Anger as male MPs avoid feminist anthem appeal

Conservatives members of the federal parliament in Vienna (MPs) have been accused of acting “childish” after blocking a bid to change the lyrics of the national anthem.

Maria Rauch-Kallat of the People’s Party (ÖVP) aimed to present a draft bill in her final speech as MP on Friday evening. She was scheduled to speak at the very end of the last parliamentary session before the summer break. MPs will gather again on 21 September.

Rauch-Kallat planned to launch a fresh attempt to adapt one line of the Austrian anthem from “Heimat bist du großer Söhne” (Home you are to great sons) to “Heimat großer Töchter, Söhne” (Home of great daughters, sons). Rauch-Kallat already failed to enforce such a reform in 2005 when she was the federal minister for women. The Alliance for the Future of Austria (BZÖ) – which formed a coalition with her party at that time – vetoed her bid back then.

Female MPs of the ÖVP, the Social Democrats (SPÖ) and the Green Party backed Rauch-Kallat’s latest attempt, it has been revealed. Insiders also disclosed that the ÖVP’s male MPs were informed in advance.

Rauch-Kallat was kept from presenting the draft bill as several male members of her party’s delegation in the federal parliament overran their own scheduled speaking time. Female MPs were outraged by their male colleagues for debating issues like the situation of farmers focusing on pig-fattening and the introduction of a controversial artificial sweetener.

The Greens branded the responsible ÖVP members as “childish.” The party said today (Mon) it was unclear what the male ÖVP MPs were afraid of. Dorothea Schittenhelm, head of the ÖVP Women, said it was “regrettable” that Rauch-Kallat was kept from presenting her suggestion personally in what was her last speech as MP. The ex-minister for women had only a few minutes left on Friday night in which she handed in an official request to the parliament’s presidency to look into her proposal. Schittenhelm rejected claims that fellow ÖVP delegates deliberately spoke longer than allowed in a bid to block the draft bill from coming into force.

Now the parliament’s constitutional committee is set to handle the matter from August. Had Rauch-Kallat been given more time, the draft bill would have been voted on. It would have become legally binding with high certainty considering the wide support among the SPÖ – which currently forms a federal coalition with the ÖVP – and the Greens.

Asked whether she suspected some ÖVP faction members of having tried to fight her appeal for a change of the anthem’s lyrics, Rauch-Kallat refused to comment on Saturday. She only said: “The ÖVP faction certainly didn’t do anything to improve its reputation yesterday.”

The BZÖ said the female ÖVP delegates’ initiative was “hypocritical,” while the Freedom Party (FPÖ) claimed it was “embarrassing” that they failed to outwit their male colleagues. Barbara Prammer, the president of the parliament and a former SPÖ minister for women, claimed a change of the lyrics would have been an “important signal.”

The most recent controversy comes after around one year of SPÖ Minister for Women Gabriele Heinisch-Hosek failed as Rauch-Kallat. Heinisch-Hosek referred to a TV campaign for better education in which pop singer Christina Stürmer performed the anthem using the changed lyrics in favour of “great daughters” when she called on the parliament to get active. The minister argued at that time that a reform in this sense would be a “nice signal.” She stressed that the issue had no priority. Then-ÖVP General Secretary Fritz Kaltenegger rejected her appeal, arguing that Austria should focus on “other current problems.” Heinisch-Hosek eventually put her appeal for a change of the lyrics on hold when it became evident that it lacked support among her party’s coalition partner. Heinisch-Hosek recently revealed she has been singing the heatedly debated lyrics “for years.”

SPÖ whip Josef Cap suggested at the weekend the matter should be “discussed free from any emotion.” He said the engagement of many to change the lyrics was “justified.” Cap said: “It is a matter of fact that Austria has many ‘great daughters.’”

Günther Kräuter, the general secretary of the SPÖ, announced today the draft bill should be included on the agenda of the parliament “immediately after the summer break.” Kräuter suggested MPs should be given the chance to vote about it anonymously. The currently used lyrics were penned by late writer Paula Preradovic.

The ÖVP has been widely criticised since the controversial occurrences in parliament last Friday as none of its male leaders spoke out about the issue. Neither federal chairman and Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger nor whip Karlheinz Kopf have raised their voice to give their points of view regarding the lyrics of the national anthem.

Those accusing the ÖVP – which has been trying to give itself a more modern image – of being starkly conservative felt confirmed a few weeks ago when MP Wolfgang Großruck praised Dominique Strauss-Kahn for his “virility despite his age.” The French banker was put in custody in the United States in May amid accusations that he raped a hotel maid. He decided to step down as head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) as a consequence. Großruck eventually expressed regret about his remarks made at the end of a speech in parliament. He apologised after being hit by a storm of criticism from the opposition but also within his own party.

Women earn almost 32 per cent (2004: 37.5 per cent) less than men in Austria. This fact puts Austria in 25th among the European Union’s (EU) 27 member states. The gap is even larger in Estonia and the Czech Republic. The salary gap between women and men in Austria has been in decline over the years but at slow pace compared to other industrial states. Studies have also shown that women are offered 18 per cent less than men on average when they apply for a job in Austria. Experts have pointed out the high risk of unmarried women raising children on their own to become poor.

Heinisch-Hosek and ÖVP Economy Minister Reinhold Mitterlehner said in March they agreed upon forcing businesses close to the state to nominate a certain number of women for their supervisory boards. The ministers explained the supervisory boards of the 55 firms in which the Republic of Austria holds a share of 50 per cent or more must consist of at least 25 per cent women in two years and 35 per cent in 2018.

Heinisch-Hosek praised the agreement as a “step into the right direction.” She said: “A door has been opened today.” Mitterlehner underlined he expected private firms to implement similar rules in the foreseeable future. “This would be a logical next step,” the ÖVP deputy chief said.