SBS today reports: Former Prime Minister John Howard says a 50-50 balance of men and women in parliament is unlikely to happen – because women primarily play a “caring role” in society. This appalling statement is typical of Howard’s style of leadership. It was and is very effective, in terms of his own goals, but it needs to be unmasked for what it is and does.
He would say that he is just speaking descriptively, stating the facts. But that denies the power of his utterance, in terms of our public discourse.
What leaders such as John Howard say has power, rhetorical power, far beyond the actual words spoken. Public rhetoric shapes the conversation, either by inviting or by closing off options and perspectives, contributions by others, points of view. And such rhetoric can give permission for others to express extreme or harmful views, which the leader may pretend they don’t want to say, or don’t support. This is a neat way of getting someone else to make the running towards a political goal the leader must then address! Neatly done: as JH did when he ‘just’ raised the question of Asian immigration, and opened the way for Pauline Hanson to step up and say what he couldn’t appear to be saying.
Public discourse matters, and the language that is used has deep impact.
For example: a public lecture given to a meeting of doctors continually refers to a doctor as ‘he’: his rooms, his practice, his training, his patients. What does that say to the women doctors present? That they don’t really belong. They are an oddity. (Actually what it shows is that the lecturer is out of touch! I’m being kind there.)
Similarly, in my own field, if public discourse always uses gendered language for God, especially male language and imagery, that too has its immediate implication. If we want to change this male dominated system, we have to be attentive to these things. It is depressing that we seem to have gone backwards on many of these issues.
When John Howard makes a statement such as the above, suggesting that because women have caring roles they will not likely enter politics, he is in fact being true to the role he has played all his career. He has always supported a very traditional model of the family and the role of mothers in the home. He wanted tax concessions for stay at home mothers, and although he did introduce assistance for child care, this was not his preferred position.
The present government has ministers who are mothers of young children, as does the opposition. Do we mean to imply that these women are not carers? I think that’s offensive. Many others, females and males, are caring for elderly parents, or other members of the community.
I think it is time to adopt the idea of a parliament full of carers. It is simply ridiculous to limit caring roles to women.
Let’s make the parliament a caring institution:
Let’s care for the earth, the creation;
Let’s care for children, the elderly, the disabled and the homeless;
Let’s care for the mentally ill;
Let’s care for families and workers;
Let’s care for education and training, and those who strive to provide these vital opportunities;
Let’s care for the common-wealth, the community.
I would love to see a parliament full of carers. In fact, whatever else did we think the parliament was for?