|Tactical gain for Julia Gillard in sexism debate|
FOREIGN journalists and social media proclaimed it a success, while domestic political commentators, including me, canned it.
So who was right? Does Julia Gillard's "I will not be lectured by this man" speech remake the woman, or will it ultimately remake the man? (It is apparently already remaking the language.)
We asked this of 1018 people in one of our virtual focus groups and got an equivocal answer.
In a group where as many preferred a Labor government as preferred a Liberal one, 50 per cent were inclined to agree that Tony Abbott was a sexist and 45 per cent disagreed, meaning some are voting for an Abbott-led government despite thinking he is sexist. Voters also discriminate between sexism and misogyny ("How do you spell that?"), with only 35 per cent agreeing that he is misogynistic and 52 per cent disagreeing.
There is a gender element to these results, with women likelier to agree with both these statements by about five percentage points. However, the test of any political tactic is whether it moved votes in your favour, and on that basis the speech failed with our group; 28 per cent said they were likelier to vote for the government while 40 per cent said they were less likely. This effect was driven almost entirely by men, with women almost equally divided on whether it would change their votes.
This suggests that claims of sexism and misogyny appeal primarily to a female audience, but that the government has about as large a share of the female vote as it can get, at least on this basis.
The risk to Labor is that by overtly raising this argument it doesn't improve its position with women, because it can't, but it further erodes it with men. Some respondents thought we were at last seeing the "real Julia", and there is probably some truth in that, as attitudes to sexism appear to be not just gender-based but to reflect voting intentions. Inasmuch as the PM is in tune with her constituency and tribe, accusations of sexism will come more readily to her than to her opponents.
Sexism is experienced by both women and men, but definitely more by women. We probed our audience on their experience of sexism and found that 33 per cent of the women claimed it happened to them regularly, as opposed to 10 per cent of the men.
This left 48 per cent of women who said it was infrequent, and 64 per cent of men.
When analysed by voting intention, I was intrigued to find that 45 per cent of those women who would prefer a Labor government claimed to be frequently sexually discriminated against, but only 15 per cent of those who would prefer a Liberal government said the same. This is a huge difference.
Even more fascinating was that a similar, though less pronounced, difference existed between ALP and Liberal preferencing men.
So perceptions and world view are significant factors in whether you experience sexism.
This was reflected in responses, with Liberal-voting women likely to retail stories about earning the respect of workmates, or having seen work situations change through the years so that men might now be the target of sexism from women.
The attitude is mostly pragmatic, and sexism is linked with other aggressive things that occur in workplaces and that need to be coped with or managed.
In some cases, respondents felt that victims brought it on themselves by the way they behaved.
Labor-voting women were somewhat different. There was less of the "get over it" approach, but plenty of nuance. Sexism is something that you can oppose but also remember with humorous fondness: "I have been propositioned and chased around my desk a few times :)".
But while the specific speech may have failed, it seems that the general Labor approach is having some effect on Abbott's standing. When you look at the responses on preferred PM, they are less kind to Abbott than they were. Two years ago "honesty" was listed as a key reason for voting for him, but now it has all but vanished from responses, and critical language is blunter.
This hasn't mattered in the past because, while Abbott has had a low personal rating, his party has been ahead on the issues that count. Recently Labor has started to recover, largely because it has found issues it owns that also count, such as the National Disability Insurance Scheme. The image of the PM also seems to be improving, with "strong" joining her list of personal attributes.
Abbott has also stumbled by being too inflexible and clinging to the issues that have got him where he is, rather than adapting as circumstances change.
Our polling doesn't show sexism as a significant voting issue, which is why at one level the PM's attack has been successful. By diverting attention from the economy and boatpeople, she has diverted Abbott from successful battlegrounds. She has also taken control of the agenda.
Abbott was genuinely surprised by the attack and allowed himself and his frontbench to be drawn into the controversy, distracting him from issues that might do him more good in the long term.
In this respect, while Labor lost the debate, it is improving its position in the war.
This article was first published on The Australian on October 20, 2012.