2014 05 – Listening to Italy

Listening to Italy

by Orecchiette


On 23 February The Daily Telegraph’s Tom Kington, writing from Rome, quoted an Italian communications lecturer talking about media comments on senior female politicians. She said “It all supports the idea that women shouldn’t really be in those positions in the first place”.

This is not as straightforward a declaration as it seems, rather a cry of exasperation. The new Prime Minister Matteo Renzi had just appointed women to take half of his cabinet seats – a totally revolutionary move. A general dropping of jaws was followed by an uproar in the press and media. The popular press concentrated on the trivial, largely ignoring comment on the experience of the women. One minister’s electric blue trouser suit was criticised. Another minister was said to have a quality rear-end unmatched since Pippa Middleton was spotted at William and Kate’s wedding. They even noticed a pair of rouged cheeks which apparently made a minister look like “Heidi in the summer”. This all created enough of a stir to be reported in the UK press.

The Italian media knew that the Italian public would be fascinated by this rubbish. As in the UK, a hunger has been created for gossip, celebrity and any kind of scandal. It is cheaper to source than factual serious reporting and sells copy. Post-Berlusconi, the Italian press could have encouraged their consumers to be thinking about the results of their recent voting. It sounds pious but the media could and can encourage more critical thinking about the democratic process if it chose to. On 11 May 2010 the UK press wouldn’t have lowered the tone with cheeky images of the pneumatic Eric Pickles, or laughed at Michael Gove’s glasses. But then Cameron’s cabinet lacked female targets, only having the dull and “kitten-heeled” Theresa May. Blair shamelessly used his Babes for effect, and so new were they that they let him get away with it.

Matteo Renzi, admirer of Tony Blair, was previously the mayor of Firenze. He is the leader of the centre left Partito Democratico (PD) party. As happens in Italy he started his term of office by negotiating the necessary alliances to form a working majority. Beppe Grillo’s party, the M5S, have many parliamentary seats but he adamantly refuses to taint his movement by forming pacts with any existing parties. He, and he leads dictatorially, considers all to be corrupt. Renzi finalised his government by making alliances with groups leaning further to the right than was comfortable for many in his party. Certainly the left groups outside the PD, such as Nichi Vendola, leader of Sinistra Ecologia Libertà (SEL) would have nothing to do with him.

So he made a pact with the right-leaning Berlusconi. This shocked. But Renzi is a pragmatist. This power-hungry and energetic young man, noted as being the same age as Mussolini when he came to power, has cunningly manoeuvred himself up to the political heights. He intends to stay there. He knew that he needed not only the numbers of Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party but also the personal support of this enduringly influential man. Italy needs strong, decisive and un-corrupt, or even less corrupt, government. Renzi wants to make changes and this is a fresh start. Many want to believe that his government will work. Many are sceptical, or perhaps just realistic about his chances of success.

Renzi won his election to be head of the PD and was confirmed as Prime Minister by President Giorgio Napolitano. No national election was required. Renzi moved quickly to suggest that parliamentary seats should be filled 50/50 with men and women. This Quote Rosa, discussed also in other European countries, was such a different idea that he knew it would be vetoed. It had made a point, and was dropped. In the context of chronic female unemployment and female salary averages just under 17% less than men, it was brave.

Then in mid-April (2014) Renzi made his nominations for the heads of nationalised industries. Four were nominated to be Presidents. All were well qualified, Emma Marcegaglia, appointed to Eni (Ente Nazionale Idrocarburi – Gas and power company) extremely well so. This was followed by putting five women at the top of the five lists for Euro Candidates for the May elections. That way at least five women would represent Italy in the European Parliament. Men were still outraged but the media tone appeared to be less aggressive and showed that the public could be interested in the women’s achievements. Amusingly La Repubblica had full length shots of all the new leaders. The paper demonstrated their lack of sexism by printing the men’s photos twice the size of the women’s. And, there were no comments about anyone’s hair, shoes etc.

The British generally think that they can be proud of having the Mother of Parliaments and a solidly superior democratic governmental system. This is the English way of viewing the world and other countries are ridiculed and sneered at. But, the Italians have a bicameral legislature with a total of 945 members in two elected houses, not one as in the UK. The composition of the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate of the Republic have oddities and Renzi is currently trying to make changes. It is suggested that a few “people of merit” be added to the elected second chamber; there are currently a few Senators for Life. This might seem uncomfortably reminiscent of the UK. But it bears no resemblance to the UK’s highly partial system which includes members who inherited their seats by an accident of birth as well as senior clerics of only one of the several religions.

Corruption has always seemed to be something that happens elsewhere, in Italy for example. But the UK is equally bad. MPs, Lords and Ladies (plus bankers etc) have shown an enthusiasm for fiddling expenses. David Laws and Maria Miller were among many to have been taking expenses dishonestly. Senior national appointments such as that of Paul Flowers the “Crystal Methodist” to head the Co-op Bank and Cameron’s appointment of the bankrupt Tony Caplin to head the Public Works Loan Board, all smack of crooked practices. Emma Harrison, boss of A4e lauded for the company’s work with the unemployed, resigned from her position as a Government Tzar when 9 members of staff were convicted of fraud. Outrageously, and in the way of our leaders, she had given herself £8.6m in share dividends, as well as a generous salary. Unfortunately dishonesty is not confined to men.

Matteo Renzi is attempting to help qualified women into powerful positions. There is a strange dissonance between what he appears to be doing here and his connections with Berlusconi and his colourful history with women. No matter, everyone has their price. It is naive to see this as altruism. He is a wily operator. It could be a way of surrounding himself with people who are young, biddable and grateful. Or, perhaps he can see that the introduction of significant numbers of females could weaken the influence of the Italian male networks that often reveal mafia roots and/or paralyse government. Particularly to disrupt his government. He could be competing for votes with Grillo’s M5S who have as their 3rd out of 20 manifesto points the imposition of Anti-corruption Laws. Or could this simply be a cheap and easy way of ingratiating himself with female voters? It certainly is cheaper than making structural changes to help women into employment or to increase the availability of childcare from a low 1 child in 10 in a nursery place.

When female appointments are made to senior UK posts the tone of reporting always seems to encourage readers and viewers to question whether these women are “up to the job”. Men don’t suffer the same scrutiny and are instinctively trusted or given the proverbial benefit of the doubt. Whatever the motivation behind Renzi’s move to increase the participation of women, he is boldly trying to change the monopolistic position of men in powerful positions. The UK should look to Italy and other countries which see the benefits of considering and sharing the views of both sexes. For example the Governments of Rwanda, Costa Rica and Italy all have significantly more women in their parliaments (respectively: 63.8%, 38.6%, 31.4% ) than does the UK (21.6%). The quick reaction to this might be to say that none of these countries are world beaters, why bother! But is the UK a successful world-beater in any fields anymore? What does it do well? Is the UK free of corruption? Is it a better example of democracy and equality than other countries? Therefore, change is needed.

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