Deputy Opposition Leader Julie Bishop and Opposition Leader Tony Abbott greet each other, er, somewhat awkwardly.

Deputy Opposition Leader Julie Bishop and Opposition Leader Tony Abbott greet each other, er, somewhat awkwardly. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

Last week, the only thing more ubiquitous than the heady cocktail of fury and shame experienced by most of the nation was the phrase ‘gender wars’. If nothing else, the most impressive thing about these two words is their ability to carry some enormously evocative power despite the not insignificant disadvantage of being almost entirely devoid of meaning.

The gender wars began, you may recall, when the Prime Minister delivered a speech to a group called Women for Gillard. In this address she suggested that ‘under an Abbott government, women would be banished’, a phrase which turned out to be the oratory equivalent of assassinating an Austrian Archduke.

This, as it turns out, was not the smartest thing to suggest. Not just because it was hyperbolic, or because saying ‘banished’ makes you sound like you’re addressing a Renaissance Fair, but because in suggesting this, the Prime Minister pissed off Julie Bishop something fierce, and she took to talk shows nationwide to let her ire be known.

Julie Bishop in action during question time.

Julie Bishop in action during question time. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

And fair enough too - despite the fact that there are fewer women on the Coalition front and back benches, it’s still not a little galling to claim that this constitutes a banishment. Bishop was well within her right to appear on television and correct the record, pointing to any number of capable women in the Coalition. Only that’s not what she did at all.

Blanketed as we were under the fog of war, distracted by the heat of battle, Julie Bishop managed to say some pretty extreme things last week without being held to account for them. No, really.

Here’s what she had to say on Sky News’ AM Agenda when asked about the PM’s comments:

I can say this about the Coalition women, every single one of them  was preselected on merit - they've earned their right to be there. Every single Labor woman is there because of gender, because Labor have a quota system.

I’m sorry what? Whatever your views on Affirmative Action, this is not how you talk about it. Bishop just responded to the accusation that there weren’t enough women in the Coalition by essentially saying  ‘yeah, well all of yours are shithouse anyway’. And because why? Quotas? It takes a very special kind of nastiness to assume that the presence of a quota must mean the absence of merit.

It’s  reductive and simplistic and is also profoundly disrespectful of any other beneficiary of Affirmative action. 

Bishop was also the guest on Meet The Press five days later, she repeated the comments, and went a step further. Here’s an interaction with Hugh Riminton.

HR: Are women in Australia disadvantaged by their gender?

JB: I don’t think so, when you see that we have a female Governor General, when the PM is a female -  women can achieve whatever they want in life.

Now, there’s an obvious difference between refusing to be seen as a victim and refusing to engage with reality. For Julie Bishop to suggest that women are not at a disadvantage in Australia is to ignore some pretty unassailable truths backed up by some pretty unassailable numbers. Why not peruse, Deputy Opposition Leader, Greg Jericho’s Wonderful Emporium of Entirely Depressing Graphs?

It’s extremely unlikely that women faced with a 17.5% pay gap look to the fact that we have a female Governor General for comfort or as a sign of no disadvantage. Bishop pressed on:

The laws are there to give women opportunities. We have to change attitudes…I’m not saying everything is equal (author’s note: yes you are, that’s what it means when you say there’s no disadvantage) I’m saying that they’ve broken through the so-called glass ceiling. There are women in very powerful positions in this country.

Unless, I suppose, you’re talking about women like Penny Wong or Tanya Plibersek, because they’ve apparently managed get to their powerful positions by circumventing the flawless meritocracy of preselection.

Julie Bishop reckons women are at no disadvantage and her evidence is that we have a couple of women in powerful positions? You’re right, we do - we have 14% of the directors in the ASX as women, 22% of senior positions at law firms are occupied by women, 24.7% of the House of Reps are women. So yes, there are some women in powerful positions – but is that really your metric for success, Deputy Leader?

For mine, the comments of Julie Bishop are just as bad as anything Tony Abbott’s thrown up in the past few years, and a question that I’d like answered more than anything else is this:

Julie Bishop has said that women are at no disadvantage in Australia. Is that the position of the Coalition?

Ben Jenkins blogs at abafflingordeal.com Follow him on twitter here.