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.
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.