Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

There are no butts about it

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BRISBANE -- The size of the prime minister's bum is not the most pressing issue in most liberal democracies but in Australia of late, all eyes seem irresistibly drawn to the prime ministerial posterior.

By way of explanation: Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard has been told bluntly on a popular television show she has a "big arse."

And, no, it was not some boorish, beer bellied, balding Aussie misogynist with soup stains on his tie who made the observation.

Rather, it was a woman who could rightly claim to be one of the intellectual architects of 20th-century feminism.

Germaine Greer, author of one of the most important texts in the feminist lexicon, The Female Eunuch, dropped the clanger on one of the favourite programs of what might be termed Australia's political class a few weeks ago.

There sat Greer, a woman who has devoted much of her life to the liberation of her sisters, committing one of the more heinous crimes of the patriarchy -- disempowering women in public life by commenting on their appearance.

To be fair to Greer, and to bring some context to her comment, the author and intellectual was defending Gillard's admirable job of handling the office of prime minister with only a razor-thin majority in the lower house.

But after eloquently voicing her support of Gillard, Greer suddenly segued into a more humorous, ironic mode in keeping with the program's tone.

"What I want her to do is get rid of those bloody jackets," Greer declared in her delightfully broad Australian accent. "Every time she turns around you've got that strange horizontal crease which means they're cut too narrow in the hips.

"You've got a big arse Julia!"

The observation was met with delighted laughter from the studio audience and, again to be fair, there is an element of "girls' night out" fun in the show which allows for exactly this sort of good-natured ribaldry.

But, even in this jolly, university-refectory atmosphere, an innocent male making such a comment would almost certainly have been greeted with a thin-lipped silence.

And it was just such an innocent male who a few days later stumbled into a potentially lethal trap when he merely endorsed Greer's observation.

Australia's Opposition leader Tony Abbott walks like a boxer and often thinks like one -- which is to say not a lot.

The vigorously macho surfer and triathlon runner who opinion polls repeatedly record as "having a problem with women voters" was enjoying a casual chat with a female voter several days after the Greer comment when the woman also made the PM's dress sense an issue:

"Get some of those jackets off her," the woman urged as the cameras whirred.

"I know, I know, I know," replied a smirking Abbott. "Germaine Greer was right on that subject."

Abbott was immediately forced into admitting his "regret" at being so insensitive but the damage had been done, at least among those women offended by male comments on the physical appearance and fashion sense of female politicians.

Miranda Devine, a popular columnist in the Melbourne Herald Sun, declared Greer had written an open cheque to those men determined to denigrate woman in public life by making their looks and clothing an issue:

"Because of her status as a feminist icon, Greer has legitimized every misogynist to attack Gillard's appearance," Devine wrote.

While this column wouldn't dare comment on the Canadian experience, it can make the reasonably confident assertion that despite often loud claims to the contrary, Australian women in public life are treated pretty much the same as men when it comes to comments on bodily appearance and fashion sense.

While the popular perception might differ, the reality is indisputable. Former prime minister John Howard was attacked mercilessly for his short stature and often cruelly mocked as "little Johnny" when he wasn't even that short (5-feet-10 inches).

Opposition leader Kim Beazley's weight problem was the subject of much merriment with little regard for his sensitivities on the issue while former prime minister Paul Keating's liking for Zegna suits was so often cited that "Zegna-suit-wearing" all but displaced PM as his preface.

When another former prime minister, Kevin Rudd, grew Elvis-style sideburns during a summer holiday it became national news, along with suggestions the vacation had left him a little chubby.

Female politicians cop it in equal measure, but when a PM's bum becomes subject of public discussion it might give the nation pause for some collective reflection. And, after an appropriately solemn pause, there should be jubilation, at least among thinking members of the electorate.

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, children die in savage violence; in Sri Lanka and Burma, ethnic rebellions leave millions living in terror; and in Somalia, the establishment of some semblance of a functioning state still appears a far-off dream.

Millions face starvation and the ongoing lethal fallout from centuries-old conflicts, yet in Australia we've got time enough on our hands to giggle and fuss over the size of our leader's bum.

It's not the most profound benchmark for a successful democracy, but freedom to make a bum joke at your leader's expense is a good start.


Michael Madigan is the Winnipeg Free Press correspondent in Australia. He writes mostly about politics for the Brisbane-based Courier Mail.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 5, 2012 A10

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