The affairs we had to have?

In Canberra at the moment, we seem to be living in an age of affairs, each with an undercurrent of failing male-female relations. These turgid political battles may be ugly, but they are substantive.

In the past three weeks, we have had the Alan Jones affair, the Peter Slipper affair and now the Craig Thomson affair revisited, with Fair Work Australia announcing civil action against Thomson for alleged misuse of union funds and union credit cards.

Of course we’ve also had Julia Gillard’s speech to parliament in which she accused Tony Abbott of sexism and misogyny. And we’ve had some old hack of a comedian making sexist jokes about Tony Abbott and his female chief of staff at a union function.

That too is an affair apparently. Heaven help us. The suggestion that the comedian’s joke was equivalent to the Alan Jones statement about Julia Gillard’s father at a Young Liberal function is absurd. Not only is Jones a figure of far greater power and influence than the comedian, but Jones was deliberately wounding while the comedian was crude rather than funny. This is the lot of many bad comedians. It is punishment enough in itself.

That’s quite a few affairs in three weeks or so. Perhaps that’s the new normal, affairs everywhere, affairs that come and go in the blink of an eye, are forgotten, resurrected, forgotten, re-remembered, tweeted, re-tweeted, trolled, blogged and 'put in context’ by journalists keen, to say the least, to assert their relevance, though to whom is increasingly unclear.

In a sense, the affairs of the past three weeks have all, one way or another, been about the way men and women relate and for that matter, the way some men relate to each other.

Does anyone doubt that in part at the very least, Alan Jones cannot abide the fact that Julia Gillard is both a woman and the prime minister? His almost visceral hatred of Gillard stems from this. So does his feeling that she is somehow an illegitimate prime minister. And it’s what led him to make that terrible 'died of shame’ comment about Gillard’s father.

Now Jones doesn’t matter all that much, but what does matter is that Tony Abbott was at best half-hearted in condemning Jones and here, context is important.

The fact is that on any fair reckoning, Tony Abbott has treated Julia Gillard as if she stole the prime ministership from him. He believes, like Jones, that Gillard is not a legitimate prime minister. His aggression and his disdain for Gillard are in part about his belief that Gillard somehow cheated herself into power.

This is not to suggest that Alan Jones and Tony Abbott are as one on the issue of powerful women. I don’t think they are. Nevertheless, it is not hard to see why Gillard would have been enraged by Abbott’s tepid criticism of Jones’s awful jibe about Gillard’s father.

Two men, one a powerful broadcaster and one the alternative prime minister, friends of sorts, who agree that Gillard is a prime ministerial pretender and deserves to be treated with, at best, disdain.

Which brings us to Peter Slipper and the Gillard speech. Slipper is clearly a man with issues but though the Slipper text messages, at least those that have been published, are pathetic and distasteful, do they really amount to sexism and misogyny that warranted his sacking?

These private texts, it seems to me, are pitiable and have nothing to do with power – indeed they reveal a sort of awful powerlessness – which is at the centre of sexism and misogyny.

It’s in this context that Gillard’s speech needs to be considered. It’s in the context of Abbott’s weak response to the Jones outrage and Slipper’s texts, shameful and shaming, that the opposition’s attempt, led by Tony Abbott, to remove the speaker on the basis of sexism and misogyny, needs to be considered.

And it’s in this context that Abbott’s echoing of Jones with the dying of shame line was so hurtful to Gillard and some would say, revealing, though we should resist, as best we can, the temptation of pop psychology.

Yes of course, the political context of Gillard’s speech matters, as the Canberra press gallery argued so trenchantly and the commentators stated over and over again, but that was never the only context and for many people, men and women, it was the least important context.

Many people outside of the political bubble that is Canberra did not for a moment doubt that Gillard’s anger, frustration and outrage at the sexism to which she felt she had been subjected, was real and sincere and while directed at Abbott was not just about him.

The speech did not resonate with so many people – and not just women – because Tony Abbott was, on the face of it, the target of Gillard’s attack on sexism and misogyny.

It resonated because it spoke to the lived experience of so many people. The fact is that politicians rarely speak to the lived experience of people with such passion, anger and conviction on any subject. More often than not, outrage and passion, even conviction, is confected and transparently politically motivated.

A few days later came the next development in the Craig Thomson affair. Interestingly, The Australian, which has criticised Gillard for what they see as her cynical igniting of the 'gender wars’, headlined its Thomson story this way: Thomson Cited On Dozen Hookers.

Thomson is charged with the alleged misappropriation of what could amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars of union funds of which allegedly there were 12 credit card charges to escort services.

The Australian, surely, is not simply in the titillation business and has highlighted Thomson’s 'hookers’ issue because these charges are more …what? Shameful? Immoral? Criminal? They are certainly illustrative of a form of sexism, no?

Perhaps the 'gender wars’, as the paper has labelled the Gillard speech and its aftermath, was not just cynical political theatre and low political tactics. The issues Gillard raised with such forcefulness and passion are substantive.

They go to the way we live with each other, which at root, is what politics is mainly about.

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