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15 October 2014
by Rob Cover

Shirtfronting: the dangerous diplomacy of hypermasculine Australian politics

Prime Minister Abbott's recent threat to shirt-front Russian President Vladimir Putin at the upcoming G20 points to some recent changes in how the discourse of diplomacy and political leadership are communicated publicly.

Having made global headlines, the statement becomes more than just one of Abbott's domestic political twists or an international almost-humorous tongue-slippage gaining unwarranted media attention. Rather, it becomes representative of the ways in which parliamentary and governance politics are represented in Australia within an international context. That is, a representation that puts muscle, strength, manliness, bullishness and bullying ahead of patient, calm, diplomatic and measured speech that marks the kind of understanding, ethical thinking and attention to nuance that should be borne by public leadership.

Although he retracted the threat subsequent to mockery by Russian newspapers and officials, Mr Abbott retained very strong, masculinist language in reiterating "Well we're going to a have a very robust conversation, a very, very robust conversation." Russian officials responded by drawing attention to Mr Putin .

A response to the role played by Russian government in the MH17 air disaster is, of course, warranted - and there is no reason why that response should not be made by the Australian Government. It is debatable, however, that the masculinisation of the response through threats that use metaphors of masculine sports violence and an illegal football manoeuvre are the best and most appropriate ways in which to indicate intention for international engagement on an issue of public interest, nor a desirable way in which to represent leadership of a contemporary, first-world, sophisticated country.

Outdated hypermasculinity
Prime Minister Abbott is often referred to publicly as a 1950s-style relic from the past. While some of his known social policies and his emphatic public embrace of his Catholic Christianity are often out-of-step with modern political discourse, his combative misogyny used in political debate and hypermasculinity are clear 'performances' of behaviours, attitudes, desires and ways-of-relating that draw a relationship between an outdated idea of leadership and hypermasculine strength.

This behaviour is not, however, what is sometimes referred to as 'hegemonic masculinity', a term used to refer to a particular stylisation of masculine identity that seeks to dominate not only women, but other men who do not live up to an ├╝ber-masculine ideal. Hegemonic masculinity is an important term, as it draws attention to the dominant, popular image of masculinity. In past decades, the most idea form of masculinity in Australia was, indeed, epitomised by strength, brawn, roughness, larrikin behaviour and the refusal to let women and 'less-masculine men' dominate.

While that form of masculine behaviour continues in many realms and in Mr Abbott's behaviour as a form of 'hypermasculine', it is not dominant and it is certainly not hegemonic today. Rather, as a number of scholars have recently pointed out, contemporary hegemonic masculinity is represented not by brawn, roughness and a willingness to use language of physical violence. Instead, it is represented by the figure of the transnational businessman, marked by 'metrosexual' grooming, the consumption of clothing labels, sophisticated tastes and fine-dining, power over the movement and transfer of funds, the display of wealth and refined taste and the embrace of quiet relationality between people - a subdued confrontationality. More represented by the public images Lachlan or James Murdoch than, for example, the purported domineering behaviour of a figure like Kerry Packer. Statesmanship (as a kind of quiet bullying) over physical threats (as a different, more spectacular kind of bullying).

It doesn't mean that new masculine hegemonies are better than what it has replaced-only that the style Abbott exhibits in his hypermasculine behaviour is no longer deemed a dominant or desirable kind of masculinity in the context of the wielding of power. In other words, what we have experienced in contemporary western culture is a shift in what constitutes hegemonic masculinity as the forms of masculinity which, while dominating, are consented to socially across a range of institutions from the legal to the political to that found in entertainment media and thereby deemed socially-acceptable.

Bucking Trends
Indeed, Abbott would appear to be bucking some of the trends of recent years of the Parliamentary Liberal Party membership which, in some parts, has been represented by a cooler, calmer, less brawny masculinity of transnational business rather than its current leader's manly fitness-fanaticism, misogyny and masculinist rhetoric in international diplomacy.

This is perhaps best exemplified by a person who benefited significantly from hegemony within a masculinised political profession: former federal treasurer, Peter Costello who, in 2011, presented a relatively scathing attack on footballer hypermasculinity masculinity in an opinion piece in The Age. Costello questioned the wisdom of having over-masculine and sexualised Australian Rules football players present inspirational and motivational speeches in schools, stating that any "right-thinking parent would quake with fear to hear that footballers were coming to their daughter's school".

What this indicates is a significant distinction between a man who, symbolically, represents transnational business masculinity and the form of hypermasculinity that is represented by (at least in Costello's view) the footballer and, in the context of the shirt-fronting commentary, Prime Minister Abbott.

It is undoubtedly not helpful at this stage to make distinctions between the Liberal Party's political Doberman and Mincing Poodle, other than to say attention to this contrast is not a new one.

Vulnerability and the Shirt-Fronting Continuum
It would be easy - and risky - to be nostalgic for a kind of mythical, very-British politics of quiet sophistication in which bullying and masculine hegemony are hidden beneath a stylisation of dignity, and in which conquest and conflict are pursued publicly through rhetoric that has more literary allusions than sporting violence metaphors. This would, indeed, be a risk, not only due to the falsity of the image but because it would embrace the sickening sophisticated champagne-drinking celebration by Immigration Minister Scott Morrison of an asylum deal with Cambodia that, regardless of reason, should be framed by sadness and concern for the most vulnerable on the planet, not a toast with a fine wine.

An alternative response is to think about the ways in which Abbott's hypermasculine rhetoric-and the flack he cops for it-usefully draw attention to how politics is done and not done today in the context of masculine bullying and to gauge the extent to which hypermasculine domination is ostensible or underlying. At the same time, it allows us to call for alternatives that are neither the subdued conflict of sophisticates nor the bullying rhetoric of ignorant men, but that are built on politics that embrace attention to vulnerability.

By that, I mean to draw attention to how such widely-condemned hypermasculine behaviour in a spectacle of a stoush with the Russian President might indeed be part of a continuum in which government policy attacks the most vulnerable in a bullying, hypermasculine way.

This is the shirt-fronting of the poorest and the unemployed who are denied basic community support for living a liveable life. Theshirt-fronting of asylum seekers and refugees who are denied an ethical hospitality and instead locked in a dangerous and unliveable detention. The shirt-fronting of non-Christian religions while riled up against organisations of terror, with dog-whistling that results in the unliveable conditions of threats and bashings. The shirt-fronting of the globe and the future in the name of dominant men by stating boldly against all evidence that coal is good for humanity.

The response to the normalisation in Australia of the hypermasculine politics of shirt-fronting needs a contrast not against the niceties of sophisticated bullying in diplomacy, but against the possibilities of a politics that looks towards the recognition of vulnerability and precarious worlds and lives, and responds with quiet care, concern, calm and policies that seek to end vulnerability rather than punish, push or body-slam the vulnerable again.