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Meredith Burgmann

Farewell, Ernie Awards. After three decades, do we no longer need them?

The Ernie Awards for sexism has finally bowed out after 30 years of cataloguing misogyny and sexism from public figures around Australia. Thirty years is a long time for such events to exist, so it is probably time to contemplate what they meant in Australia’s public discourse.

It began as a joke in 1993. When an old, sexist trade union official called Ernie Ecob announced his retirement, a group of women trade-union activists decided to have lunch to celebrate.

A trophy (sheep rampant on a marble plinth… Ernie was a shearer) was awarded on the day for the “most bestial remark of the year”, which led to the tradition of trophies (silver pigs on columns) being awarded for the next three decades. Soon subcategories were introduced and the “Good Ernie” (to encourage boys to behave better) and the “Elaine” (for the remark least helpful to the sisterhood) were added.

The annual awards dinner soon became reported in the Australian media and even globally. Our international attention has been quixotic. A regional newspaper in Malaysia was always very excited by our results — and the BBC always asked what was it about Australian men that elicited these terrible responses.

Even more paradoxical has been the strange pride that those close to the original Ernie have shown. This week The Coonamble Times is writing an in-depth profile of Ernie’s days as an AWU organiser in the town.

In the beginning, it was very hard to find offending comments. There was no social media and very few cranky female journalists to record the inadvertent or deliberately boorish comments of their fellow scribes and other identities.

These days there are many more women members of the fourth estate avidly recording dreadful things said by public figures. It is so much easier to collect nominations. In the beginning, the worst offenders were trade union officials and members of the judiciary.

The interesting thing about the judicial quotes was that they often received the most hostile response from the women on the night. (Winners are decided by the loudness of the booing for each comment when it is read out.) I always thought this was because a statement from the bench could so badly affect an individual woman’s life.

In 1994 the judicial Ernie was a dead heat between a judge in a rape trial who commented “it does happen in the common experience … that ’no’ often subsequently means ‘yes’”. This quote tied with another judge who commented on the right of a husband to persuade his wife to have intercourse and how this could involve “rougher than usual handling”.

However, with the advent of various judicial commissions that introduced affirmative action training for judicial officers (and perhaps even the approbation that followed their Ernie Awards), the judiciary began to improve significantly.

Likewise with the arrival of angry trade union feminists and the advent of senior women union leaders, such as Jenny George and Sharon Burrow, male trade unionists rapidly cleaned up their act and rarely copped a mention over the next 30 years (oh, except for Martin Ferguson). And for a period in the late 1990s there was a flowering of misogynist chefs, but even they now seem to have cleaned up their kitchen.

Presently we find that it is mainly political figures and male journalists that create the most anger among the women. The great upsurge in sexist comments really occurred during the Julia Gillard years. Who can forget former senator Bill Heffernan calling her “deliberately barren”, or not still flinch at the attempted joke of Australian Agricultural Company CEO David Farley who, while demonstrating an abattoir machine, said, “It’s designed for non-productive old cows — Julia Gillard’s got to watch out”? Or even worse: former Liberal minister Mal Brough’s “joke” menu item “Julia Gillard Kentucky Fried Quail — small breasts, huge thighs and a Big Red Box”.

We have seen a similar upsurge in misogyny this year in relation to the election of teal independents, which has greatly offended many politicians and some men and women in the commentariat. Obviously, this is because women in power, particularly women who are seen to have usurped previous power, are to be denigrated and abused.

This is best epitomised by Alexander Downer:

Take Josh Frydenberg in Kooyong and Dave Sharma in Wentworth. These are people who could become truly great men. But if the independents defeat them, those independents will be totally forgotten in 10 years’ time.

This fall from eminence of the entitled male has drawn endless comments about the interlopers — this group of powerful, professional women are allowed no agency — they are “tiffany teals” or simply “Simon Holmes à Court’s groupies”.

The consistency of some performers is another feature. The same names pop up over and over again — Andrew Bolt, Tony Abbott, Mark Latham, Scott Morrison…

It is also really interesting the way racism and sexism play out. The five male commentators/sports stars who made the most racist or least sensitive statements during the Adam Goodes booing affair had also previously received Ernie Awards for sexism. They were Sam Newman, Eddie McGuire, Jason Akermanis, Dermott Brereton and Mark Jackson.

What have the Ernie Awards done for the women of Australia?

Well, for the women of Sydney, it has given them the chance to come together, enjoy themselves, drink too much, and release a huge amount of pent-up frustration at what’s been going on during the year. I’m always amazed by the number of women who report, with hoarse voices, how happy they are and how cathartic the night has been.

Other cities, and even some other countries, have asked to be able to carry on the Ernie Awards. I am always very supportive and helpful, but it’s a lot harder than women think. You can’t just Google “sexism” at the end of the year; you have to be there every day with your pair of scissors at the ready.

What are the reasons that we have proffered for the decision to finish the Ernies?

1. After the election of the Albanese government, there shall be no further sexism so there is no more need for us.

2. Having seen off the careers (or lives) of Alan Jones, Sam Newman, Shane Warne, Tony Abbott, Piers Akerman, Scott Morrison, etc, we can now put our feet up for a well-earned rest.

3. We all came to the same conclusion that it was time, and we should, like Ash Barty, go out on a high.

4. It is really hard work and we are all buggered.

We ended the Ernies night on Thursday with a ceremonial handover of the massive archives to the State Library of New South Wales.

And don’t forget, the Ernies’ mantra is “keep them nervous”.

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