successful.

The issue of Rein’s company being found guilty of underpaying 58 workers on common law contracts, and then rectifying the wrong, is but a sideshow. Certainly it’s politically embarrassing for an Opposition Leader who’s pushed industrial relations and the abolition of AWAs to centre stage. But, as many commentators were speculating by week’s end, the embarrassment will be short-lived. The facts of the case, as explained by Rudd on Thursday, albeit belatedly, appear to mitigate the drama.

The real drama is the one none of us will get to witness. Mercifully. That’s the drama to be played out in the Rudd-Rein household when Therese returns from doing business in London, to a husband torn between his ambition and hers.

Never has Kevin Rudd been this close to seizing his life’s Holy Grail – the prime ministership. But this week’s events have highlighted how fraught that position would be if his wife maintained her own ”life’s work” – as she calls it – as head of a multimillion dollar company that profits from government contracts.

What to do? Right now, Rudd doesn’t seem to know. ”Do you turn around and say ‘well that’s the end of that, sweetheart,” he kind of mused out loud at this week’s press conference, ”Or do you do it differently?” It was supposed to be a statement, but instead Rudd appeared to be genuinely asking.

The Rudd-Rein partnership would obviously like to ”do it differently”. Only last month Rein made it clear in an interview given to The Age newspaper that she does not want to relinquish her role. She spoke of a kind of future Australian utopia in which everyone, regardless of gender, would be supported and encouraged to achieve their full potential, use their greatest strengths, and create something of service that’s bigger than themselves. ”That’s what I believe I’m doing now,” she said.

Should Rudd become PM, surely the processes of good governance and mechanisms of accountability already in place will continue to ensure the awarding of government contracts remains fair and transparent. And surely, too, both Rudd and Rein could openly and deliberately place themselves at a distance from these processes. So what’s the problem?

Some would argue it’s about ”perception”: the PM’s wife’s company tendering for government work could ”look” bad. But that’s a lame distraction. The real problem here is about ”precedent”. Rudd admitted as much himself. No wife of an Australian prime minister has had a business career of her own, much less headed a global company. A point which should not be seen as a negative reflection on any of the hard working and civic minded prime minister’s wives of the past – or present. Rather, it is simply a reflection of the times.

While the deep rooted misogyny and sexism that still pervades Australian culture ensures we remain eons away from seeing any woman as PM, it nevertheless was inevitable that sooner or later we would be faced with a potential PM who comes as a partnership ”package” that includes an equally ambitious, successful and independent wife – with her own career.

Rudd is right to look around for ”precedent”. But where there is none, progress calls for pioneers. Should he become PM, Rudd and Rein will be called on not to rely on precedent, but to set it. The women of Australia have a right to expect it.

And we also have a right to expect that senior Federal Government ministers have stopped thinking like pubescent boys by the time they are handing out ”Employer of Choice for Women Awards”.

What came over Rudd’s mate Hockey on Wednesday? Was the Minister for Workplace Relations a little overcome by all the attractive and smartly suited women in the audience? Whatever it was, the affable and avuncular Billy Bunter of politics slipped into an uncharacteristically chauvinist mode.

A recent poll put Julia Gillard almost 20 per cent ahead of Hockey as preferred industrial relations minister. When asked why he thought Gillard was so popular, Hockey suggested it was because he wasn’t as ”pretty” as her. He seemed genuinely peeved that she’s on the front cover of magazines and frequently features in media profiles, and he doesn’t.

I’d like to think it was just a daft slip on Hockey’s part. He, like Rudd, has an ambitious and independently successful corporate wife who was probably just as appalled as the rest of us by his stupid reductionism.

On face value, suggesting your opponent is doing well just because she is ”pretty” smacks of last century values. In the old Dinosaur tradition that we recently saw from the Huffing Heff, Hockey too appears to be reducing powerful women to the sum of their female parts: ”pretty” or not; ”barren” or not.

Again, it comes back to ”precedent”. Hockey has never had such a formidable opponent, who is a woman. Now, as the heat’s turned up, he doesn’t know how to play it. But he’d better learn. And quickly. Precedent will create pioneers – plenty of them. And Joe, they’ll probably all be prettier than you.

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

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