Excuse me while I make a brief foray into Australian politics.
Yesterday, Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard made an extraordinary speech in Federal Parliament. In it, she accused Tony Abbott, the Leader of the Opposition, of being both sexist (adj. Discriminatory on the basis of sex, usually said of men’s attitude toward women) and misogynist (adj. A misanthrope who dislikes women in particular). There’s a lot of background to Gillard’s remarks, most of which is succinctly explained in this New Yorker blog post on the issue. Basically, though, Abbott has exhibited sexist and misogynistic behaviours in the past (particularly in his attacks on Gillard the Prime Minister, as outlined in even more detail in this thorough speech by Anne Summers); when Abbott sought to have Parliamentary Speaker Peter Slipper removed from office on the basis of what he views to be sexist and misogynistic text messages, Gillard used fifteen minutes to outline exactly why the Government rejected this motion, with the chief basis being Abbott’s hypocrisy in raising it.
If you haven’t seen the speech, the whole thing is worth watching, even if you are completely unfamiliar with the people or issues involved. It’s an incredibly skilled piece of oration and, on a more basic level, it’s great political theatre.
One more thing to quickly note before moving on is that Abbott, in raising the motion, stated that Gillard’s Government “should already have died of shame“. Less than two weeks ago, a controversial conservative radio host named Alan Jones delivered a speech at a meeting of the Young Liberals (Abbott is the leader of the Liberal Party) in which he stated that Gillard’s recently deceased father “died of shame“. This received widespread press coverage and strong condemnation from Gillard’s Labor Party, and a number of advertisers withdrew support from Jones’ programme.
Yesterday, the fiercest part of Gillard’s speech, which made me gasp, was when she linked Abbott’s and Jones’ statements and bitterly rejected both. She looked Abbott squarely in the eye and with unvarnished, vulnerable anger, said, “My father did not die of shame”.
Anyway. Here’s the point of why I’m adding my small voice to an overwhelming swell of opinion.
I do not support Gillard or the Labor Party. I don’t think they’re running a particularly good government, and I think they have been complicit in about as much so-called ‘mud-slinging’ and ‘muck-raking’ as the Liberals have. As in many other countries with a two-party system, they have repeatedly relied on dirty attacks on the Opposition to cling to an already untenable position in the polls.
However, Gillard’s speech went beyond the usual standard of mud-slinging and muck-raking in politics. Her apparently seamless evisceration of Abbott stood apart from all that as it was a direct victory for Australian women – even a victory for women everywhere. She stood up, representing the highest elected office of her nation, and took apart a consistently sexist and misogynist man with articulacy and barely contained emotion. She showed everyone exactly why women should be considered the equal of men and, arguably, how women can offer certain qualities in leadership roles that most men cannot. Men and women are different, after all, but neither is lesser in overall value.
I woke up this morning feeling refreshed and excited at how Gillard’s speech might change the national conversation of Australia. At the end of the day, I am again jaded and frustrated, because as brilliant as Gillard’s speech was, it has already been displaced in the national public, political and media narratives.
The problem, apparently, was that Gillard’s speech was ostensibly a speech of support for Peter Slipper – who then effectively rejected that support by resigning. Political misstep by Gillard, went the headlines. Cynical Gillard’s tactic backfires.
To which I say: what? The context of Gillard’s speech wasn’t just whether or not Slipper should remain Speaker. It extended to years of sexism and misogyny directed at her by Abbott, and more broadly to any sexism and misogyny that Australian women have suffered and continue to suffer.
Then, on Australian radio stations throughout the day, hosts and talkback callers alike seemed to go out of their way to disregard the epochal nature of Gillard’s speech, and further to disregard Gillard herself. Those siding with the Opposition told Tony Abbott to stay the course, you excellent leader you, as all this will surely blow over. Those siding with the Government told Abbott to apologise, resign, pull out your fingernails one by one you evil, evil man. Nobody saw fit to add, “and hey, Ms Gillard, you were on fire!” (Or words to that effect.)
This is my problem with the general response. Whether or not you are supporting Tony Abbott or vilifying Tony Abbott, do you know who the spotlight remains squarely pointed at? TONY ABBOTT, that’s who. When Julia Gillard should be receiving plaudits – or at the very least rebuttal – for fifteen minutes that transcended politics, she’s left shrugging her shoulders as the crowd clamours for Abbott’s attention. If having the guts to get up in front of EVERYONE and soundly reject her opponent’s persistently gender-based bullying tactics does not win her respect and notice, what will?
Today, Abbott and his fellow opposition frontbenchers have had the gall to suggest that there was no connection whatsoever between Alan Jones’ and Abbott’s uses of the phrase “died of shame”; that it was all a coincidence, and anyone who thinks otherwise – including “she” (as Gillard is often referred to by the Opposition) – is crazy. They all know that this is a patent untruth, but they do not care as long as everyone on both sides remains rapt in what Tony Abbott will say next.
Also today, Greens leader Christine Milne has come out in support of Gillard:
“If a woman makes a strong and passionate speech … then it has to in some way be put down on the basis of an emotional response,” Senator Milne said.
“If a male politician had made the same speech, it would have been seen as strong and decisive and leadership. And that’s where you get it all the time. The Prime Minister’s had it all the time.”
The headline of this piece? ‘Abbott guilty of sexism: Milne‘. Nothing to do with the broader points Milne makes about sexism in politics. Tony Abbott is apparently what’s important here.
So, for the record, I congratulate Julia Gillard for her words in Parliament yesterday. I applaud her efforts to stand up to sexist and misogynistic behaviour and to demand that respect for her office be entirely unlinked to gender. I hope that she has the strength to continue that fight. And I hope that the Australian public can one day, if not now, look at this speech as a watershed moment for women’s rights in their country.