A volley savoured around the earth

A volley savoured around the earth

Julia Gillard went impressively ballistic on Coalition misogyny this week. Her words echoed around the world, someone even suggesting that Barack Obama adopt her ''I'm not gonna cop this any more'' style to his encounters with Mitt Romney.

A decade hence, indeed, it may be the moment for which she is most remembered, abroad as well as here. Not a word was wasted.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard replies to Opposition Leader Tony Abbott's motion to dismiss the Speaker Peter Slipper at Parliament House in Canberra on Tuesday 9 October 2012.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard replies to Opposition Leader Tony Abbott's motion to dismiss the Speaker Peter Slipper at Parliament House in Canberra on Tuesday 9 October 2012.Credit:Andrew Meares

It was sharply focused at Tony Abbott but contained sentences that other women may well remember and repeat, long after Abbott, his taunts, or even the broad environment that prompted the response are forgotten. The historic footage will not include the provoking words; instead they will show him squirming guiltily and uncomfortably.

The words were the more impressive for coming from the heart, for being well pitched to what a billion women think about relentless sexist jibes in general (which is to say at home or in the workplace as much as in Parliament) and for extra added pepper because it had seemed to adopt a particularly tasteless and heartless (though not sexist) line used by Alan Jones against her.


It seemed unrehearsed. It lacked that semi-sob in the voice she uses, badly, when reading words calculated to appeal to the emotions from speeches drafted by others for her.

Some might say that it involved the fabled ''real Julia'' - that calm and self confident woman, always seeming more credible and likeable when she is feisty, but who is all too often concealed at staged events, stilted words, artificial action and faked charm.

One always imagines that Abbott is at most risk of political self-harm when he is himself, rather than the wound-up highly disciplined automaton parroting well-rehearsed slogans. (That he is infinitely more charming, interesting and engaging when being rather than playing himself is neither here nor there.)

By contrast, Gillard's problems of political credibility, authenticity, authority and likeability come mostly when she dolefully puts on her prime ministerial suit and attempts to use the authority of her post rather than her actual personality to carry her through.

Her doggedness, her stamina and her seeming capacity to cop insult and abuse over a long period may invite a certain impersonal admiration, but it has never helped others come to know, or to feel comfortable with her.

But as the moment reverberated around Parliament, was played and replayed on radio, social media and television, including overseas, and became an international discussion point, her immediate audience was not impressed.

The press gallery, regularly accused of being anti-Abbott, may have some sympathy to charges of sexist campaigns, but could not miss the irony of the occasion. And her colleagues felt somewhat humiliated about having to climb down from the moral grandstand they had enjoyed for a week to defend (as Gillard herself, to a point was doing) crude and misogynist comments made privately by a Speaker already a corpse obviously swinging in the breeze.

Perhaps Gillard's outburst took some attention away from her defence of what she had admitted to be indefensible. But the contradiction was underlined when the Speaker, told by independents if not Gillard that the jig was up, resigned within a few hours of Gillard's speech.

Meanwhile, various female Labor ministers, particularly poor Tanya Plibersek, with the day's short straw, had to let them themselves be wheeled out for gruelling interviews to argue, unconvincingly, that Gillard had been right to insist that Parliament could not be the court that condemned Peter Slipper.

A new supposedly anti-sexist principle became established as a rule. A private remark with a sexist edge is no longer permissible anywhere, perhaps even in comedy. No jokes, if anyone could possibly take offence.

Slipper had sent a text to a staffer making a derisive comparison of the pudenda and women generally, to the appearance of an unshelled mussel. It was misogynist - if of an ilk heard mostly from an unusual subset of gay men who seemed threatened by women.

Lesbians, too, have a vocabulary of dismissal of men by reference to their genitalia, and also of heterosexual women, or ''breeders'', and their noisome children or ''crotchfruit''.

Public figures caught using such phrases, or who use any number of other profane combinations, can now expect little mercy. But there is the world of difference between saying it in a conversation with one other person and saying it to an audience of young Liberals, or middle-aged builders labourers.

Slipper was stupid for committing his view of the world to writing, and to one of his employees. No one should be called to defend such remarks by others. But for the Alan Jones affair, it might have seemed that it was Abbott, rather than Gillard, who was seeking to create the new standard, by which the audience was irrelevant.

John Howard, I fancy, would have said, grumpily but effectively, that all sorts of people said all sorts of deplorable things, but that he did not feel himself obliged to deliver running rebukes.

[Disclosure: I say profane and sexist things all the time, and sometimes, take a certain pleasure at seeing them cause shock. I collect slang and sayings, and the more politically incorrect - such as those to be seen in the Profanisaurus - the better. Many in the political classes on both sides and all sexualities are much the same. I would die of mortification and shame if some emails or personal conversations or correspondence were published. But I do not think I merit it by having violated the privacy of others.]

The new rule has nothing much to do with preventing misogyny or disrespectful words or manners. It will bite people on all sides - Labor particularly I expect - before it is abandoned as unworkable. One hopes that this abandonment does not lead to an immediate outbreak of epic misogynist nastiness, simply so as to celebrate what some writers of the authoritarian right will call the demise of political correctness.

It all reminds of the publicity once given to a consciously teasing talk to law students by eminent Tory judge Roddy Meagher. He commented that in this politically correct age, one was no longer able to use the word ''nigger''. He personally had never used it and would not dream of doing so, since it seemed a bit hurtful, but he would like to feel that he could if he wanted. He much enjoyed the entirely predictable screams from what Howard might have called the usual suspects.

Close-quarter criticism of Gillard did not come from her complaints of sexism, or her putting some of it at the door of Abbott. It was because Slipper was her own own goal - a piece of cheap and nasty political cleverness at the expense of political principle, that had done Labor and her more harm than good. Another of her chickens home to roost. This was not just because Slipper had proven to be a rogue - although that had been predictable enough, given how it mirrored Howard's also ill-fated seduction of Mal Colston.

It was clever, up to a point. And it did give her a bit of political leeway - in effect by increasing her majority to two. She used this to betray Andrew Wilkie, made pledges she no longer had the courage to keep - a point that further damaged her credibility. Like so many political tricks and coups, it also excited a degree of political admiration - not least for its poke in the eye of Abbott.

But it also linked Slipper's fate to her own, Slipper's reputation (known and unknown) to her own, and made her look grubby and unprincipled. In this respect, indeed, perhaps it rather more resembled Gough Whitlam's seduction of Vince Gair in 1974, than it did Howard's of Colston.

Then the Senate had 10 senators from each state, and a normal half-Senate election involved a battle for five seats. If a party won 50 per cent after preferences, it got three. During the Joh Bjelke-Petersen days, Labor had no chance of that in Queensland. But if a long-term senator retired or resigned before the end of his or her term, the vacant seat was up for grabs at the next poll, with six seats chosen, one to finish up the term.

In an election for six senators, one needed only about 43 per cent of the votes to win three seats.

Whitlam learned that Gair, from the (anti-Labor) Democratic Labour Party, was disenchanted. He offered him a job as ambassador to Ireland. Gair accepted. However, critically, he did not formally resign his Senate seat before Bjelke-Petersen had state writs issued for a Queensland Senate election, thus frustrating a six-seat contest.

The Whitlam plan did not, as it turned out, work. But disclosure of the plan, thanks to a scoop by Laurie Oakes and John Lombard, seriously damaged Whitlam's reputation for probity: it made him look like any other tricky politician. That was baggage that Whitlam didn't need, and which Gillard doesn't need.

Whitlam's trickery helped inspire a Coalition view that jiggery pokery with Senate representation was OK. Whitlam lost office in 1975 when he could not get supply from the Senate. Labor's effective majority was lost by a resignation (Lionel Murphy to the High Court) and a death (Bertie Milliner). Unprincipled decisions by Coalition premiers saw Labor senators replaced by anti-Labor senators. Ultimately, a referendum changed the constitution to prevent such abuses. But it had been Whitlam who started it.

Gillard has over-egged the pudding in claiming to be a victim of sexism in politics. Certainly she is subjected to sexist abuse - particularly in social media - but it is hardly at the root of her political problems with voters. Yet one cannot blame her for making a big deal of her annoyance, refusing to take it any longer, or the professionalism with which she whacked Abbott between the eyes when he gave her the opportunity.

But even as women generally, or Labor women in particular, rejoice that she is standing up to sexism, they should be careful not to think that she has suddenly found judgment or now knows what she is doing, where she is going or how she will get there.

As Saint John Henry Newman might put it, the night is dark and she is far from home.

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