Australia's most sexist comment 2012
NSW Premier, Barry O'Farrell. Photo: Louise Kennerley
Imagine an awards ceremony where the “winners” were not decided by the Hollywood Foreign Press or a panel of peers, but instead by which nominee received the loudest howls of derision from the female audience.
Sound like a hoot? It is The Ernies, the awards night dedicated to shining a light on the worst excesses of Australian sexism, which last night celebrated its 20th ceremony. And with this year’s winners including Alan Jones (who scored the Gold Ernie and Media Silver Ernie for his “women are destroying the joint” comments) and Basketball Australia (who copped “the Warnie” Sports Silver Ernie for shunting the women’s Olympic team to London in economy while the blokes flew business), it’s clear there were no shortage of nominees for 2012.
Archbishop Peter Jensen. Photo: Domino Postiglione
“Each year I think that no one will say anything terrible and the Ernies will be really boring but I am never let down!” Ernies co-organiser Meredith Burgmann told me in the lead-up to the ceremony. “Yes, there are just as many Ernies winners out there as there were 20 years ago. The categories have changed though. It used to be trade union officials and judges who were the worst but they have really cleaned up their acts, then it was sportsmen but they all got managers and PR firms. Now it is celebrities and shock jocks, and of course the ever reliable politicians.”
Despite what you might think about the 21st century ushering in a new school of sexism, it tends to be pollies that provide the most grist for the Ernies’ mill. “Politicians and columnists are the total mainstay. I think it's because they believe that what they say is really important so can't be actually wrong or misguided,” Burgmann says. “Sometimes what they say is just silly but often it is really vicious and misogynist. Sportsmen tend to be oafish rather than nasty. Offending clerics are sanctimonious and deeply conservative... and obsessed with sex.”
Given that the Ernies are, more or less, unique (or at the very least one of the longest-running events of their kind), I wondered how Australia fared in a global context as far as sexism levels were concerned. Were our politicians and sportsmen more sexist than, say, America’s or Britain’s?
If anything, it seems that when faced with the news of sexism from down here on Prisoner Island, our foreign friends are desperate to differentiate themselves from what they see as “Australian sexism”. Burgmann explains: “When Yvette Andrews and I wrote the book 1000 Terrible Things Australian Men Have Said About Women, it created a huge fuss in Britain and made the front page of their newspapers. The Brits believed that the terrible quotes were because the men were Australian, not because they were men; we found ourselves having to defend Australian men! We pointed out that if British women did something like The Ernies they would get a very similar result. We then quoted some British shockers that they were unaware of. I'm sure Aussie men are better than most of the rest of the world but it doesn't mean they're not terrible.”
And lest the “men’s rights” team get up in arms about the unfairness of the awards, The Ernies have had a special category - The Elaine - installed since 1994 to pinpoint the worst examples of sexist remarks... by women. Burgmann agrees that a lot of people underestimate the extent to which remarks of that kind, from women, can be injurious to our shared cause - but that the award itself is one of the evening’s highlights. “The Elaine seems to generate the most bile amongst the women on the night,” she says. “The booing is deafening and the lobbying is fierce. It is a feeling of betrayal. We try not to nominate women who are inadequate or just silly. The old favourites like Miranda Devine, Bettina Arndt, and Janet Albrechtson are fair game. I think they actually set out to injure 'the cause'.”
With the awards clocking their 20th year last night, I asked Burgmann if she had a sentimental favourite from the two decades’ worth of winners. Like a proud parent, she couldn’t pick just one. “My favourites change all the time,” she says. “I like the inadvertent sexism rather than the deliberate stuff. The breathtaking comment by Tony Abbott when he was thanking Sarah Murdoch at his book launch. He turned to Lachlan and thanked him for allowing Sarah to launch the book. How does that guy's mind work? This year when asked about Germaine Greer's "big arse" comment about Julia Gillard he said "I know, I know, I know. Germaine Greer was right on that subject". He must have known that what he said would be reported and that it would feed into the misogynist Tony narrative but he couldn't help himself.”
Finally, The Ernies depends on the backwards attitudes of the Australian populace in order to ensure its survival. As we become more enlightened as a society, does Burgmann foresee a time when The Ernies will cease to have a reason to exist? “No, never,” she says bluntly.
Carry on then!
And the winners are...
Gold Ernie (and Media Silver Ernie)
Alan Jones: “Women are destroying the joint, Christine Nixon in Melbourne, Clover Moore her. Honestly. There's no chaff bag big enough for these people.”
Industrial Silver Ernie
David Farley, CEO Australian Agricultural Company when demonstrating a machine in the abattoir said: “So it's designed for non-productive old cows. Julia Gillard's got to watch out.”
Political Silver Ernie
Barry O'Farrell, said about Linda Burney, “I am not sure which other member could be the hooker, perhaps the Member for Canterbury.”
Clerical Silver Ernie (The Fred)
Family Voice Australia, argued against changes to the provocation defence saying: “The exclusion would effectively rule out the classic case of a husband unexpectedly arriving home to find his wife engaged in a sexual act with another man... these circumstances have traditionally been held to warrant a reduction in the seriousness of the offence from murder to manslaughter.”
Judicial Silver Ernie
Senior Constable Cary Coolican: “Many sexual assault victims were too drunk or stoned to remember the details of the attacks... we would be encouraging people to make responsible choices regarding who they drink with and the quantity that is consumed. Some decisions may result in risky behaviour and unsafe actions.”
Sports Silver Ernie (The Warney)
Basketball Australia, for flying the women's Olympic basketball team to London economy class, and the male team business class.
The Elaine (for remarks least helpful to the sisterhood)
Kelly O'Dwyer MP, for calling Tanya Plibersek, Nicola Roxon and Deborah O'Neil, “the handbag hit squad.”
The Good Ernie (for men behaving better)
Stephen Smith, said in reference to ongoing issues in the Defence Force: “inappropriate conduct will not be tolerated.”
The 'Clinton' for repeat offenders
Archbishop Peter Jensen