Sexism, misogyny, and a Speaker’s scalp

October 9, 2012

We’re pretty much inured to Opposition Leader Tony Abbott’s regular attempts to suspend Question Time. Almost every time the Parliament sits, a new ‘crisis’ manifests that forces him to his feet in order to yell across the chamber for ten minutes or so. Usually it’s either the ‘Toxic Tax Based on a Lie’ or how the government’s ‘Lost Control of our Borders’. At this point, there’s often a collective switch-off from those watching. After all, we’ve heard it before – and every time, the attempt to suspend Question Time fails.

Not so today. This time, the government said, bring it on.

And the reason? The Opposition wanted Speaker Peter Slipper gone. It wasn’t enough that he stepped aside while the court case brought against him by James Ashby was still underway. He had to go. Immediately. It was time to make history, and use the Constitutional power granted to the Parliament to remove the Speaker.

Abbott started in high gear, and just got louder. Slipper was a misogynist, he said. He was sexist. Look at the disgusting text messages he’d sent, comparing a vulva (though he used a far less polite word) to the kind of mussels you buy in a jar at the Fish and Chip Shop. Look at his behaviour towards James Ashby. Look at the way he just happened to boot Sophie Mirabella from the House so that she couldn’t cast a vote on the carbon price – that was not only sexist, it was also partisan! Forget that Mirabella was being continually disruptive; apparently if she’d been a man (or, presumably, a woman on the government benches), she could have escaped discipline.

Of course, none of this is proven. The case is underway, the judgment currently reserved. Some of the text messages were released to the media, but there were no grounds for saying that Slipper was guilty of the allegations Ashby’s brought against him. It’s a niggling little detail, and one Abbott seemed happy to skip over. So, for that matter, were the other Coalition speakers, notably Deputy Opposition Leader Julie Bishop and Leader of Opposition Business Christopher Pyne.

With Slipper’s character thoroughly delineated as a sleazy, woman-hating popinjay (oh yes, the formal procession through the halls of Parliament House came in for plenty of ridicule), it was time for the Opposition to turn on Prime Minister Julia Gillard – and it was quickly apparent that she (and through her, the Labor government) was the real target.

The least of Gillard’s sins was poor judgment in appointing Slipper in the first place. What was that? The LNP backed Slipper for pre-selection since 1993, and only dumped him when he became Speaker, leaving them down a vote? Pshaw. Details. Astonishingly, according to Pyne, it was one thing to support this man – who had allegedly brought the Parliament into utter disrepute – in his quest for a local seat, but quite another for him to be Speaker. Pyne didn’t elaborate on exactly where the line should be drawn, but presumably there’s a sliding scale. I’m sure the good people of Fisher would be pleased to know that the LNP were happy to help them elect a man of such low character.

But back to Gillard. She ‘forced’ former Speaker Harry Jenkins aside (oh, and let’s not forget to slip in a mention of the midnight assassination of former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd). She dared to ‘lie’ to the Australian people about carbon pricing just so she could hold onto power. She was ambitious, grasping for power (and isn’t it interesting that ambition is only a failing in a woman). The Opposition even intimated that she knew about the Slipper/Ashby issue when she appointed the Speaker, making her culpable in this denigration of the Parliament. Finally, she was a hypocrite. Some of her own members had made sexist remarks, and she hadn’t told them off.

She, she, she, she, she. Over and over, the Coalition speakers refused to give the Prime Minister the benefit of her title, or even adopt the convention of using her surname. As my grandmother used to say, ‘She’s the cat’s mother’; ironic when you remember Julie Bishop’s cat-scratch moment towards Gillard in another memorable Question Time. And as Leader of the House Anthony Albanese said when he spoke against the motion: ‘If you used the Prime Minister’s title instead of just ‘she’ all the time, you might have a shred of credibility’.

For a series of speeches designed to make the case that Slipper was a sexist and misogynist who needed to be dismissed at all costs, there was a remarkable degree of sexism shown by the Opposition. But nothing matched up to one comment from Abbott, which sent shock waves through the chamber and those watching on social media:

‘This government should have already died of shame’.

And just to make sure we heard, he repeated it. Again and again.

It was utterly unconscionable. Barely a week after the Daily Telegraph reported that Radio 2GB broadcaster Alan Jones had told the Sydney University Young Liberals Club that Gillard’s late father had ‘died of shame’, there was Abbott invoking the same sentiments.

It’s a familiar theme for the Opposition. Sophie Mirabella, after organising an anti-carbon price demonstration outside Albanese’s electoral office (featuring placards with such lovely sentiments as ‘Tolerance is our demise’), told him that his mother had died of shame.

Quite a coincidence. But who really believes that? Abbott had to know what he was doing. After all, he’d been hounded by the media for nearly a week about Jones’ comments, and forced to defend his decision to keep accepting invitations to appear on Jones’ show (from which over 70 major sponsors, including Mercedes-Benz, have withdrawn their support). It was clearly aimed straight at the Prime Minister. Perhaps Abbott hoped to throw her off her stride when she rose to reply.

He couldn’t have picked a worse tactic.

Gillard let fly. Almost shaking with rage, she condemned Abbott for his hypocrisy in bringing this motion, given his history of sexist comments and alleged unacceptable behaviour towards women. Pointing at Abbott, she declared, ‘I will not be lectured by this man on misogyny and sexism. Not now, not ever.’

With devastating effect, Gillard used Abbott’s own sexist and misogynist words against him. His assertion that inequality might not be a ‘bad thing’. His claim that women were ‘physiologically’ unsuited to positions of authority. (Here he was echoing Alan Jones, who infamously declared that women in power in Australia were ‘destroying the joint’.) The outrageous statement that abortion was ‘the easy way out’. And so it went.

Gillard declared that Abbott was using a double standard in seeking to remove Slipper for sexist comments, and vowed that she would not allow that to rule the Parliament. Her fury was palpable, and for once, Abbott didn’t turn his back. There was a court case under way, and Parliament had no right to pre-empt the judgment. Slipper had voluntarily stepped aside, she reminded the House. She would not permit Abbott to impose a standard to which neither he, nor his Opposition colleagues, would adhere.

There was one moment when Gillard’s emotions threatened to overcome her – when she finally spoke about Jones’ comments, telling Abbott, ‘The government is not dying of shame. My father did not die of shame. If anyone should be ashamed, it is the Leader of the Opposition who should be ashamed of his behaviour.’

The motion was defeated by the narrowest of margins: 69-70. There were no questions, no points of order. Just an incredible eruption, immediately followed by business as usual.

But we saw something today. We saw an Opposition attempt to paint itself as a champion of morality and a protector of women – led by a man notorious for sexist language and bullying behaviour. We saw an Opposition attempt yet again to turn the House into a kangaroo court; Julie Bishop went even further, stating that it didn’t matter that there was as yet no verdict.

But we also saw a Prime Minister who seems to have finally been pushed too far. The bland, polished, vaguely condescending voice reminiscent of a tranquillised Margaret Thatcher gave way to a passionate, cutting anger. No mockery, no stock phrases, no cut-and-paste speeches praising the government’s record. This was the Gillard of old, the Deputy Prime Minister who took on all comers and did more than hold her own.

It’s a Gillard we haven’t seen for a long time.

Whether the government’s successful defence today of Slipper’s position as Speaker will prove a continuing problem remains to be seen. The outcome of the court case will, presumably, determine his future in the chair. In the meantime, the Opposition will undoubtedly find yet more ‘reasons’ to attempt a censure, or force an election. Having embarked on this course from the moment he was denied government, Abbott will not let up until after the next election – an election he expects to win with a majority comparable to that gained by the LNP in the Queensland state election.

The question is, though: will Gillard return to the measured, soporific cadences that many have described as seeming ‘fake’, ‘put on’? (And the question must be asked: did she adopt that way of speaking in the first place because she was told she’d appear ‘shrill’ otherwise?)

Or will it be the Prime Minister we saw today, who takes the fight to Abbott and confronts the Opposition tactics forcefully and without apology?

For Labor’s sake, it will need to be the latter.

UPDATE:

Peter Slipper has just announced in the House of Representatives that he will tender his resignation from the Speakership to the Governor-General. In an emotional speech, he said the House was more important than his own future. ‘Nothing is more important than the preservation of the dignity of our parliamentary institutions.’ According to Anthony Albanese, Slipper made his decision after today’s vote and informed the government. Slipper’s likely successor is his Deputy, Anna Burke, who has been fulfilling the Parliamentary role of Speaker since he stood aside.

This comes four minutes after Slipper tweeted, ‘Sources say Steve Lewis/News Ltd plan 2 run story based on untruths from certain LNP members&volunteers who worked on my last LNP campaign’. We can only wait to see what comes next, but one thing is clear; Abbott gained a valuable scalp today, as Slipper now joins Craig Thomson on the backbench. It’s a victory that – for all his sober words tonight as he said Slipper had done ‘the right thing’ – Abbott won’t hesitate to exploit. Stay tuned for more claims that the government relies on ‘tainted votes’ to stay in power.

It’s a pretty ugly day in Australian politics.

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Married to the lynch mob

March 24, 2011

There’s a truism that says Australia is the 51st state of the US – a McDonalds on every corner, a rather pathetic desire to curry favour with the President, and a willingness to be screwed over in treaties and trade agreements by an ally.

After yesterday, I think, we can really claim that title. Yesterday, we saw the Tea Party come to Australia, with all its hysteria, fake claims of ‘grass-roots’ sentiment and lies. And – just as in the US – we saw a conservative political party try to convince us that they weren’t causing the hysteria, just listening to ‘the silent majority’ finally rise up and exercise their right of free speech.

Radio station 2GB – home of ultra-conservative ‘shock jocks’ like Alan Jones – helped organise a protest rally against the government’s proposed carbon pricing scheme at Parliament House yesterday. According to the Australian Federal Police, about 1500 people gathered on the lawn, led by former rock singer Angry Anderson. In the crowd were One Nation, the anti-Semitic Australian League of Rights and former One Nation MP Pauline Hanson. On the platform were discredited scientists, self-styled ‘experts’ and carefully chosen ‘ordinary Australians’.

And the Coalition came out to meet them with open arms.

All well and good. People have a right to protest, despite the best efforts of politicians like former Prime Minister John Howard and former Liberal Queensland Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen (who infamously legislated to declare any gathering of three or more people in a public place an ‘unlawful assembly’). That right isn’t limited to any cause, or restricted to reasoned debate in conference halls. When people feel passionately, they want to be visible, and they want to be heard.

But what happened in Canberra yesterday went far beyond ‘protest’ – it was an ugly mob, and the Coalition pandered to it and whipped it into a frenzy.

Speaker after speaker mounted the platform to address the rally. Every one of them repeated the lies that form the now-familiar Coalition message: that Prime Minister Gillard’s broken promise on a carbon price was a deliberate deception on her part; that every Australian would suffer terribly by being forced to pay a carbon tax; and – with the notable exception of Opposition Leader Tony Abbott – that climate change was simply not happening.

Well, they can lie. They should, and are, being called on those lies, but it’s free speech, right? As Liberal MP Kelly O’Dwyer repeatedly yelled over both Labor MP Nick Champion and Sky’s Keiran Gilbert this morning, they’re ordinary Australians who are allowed to have their views heard. Even if those views are the kind of personal insults yelled by Pauline Hanson (who fronted the cameras to attack Gillard for being unmarried with no children).

Except this isn’t about free speech. This isn’t about the person who carried a sign protesting against everything from the ‘carbon tax’ to the IMF, the UN and ‘one world government’. This isn’t about the person who carried the brightly-coloured placard that made ingenious use of fridge magnets to spell out ‘NO LABOUR CARBON TAX’. It’s not even about the ‘My Mom Is Cold’ sign that popped up. (And can anyone explain that? Anyone?)

This is about the so-called alternative Prime Minister of Australia standing on a platform with his senior colleagues, scare-mongering and lying, while standing in front of this sign (photo credit to the ABC’s Latika Bourke):

Notice the flames of hell?

This is about Senator Barnaby Joyce trembling with anger and screaming red-faced into the microphone, ‘She lied to you! She lied to you!‘, then smiling and nodding as the crowd roared, ‘BITCH! BITCH! BITCH!’

This is about not one of the Coalition speakers asking the crowd to show respect for the Prime Minister – or even for the office of Prime Minister. Every single one of them either stood silently with approving smiles while the crowd roared, or actually encouraged further abuse.

It was a mob virtually baying for Gillard’s blood, and being encouraged to do it.

Unsurprisingly, those actions provoked shock and outrage – although, to listen to some media outlets, you’d be forgiven for thinking the rally was just an excitable picnic rather than a sustained personal attack on the Prime Minister. Senator Bob Brown sent a letter to the Prime Minister yesterday afternoon expressing his feelings of disgust at the abuse they’d hurled at her, along with his wish that Abbott would apologise for endorsing such sentiments.

Abbott, however, was having none of that. Late last night he issued a statement saying he regretted the actions of ‘a small group of people’ – but no apology, no admission that he and his colleagues had helped fuel the situation. Confronted by the media this morning, he expanded on those remarks. Let’s take a look.

‘A few people went over the top … naturally I regret that … but I can understand that people feel passionate.’

A few people? There were hundreds of people waving abusive signs and chanting ‘Bitch!’ and even ‘Kill the Witch!’. A sky writer even gave us the benefit of his opinion at an opportune moment. And it was particularly impressive how many of those signs were identical and professionally produced.

But what about this?

Abbott: ‘Let’s face it, this is a Prime Minister who told us before the election that there will be no carbon tax … it was unfortunate that some ppl chose to go a bit over the top yesterday … I would urge all people to conduct this debate with respect … but if we are going to build respect for the democratic process in this country it is important for the Prime Minister to seek a mandate for her carbon tax.’

‘It’s a pity when some people go a little over the top … it would have been better for everyone if the Prime Minister had said “I don’t want to deceive you, there will be a carbon tax” … if the Prime Minister had been straight with the Australian people before the election we wouldn’t be in quite the situation we’re now in.’

A ‘little over the top’? Calling for violence to be done to the Prime Minister of the country?

Just in case we didn’t pick it up, Abbott kept repeating that the ‘real’ problem here was Gillard’s broken promise – what he consistently referred to as a ‘lie’ or ‘deception’.

Yes. You read that right. It’s Gillard’s fault. She made these poor people howl for her blood. If only, if only she hadn’t ‘lied’, we could all be having tea and scones right now.

In the real world, Mr Abbott, we call that ‘blaming the victim’.

Then there was this gem:

‘People are entitled to feel pretty unhappy … I want the protest to be civil … but let’s not get too precious about these things.’

No, let’s not get concerned about the fact that the Coalition egged the protesters on to louder and more abusive expressions of intended violence. Let’s not worry about Joyce’s endorsement of the kind of abuse we consider unacceptable if it’s yelled in the street. Let’s not get precious, because after all, she brought it on herself.

Asked why he and his colleagues addressed the rally, Abbott replied: ‘I thought it was important that … politicians should speak with them.’

Oh, how disingenuous. Abbott was just doing what politicians should do – speak to the people. After all, other politicians go out to see protesters on the lawns of Parliament House – why shouldn’t he?

Because other politicians confine their actions to talking one-on-one with protesters. Other politicians listen to grievances – they don’t deliver speeches designed to turn a rally into a screaming lynch mob. Other politicians carefully demur when asked by protesters to endorse their slogans.

In other words, Mr Abbott, other politicians speak with protesters, not to them.

Abbott even suggested that Gillard was at fault for not going out to speak to the protesters, as he had. Given the mood of the crowd, she would have been mad to do that. We’ve already seen people throwing shoes at politicians and burning their pictures – and that’s without the Coalition helpfully whipping them along. Watching that rally yesterday, I don’t think many people could doubt that Gillard’s safety would have been at risk.

Abbott tried to shift the blame to Gillard. He tried the old ‘oh, it was just a few mavericks’ line. He tried the free speech and ‘caring politician’ defence. In short, he did everything he could to excuse himself – everything but apologise. In the words of Jake Blues:

But – as Keiran Gilbert asked this morning – what more could he have done?

How about this?

He could have asked the crowd to stop yelling abuse.

He could have insisted that the ‘Bitch’ sign be taken down while any Coalition representative was on the platform.

He could have made it clear that he wouldn’t tolerate any of his colleagues encouraging abuse.

He could have forbidden any Coalition representative from addressing the crowd as a whole, and confined his actions to listening.

But he did none of these things. By mounting that platform yesterday, he married the Coalition to the lynch mob

Abbott should now apologise without reservation on behalf of himself and his parliamentary colleagues. And he should stop treating the Australian people as idiots. After yesterday, he has no basis left for his persistent claims that he is not contributing to fear and anger. After yesterday, he has no credibility whatsoever.

Independent MP Tony Windsor was pooh-poohed when he expressed the concern that the anti-carbon price rhetoric was becoming so inflammatory that it might well spill over into violence directed at those politicians who supported it. Actually, it’s more accurate to say he was mocked – everyone from politicians to media to tweeters rubbished the idea.

After yesterday, it doesn’t seem so far-fetched, does it?

Mr Abbott and his colleagues need to realise that sooner or later, violence may well erupt as a result of their lies and fear-mongering. And if it does, and all their protests of ‘free speech’ and ‘it’s not our fault’ will mean exactly nothing. They will have blood on their hands.

What’s truly frightening – and after yesterday, seems even more likely – is the idea that they know that already, and they simply don’t care.

AFTERWORD:

Two senior Coalition members chose not to attend the rally yesterday – Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey, and former leader Malcolm Turnbull. Neither of them gave their reasons – perhaps it was political expediency, perhaps a recognition of just how inappropriate and damaging it would be.

What’s important is that they did not endorse, either by their presence or their words, the abuse, offensive language or threats of violence that occurred – unlike their leader and their colleagues.

For their common sense, they should be commended.


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