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Australia Latham's Law

Latham’s Law

One of the dubious techniques of political feminism is to construct false standards for the behaviour of men. The objective is to give female MPs an easier run by tilting the playing field against their male counterparts. This was evident in the recent controversies concerning the cat’s meow in Federal Parliament.

16 July 2011

6:00 PM

16 July 2011

6:00 PM

One of the dubious techniques of political feminism is to construct false standards for the behaviour of men. The objective is to give female MPs an easier run by tilting the playing field against their male counterparts. This was evident in the recent controversies concerning the cat’s meow in Federal Parliament.

One of the dubious techniques of political feminism is to construct false standards for the behaviour of men. The objective is to give female MPs an easier run by tilting the playing field against their male counterparts. This was evident in the recent controversies concerning the cat’s meow in Federal Parliament.

First Liberal Senator David Bushby and then Labor backbencher Joel Fitzgibbon felt the full weight of political correctness against them. The meow itself is not a problem, of course. For several years, deputy Liberal leader Julie Bishop has been in feline mode, cat-calling Julia Gillard without sanction. Rather, the allegation is one of sexism. While a woman can meow another woman (such a sassy and learned thing to do), it is wrong for a man to do the same.

Nowhere in the debate, however, have the feminists shown how the man on woman meow is sexist. This is typical of political correctness, narrowing the use of language by assertion instead of argument. A cheerleader for this  approach is the ubiquitous Mia Freedman, a self-appointed spokesperson for all matters gender. On her MamaMia website, she asked, ‘Is a man saying meow to a woman sexist?’ but then could not be bothered with answering her own question. She jumped straight to a stinging condemnation of Bushby. No argument, no historical context, just a dumbeddown declaration of guilt.

It was not always so. There was a time when a man’s meow flattered the opposite sex. In Ancient Egypt, cats were worshipped as a symbol of grace and poise. Whenever one travels down the Nile, the wistful, seductive sound of Mark Antony meowing into Cleopatra’s ear still echoes among the sphinxes. I am sure this is what Fitzgibbon — one of the great tom-cats of Australian public life — had in mind. When I knew him, his mating call was that of a tiger, but now, pushing 50, his ambitions have mellowed into playing with smaller pussies.

Fast forward to 20th century American culture. In the Roaring Twenties, the expression ‘the cat’s meow’ epitomised
style, a coolness complimentary to the ladies. In the 1950s, to speak of ‘the cat’s pyjamas’ was to praise someone’s modernity. More recently in Australian culture, to call somebody a ‘cat’ had nothing to do with women. It was a working-class synonym for a male homosexual.


Who gave the likes of Gillard and MamaMia the right to redefine our language? Listen to the Prime Minister’s words in admonishing Fitzgibbon on 7 July:

As a woman in this parliament of course I say to all members of the Labor team and all members of the parliament generally that conduct towards women in this parliament which would not occur towards men in this parliament is inappropriate and wrong and should not be indulged in by any member.

The wrongness is all hers. She had no problem in describing the senior Liberal MP Christopher Pyne as ‘mincing’ and ‘a poodle’ — an extension of Labor’s whispering campaign about his (supposed) sexuality. She is also wrong to say that the cat’s meow ‘would not occur towards men in this parliament’. In the early 1960s, for instance, the debating style of Labor deputy leader Gough Whitlam was frequently described as feline.

Let me give another example, one closer to Gillard’s heart. In March 2000 her partner, Labor MP Craig Emerson, raised eyebrows in Parliament House with what became known as the ‘Catman speech’. Eager for publicity in his campaign against the Howard government’s GST, Emmo embraced the use of parliamentary props.

He pulled out a cardboard cat, a saucer and a container of milk to demonstrate his point (given that milk for human consumption was GST-free but milk fed to one’s cat was GST-payable). Away he went, pouring milk for the cat on his desk as he addressed the House of Representatives:

If you knowingly buy that milk for your cat, you pour out the milk for your cat into a bowl and the cat drinks the milk, then either you or your cat will have avoided the GST … the VAT man might just be there at your home having a look at whether you are drinking the milk or whether the cat is drinking the milk or whether the milk went off.

Emerson’s speech went off like a penny bunger. Encore screenings were organised in offices around the building. Emmo’s Queensland colleague Kevin Rudd immediately christened Emerson ‘Pussy’. Mischievous Labor MPs told him how much they valued the speech, urging him to bring the cat into the House more often to remind the government of its GST anomaly. The next day, the pussy was sitting in front of Pussy during Question Time. By week’s end, the Sydney Morning Herald reported:

Clearly Emerson a) loves his cat tenderly; b) is deeply afraid of a shadowy figure he knows only as VAT Man; or c) is possibly as mad as a banana.

For those of us who never quite understood what Gillard saw in her feline-loving beau, reminders of the speech became a useful way of questioning the relationship. Nonetheless, she stood by her (cat) man. Even when we imitated Emerson and playfully meowed, she simply giggled and waved us away. It was almost as if Gillard enjoyed Pussy’s notoriety, making him one of the standout characters of the 39th Parliament.

Sexism? I don’t think so. More likely, it’s the difference between the Real Julia and the fake one we see today.


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