It began as a “he said, she said” fracas between two Australian politicians that has devolved into a national argument about political correctness and historical misogyny in Australian politics.
It was June 28, and on one side of the Senate chamber was Sarah Hanson-Young, a senator from the environmentally and socially-conscious Greens Party.
On the other side, her ideological opposite, libertarian senator David Leyonhjelm.
Hanson-Young was speaking against a motion that would allow women to carry concealed weapons such as pepper spray or tasers to fend off violent attackers.
“I voted no, because I don’t believe that putting more weapons in the hands of the public will make women safer in their homes or on the streets at night,” she later wrote in an op-ed for the Guardian.
“I also don’t think that women should continue to be made to have to take responsibility for the violent crimes and behavior that some men perpetuate,” she wrote.
As debate raged in the chamber, Hanson-Young said she heard Leyonhjelm yell across at her: “You should stop shagging men Sarah.”
She described the events in a series of tweets, recounting that she spoke to Leyonhjelm after the debate. He confirmed what he’d said to her, and that he would not take it back.
More than a week later, Leyonhjelm has not apologized.
To the contrary, the 66-year-old one-time veterinarian doubled down, appearing on television shows to not only affirm the comments he made to the 36-year-old politician, but to voice even more salacious suggestions about her.
In an interview with Sky News Australia, he told the two men interviewing him that there were rumors about Hanson-Young in parliament. The comments were then displayed in an on-screen caption, causing an outrage.
A producer for the show was suspended, but the hosts, who had asked Leyonhjelm to refrain from cursing on their Sunday show because some of their audience was religious, were not.
Sky News apologized, and a day later, so did the two male hosts, to little applause.
Desperately seeking reelection
Long-time political observers say this is not out of character for Leyonhjelm, who has railed against political correctness in the past.
This time, however, they say he has gone so far that both the current prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, and previous leaders including staunch Catholic Tony Abbott, have called on Leyonhjelm to apologize.
“All of us I suppose get carried away but when you make a mistake, fix it,” Abbott told a Sydney radio station this week. “People should be better than that.”
When Turnbull asked Leyonhjelm to issue an apology, the senator responded to the notion with another slur, this time directed at the prime minister.
“This is about misandry,” Leyonhjelm told Australia’s SBS News. “The prime minister should stop being such a pussy. This is about criticism of all men. It’s just as bad as criticism of all women.”
“It’s really not normal and it’s quite stunning, and has shocked most of the country,” commentator Jane Gilmore told CNN. “It’s partly because he doesn’t have to answer to anyone. Because he’s not saying it in the Senate, the president (of the Chamber) doesn’t have any right to tell him to shut up.”
Leyonhjelm is a Liberal Democrat, and the only one in his party who was elected to either of Australia’s federal houses of parliament.
“He’s an obscure figure with a very low support base, who is up for reelection and this is desperate attention-seeking on his part to remind, particularly a core of, his minority supporters, who he is,” said Rob Manwaring, a senior lecturer in the College of Business, Law and Government at Australia’s Flinders University.
He’s likely had more air time this past week than he has had his entire time in the Senate, Manwaring speculates.
“This has made international coverage, and his hardened minority, this will strengthen their resolve and support for him,” he said.
Misandry and misogyny
The motion Hanson-Young and Leyonhjelm had disagreed over in the Senate stemmed from action taken in response to the brutal rape and killing of a 22-year-old female comedian in June.
The attack stunned the community, not only because it happened in what is a relatively safe city, but because police later advised residents to “take responsibility for your own safety.” Many took that to mean that Victoria Police Superintendent David Clayton was somehow blaming Eurydice Dixon for her own murder.
“Male violence against women has been on the political agenda for a while, there’s a national plan and ongoing work to raise issues, and that’s what’s triggered Leyonhjelm’s reaction,” Manwaring told CNN.
Manwaring says Australia has had a long history of politicians trading insults across the floors of parliament, but this time, the escalation from Leyonhjelm, coupled with his refusal to apologize for any of his words, is different.
Leyonhjelm’s repeated use of the word “misandry” – which he defines as the opposite of “misogyny” and directed at men – is part of a backlash against a shift in politics towards a more feminist stance.
Misandry, Leyonhjelm has said, is “sexist, it’s the equivalent of misogyny except that it’s against men instead of against women and I won’t tolerate it. I’ll stand up against it.”
“There has been a backlash from men who don’t understand notions of white privilege, the systematic power they have that is afforded to them, there’s a changing discourse there,” Manwaring said. “David Leyonhjelm is a flagbearer of the backlash.”
Manwaring says the shift dates back to a speech former Prime Minister Julia Gillard gave in parliament in 2015, a 15-minute denouncement of her conservative opponent Tony Abbott, which became known as “the misogyny speech” and has been viewed millions of times online.
Gillard has not commented publicly. Her office declined an interview request from CNN.
Jane Gilmore criticized Leyonhjelm’s use of the word “misandry.”
“It’s like ‘reverse racism,’ in the same way people who want to pretend that racism doesn’t exist, that’s the way he uses this term,” she said. “Because he’s a federal senator he’s giving it legitimacy and forcing it into the national lexicon.”
The Trump factor and #MeToo
In some ways, the pushback against political correctness in Australian politics is echoing recent trends in Western Europe and in the United States.
“There is a number of politicians trying to see if they can grow a kind of Tea Party or populist movement in Australia,” said Manwaring, who says that message would only resonate with a “really small part of the electorate.”
“The disaffection that plays out in the US doesn’t play out here because of the system,” he told CNN, referring to the fact that Australia has compulsory voting.
Australia is yet to have as significant a #MeToo moment as the US, he says, because there hasn’t been someone of significant enough stature to be included in the roll call of powerful men accused of sexual assault and harassment.
“There hasn’t been a Harvey Weinstein to really galvanize attention to this kind of issue,” said Manwaring. “I think #MeToo might have been a factor or part of Sarah Hanson-Young speaking out and taking a stand, but I don’t think there’s been quite the same momentum here.”
On Thursday Hanson-Young sent Leyonhjelm a legal notice requiring him to pay compensation and apologize or face a defamation lawsuit over six separate statements he has made about her personal life, Australian media reported.
Unless Leyonhjelm faces legal action and censure, political commentators like Jane Gilmore expect him to continue with his statements until election day, which could be as late as November next year.
“He’s loving it. He’s reveling in it. If it was anyone else we’d probably all say we should stop giving him oxygen, but he’s a member of parliament, you can’t ignore him,” Gilmore told CNN.
“But I think the biggest problem is he’s completely unaccountable, and because he’s loving the attention so much, it’s only going to get worse.”
Leyonhjelm, in a statement released on Friday, confirmed he did receive the notice from Hanson-Young and is not backing down.
“The thousands of messages I have received in the past four days, from both members of the public and my parliamentary colleagues, have made it clear I have a lot of support,” Leyonhjelm said in the statement.
“Many Australian men are, like me, thoroughly fed up with being collectively blamed for the actions of a few sick individuals who assault, rape and murder. Many sensible women are fed up that the men in their lives face these kinds of accusations.”
He called the legal notice a waste of time and money, “because I will not be issuing an apology.”