A short piece I had published recently in GreenVoice, the publicly distributed newspaper of The Greens NSW.
If you haven’t watched Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s fifteen minute speech at and about Opposition Leader Tony Abbott on 9 October, go to a browser as soon as you can and search for “Julia Gillard rips Tony Abbott a new one.”
The speech set alight social media, traditional media, the blogosphere, even the New Yorker, as Gillard riffed around the theme of “I will not be lectured about sexism and misogyny by this man,” and “If he wants to know what misogyny looks like in modern Australia, he doesn’t need a motion in the House of Representatives, he needs a mirror.”
At the purest level, the speech was a level of political oration not seen in Australia for quite some time. It has also arguably given the Prime Minister a much-needed bump in the opinion polls. But what of the broader contexts for the speech?
One is the extreme nature of the personal attacks which Julia Gillard has been subjected to since becoming Prime Minister. The prime culprit has been shock jock Alan Jones, who has said, among other things, that the Prime Minister should be thrown in a chaff bag and that her father “died of shame”.
Jones also said, more broadly, that “women are destroying the joint”, which spawned the Destroy the Joint movement. This group campaigs against sexism and misogyny in Australia, and is largely responsible for driving away Alan Jones’ sponsors on 2GB.
In this context, Gillard’s speech is a powerful statement riding the wave of anger many feel at the sexist and misogynist views that sadly still pervade modern Australia.
The speech also sits within the context of a long-running tactic by Labor to attack Tony Abbott’s personality and in particular his views on women which, by most accounts, appear out of pace with the views of modern Australians, and more in line with people like Alan Jones.
David Marr’s Quarterly Essay, Political Animal: The Making of Tony Abbott, portrays the leader of the Opposition as, in equal measures arrogant and aggressive, driven and hyper-intelligent, politically cunning and a prolific writer.
Since taking over from Malcolm Turnbull as Opposition leader, Abbott’s has been relentless. According to Marr, Abbott has rejecting the strategy of his supposed hero Robert Menzies, to “oppose selectively and use Opposition as a time for study and renewal”, and is instead following Lord Randolph Churchill’s maxim: “Oppose everything, suggest nothing, and turf the government out.”
In a political landscape where the Opposition abandons the realm of rational policy, it is perhaps little wonder that political debate in Australia has shifted from the issues to the individuals.
That, however, is the third context in which to view Gillard’s powerful speech. On the same day that, as Melinda McPherson wrote in New Matilda, “any woman who has experienced sexist comments or behaviour in work or public life is likely to have felt enormously validated by Gillard’s delivery,” the Gillard Labor government approved a bill to cut payments for single parents, which will have a disproportinate negative impact on disadvantaged women.
It is notable that the most significant political speech in Australia for some time was not centered around an inspiring ideology – like the way Paul Keating’s “Redfern speech”, for example, acknowledged for the first time the impact of European colonisation on Indigenous Australians.
Instead, it was delivered at an individual in a political environment where the politics of personality overshadow the actual business of government – which is policy delivery.
So while I’m inspired by Prime Minister Julia Gillard standing up to a couple of misogynist bullies and giving them a long-deserved what for, I am in no way less cynical about the state of politics in Australia, as practiced by Labor and the Coalition.