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Who was Australia’s most sexist in 2020?

Due to COVID-19 this year's Ernie's were an online only affair. Photo: provided

By ALLISON HORE

Which Australian public figure made the most sexist comments in 2020? Jayson Westbury did, according to the Ernie Awards, an annual awards ceremony which celebrates “world class sexism and inappropriate speech.”

Jayson Westbury, CEO of the Australian Federation of Travel Agents, was awarded the Gold Ernie this year as well as the Silver Industrial Ernie for saying journalist Tracey Grimshaw “needs to be given a firm uppercut or a slap across the face” for her reporting on a travel industry refund scandal.

Walking away with The Trump award (for repeat offenders, naturally) was NSW Legislative Council member Mark Latham.

Ernies founder and organiser, Dr. Meredith Burgmann told City Hub despite not being able to run the big event this because of COVID-19  she was still keen to hold the ceremony as women had sent in 250 nominations throughout the year. 

Usually the “winner” in each category (if you can call them that) is decided by boos from the audience on the night. But with no live event this year the event went back to its roots and the winners were decided by a panel.

Ineligible for the Gold Ernie was Bettina Arndt who received three separate nominations for The Elaine award for comments she made throughout the year, including one congratulating the Queensland police for “keeping an open mind” to the idea a man who killed his wife and children “might have been ‘driven too far”. 

She tied for The Elaine with Pauline Hanson who claimed a lot of women make fake domestic violence claims to “further their needs”.

While comments promoting violence against women have always raised eyebrows with the crowd, over the 28 years the event has been running, Dr. Burgmann said there have been some changes in the kinds of comments which are made and the people giving them.

In the early days of the awards it was the trade unions where a bulk of the Ernie worthy comments came from. In fact the award itself is named after Ernie Ecob, secretary of the AWU, the old Shearers’ Union, who famously said that women only wanted to be shearers for the sex. In 1993 when he announced his resignation, women involved in NSW’s trade union movement decided to have a lunch to celebrate. 

From that first lunch, the Ernies grew into what it is today. An annual ceremony awarding the best of the worst sexist remarks made by public figures. But in the years since the first Ernie was awarded Dr. Burgmann said the trade unions have really cleaned up their act, a few notorious characters aside.

Dr. Burgmann said comments deriding womens’ sports have also decreased. as womens’ sport becomes more prominent in the media.

“Interestingly as women’s sports is coming into its own the comments by sporting icons are not as bad as they used to be. They’ve learned,” she said.

But devaluing womens’ sports has still landed some stars on the short list. AFL legend Leigh Mathews made the shortlist for his comment suggesting he would “be livid” if he were an AFL player asked to take a pay cut to help fund the AFLW competition. And shock jock Steve Price found himself shortlisted for saying he “wouldn’t cross the road to watch women’s football”.

More women in news rooms has also meant that some of the comments which used to slide by unchecked are now forced into the spotlight.

“The way in which women journalists have become more prevalent and more important has made a big difference in that they are reporting on these remarks, which has been terrific,” she said.

In the end the Sport Silver Ernie went to newcomer to the awards, Israel Folau who claimed “bushfires crippling Australia are God’s punishment for legalising abortion and same sex marriage”.

The rise of social media and websites like twitter has also led to a lot more attention being paid to offhand sexist remarks which in the past may have gotten little attention. The boys at Sydney’s elite Shore Grammar School, shortlisted this year in the Ernies celebrity category, started a social media firestorm with their “Triwizard Shorenament” which included a number of sexist challenges. 

“Social media definitely emphasises it when someone says something terrible,”  Dr. Burgmann said.

More than just good fun, Dr. Burgmann hopes the archives they have been collecting for almost three decades might be useful for research into sexism in the media. She said she has been thinking of writing something on the changing and persisting nature of the kinds of sexist comments The Ernies award.

“We’ve been collecting these sorts of comments for 28 years and it’s a sort of longitudinal study that I don’t think has been done anywhere else in the world,” she said.

“You can’t do it in retrospect, you can’t google “sexism” because a lot of these comments just go past.”

A full list of Ernies winners for 2020 can be found on the Ernies website.

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