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Damned if you do, damned if you don’t: the Treasurer, his partner and the dress that upstaged the Budget

When Federal Treasurer Jim Chalmers delivered his seminal Budget speech last week, not all eyes were on the man with our future in his hands. So what’s with all the fuss about the beautiful dress worn by his wife Laura for the occasion, asks Madonna King

May 23, 2024, updated May 23, 2024
Federal Treasurer Jim Chalmers kisses wife Laura after handing down the 2024-25 Budget in the House of Representatives at Parliament House in Canberra, Tuesday, May 14, 2024. (AAP Image/Mick Tsikas) NO ARCHIVING

Federal Treasurer Jim Chalmers kisses wife Laura after handing down the 2024-25 Budget in the House of Representatives at Parliament House in Canberra, Tuesday, May 14, 2024. (AAP Image/Mick Tsikas) NO ARCHIVING

We are kidding ourselves if we think sexism is no longer the problem it was for our mothers.

Or that the gender equality gap – through affirmative action and the odd child care policy – is closing up with the speed of our social media protests.

It is not. Whether it is bequests to boys schools, award nominations, influence in the workforce, or power in Parliament, women are still not at the starting line.

We follow – at a big distance – behind our male peers in almost every conceivable measure.

We pay more for haircuts and personal items, are more at risk of sexual harassment, and feel heightened levels of unsafely in isolated spots and after dark.

We earn less super, are becoming homeless at faster rates, and despite the narrative we are told, are rarely gifted the same opportunities.

But perhaps the most stunning example is the treatment metered out to Laura Chalmers; a talented journalist who watched her husband Jim deliver the Albanese Government’s budget.

Chalmers’ sin? She dared wear an off-the-rack Carla Zampatti dress, which from the published diatribe was ‘buttery’ in colour and carried a price tag – reportedly $1900 – that some found offensive.

The accusations against her – including that she was out of touch and had stolen the limelight other husband – were witless, as was the commentary around where she was born, and how she planned her wedding.

Just imagine a male partner – let’s say a partner in an accounting firm – being the subject of a similar story, while his wife delivered the budget.

In fact, it stretches the imagination to picture a female treasurer…

But while we have discussed the story and the focus on Chalmers, what we have ignored post-Budget is level of blatant sexism this broadasts; how we see a material difference in what a woman and a man can wear and what that means.

For the record, Laura Chalmers has her own career, can defend herself, and is entitled to wear whatever she likes. I have the same dress in a different colour, and know it can also be bought at sale.

Perhaps Chalmers borrowed it? Or saved her pennies because this was a historic and special night for her family?

It does not matter. And it is none of our business.

So why haven’t we turned the attention on the meaning behind what a male wears?

In the absence of too many men playing the role of partner to a treasurer, let’s look at our male politicians. How often is their dress the subject of ridicule or claims of outrageous expense?

Perhaps in passing, Paul Keating copped the odd jibe for his affinity for imported Italian suits by Ermenegildo Zegna. But that was decades ago. Fashion in our males, whatever the price tag, is applauded.

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Whole forests have been printed on the French fashion of Emmanuel Macron, or the style of Spanish president Pedro Sanchez or Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo.

Canada’s Justin Trudeau’s socks have their own following, with photographic effort daily directed at how they routinely match his tie.

But the sexism that oozes from the case involving Laura Chalmers runs beyond claims that an expensive dress was incompatible with a national budget.

A woman is damned if she does. And damned if she doesn’t.

Imagine if she’d turned up in sandshoes. It would have been disrespectful, or drawing attention to herself. Imagine if she’d lobbed into the gallery, children in tow, and wearing a John Howard-style green and gold tracksuit? Would the commentary be using another term directed often directed at women – ‘letting herself go’?

Cheap shots are easy.

But we do a real disservice to ourselves to dismiss this episode so quickly.

This is a telling example of a woman being put down and criticised simply on the basis of dress. And that runs counter to all the claims that affirmative action is mending an appalling equality gap.

The proof of that, perhaps, is in the question you will never hear asked at a press conference by the Treasurer, or Prime Minister, or any number of male ministers.

How much was that suit? Did you have it custom made? And would you describe your tie as buttery yellow or a soft lemon?

Just imagine Laura’s husband Jim copping that question.

 

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