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Volume 1, May 1996

The Scent of Power (1996)

Susan Mitchell, The Scent of Power (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1996)

Published in 1983, Sara Dowse's West Block portrayed the life of women public servants in Canberra during the late 1970s. Cassie, the protagonist of the novel, heads the Women's Equality Branch, symbolically confined to the remotest and most decaying part of the building which is about to be shut down. A decade later, writer, journalist and broadcaster Susan Mitchell goes back to the House on the Hill to investigate the role of women politicians within a domain that is still ruled and structured by a conspicuous number of 'grey suits'. Mitchell explores the meanderings of Australian federal politics spanning eighteen months - from June 1994 to December 1995. With her sharp irony and subtle perception into the games of politics and the power of the media, Mitchell interviews women politicians, female and male journalists and editors, and political analysts and commentators, providing a kaleidoscopic survey of the gender power relationships which regulate the Australian political scene of the 1990s. Mitchell meets women from diverse backgrounds - leaders and ministers such as Cheryl Kernot, Bronwyn Bishop and Carmen Lawrence, matriarchs like Joan Kirner and Dame Beryl Beaurepaire, and former ministers such as Susan Ryan, Ros Kelly and Janine Haines.

Mitchell intertwines the public and private lives of women who have struggled to achieve their positions in the "last male bastion" (3), who had to (or still have to) make strenuous efforts to have their political competence and abilities recognised ("I know every woman has to be 20 percent better than any man to get a job", claims Dame Beryl Beaurepaire (209)). The picture that emerges from the views, accounts and anecdotes recorded in The Scent of Power is of a system that hardly adjusts to the needs of women who chose to be in politics. "I say a woman who would want to go into politics that the first thing you have to do is find yourself an pretty atypical Australian male", Cheryl Kernot suggests (17). Notwithstanding the 'feminisation' of Australian politics former Labor party pollster Rob Cameron highlighted by a paper in 1990, there is still a manifest reluctance on behalf of male politicians to support and increase the presence of women leaders and ministers, in terms of both numbers and actual power. While talking about the Suffrage Centenary conference held in Adelaide, Democrat Senator Natasha Stott Despoja focuses on the slow progress which has characterised women's political struggle for one hundred years, and remarks that; "in 1994 only 13 percent of our politicians on a federal level were women." (242)

In Mitchell's 'biopsy', female politicians appear to be the favourite targets of the media. Journalists and broadcasters (mostly male) do not hesitate to satirise and demoniac women who work at Parliament House. The recent 'Easton affair' promptly dragged Carmen Lawrence down to the circles of sinners of the Canberra Inferno. Mitchell comments; "Why, as soon as a woman makes it or achieves a position of power, do we wait for the axe to fall? Or do we just notice it more because so few women ever get to the top, let alone stay there?" ( 177) "Politics has been a lifestyle rather than an occupation", maintains writer and commentator Eva Cox, a lifestyle 'grey suits' cling to firmly. Hence their diatribes and uneasiness about the gender-based quotas achieved by Labor women whose tenacious battle finally led the ALP to commit to "preselecting women in 35 percent of all winnable seats by the year 2004." (84)

In contrast to 'men's policy', which is often aggressive, oppressive and competitive (Mitchell's portrait of a 'grey suit' in the Qantas Chairman's Lounge, Melbourne Airport), female politics proves to be "reasonable, sensible, tough, fair" (37). This view has been acknowledged by both the female electorate who have been responding positively to women's different political style ("I think women want to identify with women politicians", claims Kernot (15), and by male politicians such as Cameron who corroborates this belief in his prediction of the 'feminisation' of Australian politics:

This new basis I have called the feminisation of the social agenda - a move away from the masculine aggression and confrontation of the old order... From the political field, feminisation means a change in the definition of strong leadership. He or she will have a quiet inner strength of conviction rather than an outward show of bravado... The male leaders will be less valued for their brute strength and more for intelligence, commonsense, honesty and creativity - an unusual combination of virtues, more likely to be found among women than men. (155)

Despite the resistance and backlash to the process of feminisation delineated by Mitchell, women in politics seem to be gaining more approval by voters, as the last federal election showed. Mitchell points out throughout her book that "the scent of female power will be different from that of men." (246) The Scent of Power is a skilfully patterned mosaic of entertaining interviews and phone calls, personal observations and commentaries, extracts from articles and papers, poems and tips on how to become a leader. Mitchell's writing is bold, humorous and enlightening; her book is enthralling for both readers who are already familiar with Australia's political arena, and for those who would like to know more about power games and gender relations in the nation's capital.


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