Yesterday during an interview with Julia Gillard, a Perth based talkback radio host, Howard Sattler behaved in an appalling fashion. He was patronizing, he was chauvinistic, he was vulgar and he was homophobic. He treated his interviewee with a fundamental lack of human decency and she responded to it with extraordinary grace and poise. And today the primary charge he faces from his outraged colleagues in both the new and mainstream media, is that he disrespected the office of Prime Minister.
If given the chance I would never speak to Julia Gillard in that fashion but it would have nothing to do with the fact that she was Prime Minister, rather it would be because it is a fundamentally indecent way to speak to fellow person. When someone condemns the actions of a Sattler or a Jones for disrespecting the Prime Minister, they are by implication stating that the same line of questioning would be less objectionable were it directed at a mere mortal. I can’t accept this, this goes against the fundamental principles of egalitarianism which I hold dear.
There is no denying that since entering public life Julia Gillard has been subjected to abuse to which no human should be subjected. Chauvinistic sneering has followed her into every crack and every crevice of the nation. It is right to condemn the way she has been treated but not because she is the Prime Minister, but because she is a human being. Penny Wong is not the Prime Minister but that made it no less acceptable for David Bushby to make a cat noise at Wong during Senate Estimates last year. Carrie Bickmore is not the Prime Minister either, but that doesn’t make it any more acceptable for Johnny Rotten to tell her “When a man is talking do not interrupt.”
To her credit Julia Gillard has never complained about people desecrating her position, she has rightfully objected to treatment on the basis that it is beneath that which civilized humans should show to one another but to her credit she has never joined those who indignantly protest at her being called by her name rather than her title. I disagree with Julia Gillard on a great many things, I am still deeply disappointed that she felt it was appropriate to refer to Christopher Pyne using the homophobic term “mincing poodle,” but I very much admire her humility and lack of pomposity. Naturally this does not excuse Alan Jones sneeringly interrupting her with irritable pronouncements of “Julia! Julia!” but I would assert that this is objectionable not because of the use of her first name but because of the obnoxious and condescending tone and his preparedness to interrupt her. He was exceptionally rude and whether you’re speaking to the Prime Minister or speaking to the staff of a fast food outlet, exceptional rudeness is something to be discouraged. But the use of the first name, well I think Julia Gillard put it best on ABC’s Qanda program in 2009 when she said
“I think it’s good people feel that politicians are just like them. We don’t have that sense of hierarchy. I think that’s a good thing. When I’m in Parliament House – Malcolm(Turnbull) would have had this experience too – we have school kids from grade six come and visit Parliament House and you’ll see them, you know, run across Parliament House. It used to happen with Prime Minister Howard, it happens with Prime Minister Rudd, and they’ll run up and they’ll shout, “John. John. John,” or “Kevin. Kevin. Kevin,” and you think there’s not many other places on earth that people would think it’s ok to call the Prime Minister by his first name, and I think it’s fantastic that they do”
I suspect the appeals to respect the office of Prime Minister are motivated by those who believe Julia Gillard’s poor showing in the opinion polls are by-products of her being subjected to chauvinistic treatment from obnoxious men with high profiles. They believe that if the media and her political opponents showed her the same deference that is traditionally shown to American Presidents then she would be a more popular politician. I don’t agree with them, I think the source of the Julia Gillard’s problems stems from her initial months as Prime Minister. In that time she showed a crippling preparedness to repudiate previously held positions in favour of flaky populist positions like the Citizens Climate Assembly or the half dozen refugee policies she backed in that period. By shifting and changing as is the fashion of the indecisive, and by her and her Treasurer Wayne Swan accounting for their decisions exclusively in focus group tested, facile soundbites she significantly undermined her perceived competence and regrettably, undoing this damage is rather like unscrambling eggs.
Paradoxically I think the problem so perfectly demonstrated by Sattler’s interview is not that we ought to give elected officials different treatment but the fact that people do treat them differently. Political discourse in Australia has become so odious I believe because we are increasingly moving towards the view that politicians are not entitled to demand the same grace and respect that we confer onto ordinary humans. There appears to be a prevailing sentiment that it is ok to mock Joe Hockey’s weight, because he chose to work in politics, that it is ok to make homophobic slurs about Bob Brown because he chose to work in politics, that it is ok to use Islamaphobic rhetoric about Ed Husic, because he chose to work in politics. There is no denying however that the worst of these toxins have been reserved for our female politicians, indeed it is cause for concern that a significant portion of young women across the country will be seeing this chauvinism and thinking twice about whether or not they would like to enter politics when they’re older. No young, heterosexual male faces this deterrent and then we proceed to wonder why it is that there is such an imbalance of gender in the parliament. This is all behaviour which I would not abide from friends or relatives yet is commonplace in political discourse. I believe the reason such unspeakable nastiness is so commonplace is because of this view that politicians are not real people, rather they are special cases.
I believe that it is desirable for Australia to be a tolerant, inclusive and egalitarian community. This means conducting all discourse, including political discourse with a degree of fundamental human decency. If we can bring about this we will bring about an environment where all individuals will feel able to participate and engage and we will have a political class better equipped to serve the Australian citizenry. It has nothing to do with respecting people on the basis that they are in a position of authority. There is something fundamentally flawed with the idea that an individual, no matter how repugnant their conduct, still deserves special deference on the basis of their job description. Which is why it is my view that those displeased with the disgraceful treatment of Julia Gillard should make the focus of their displeasure the absence of fundamental human decency rather than the absence of grovelling deference to someone in a position of authority.