Julia Gillard: Gender-General-in-Chief?

By Dennis Shanahan
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After starting the class war denigrating mining bosses and billionaires, the Gillard government has launched a gender war and Julia Gillard has appointed herself the gender-general and commander-in-chief.

The Prime Minister has become the political arbiter of sexist and misogynist behaviour and offers judgments and condemnation accordingly. Embarrassingly, Gillard has already discovered that means being held to your own standards and being forced to condemn your own side.

Explaining the reasons behind her furious attack on Tony Abbott as a misogynist during her parliamentary defence of Peter Slipper's position as Speaker, Gillard said: "The motivation for my speech on Monday was, I'm just going to call out sexism and misogyny where I see it."

Gillard and her ministers were desperately fending off charges of double standards, accusing the Opposition Leader of being a misogynist while refusing to support the motion to remove Slipper as Speaker after the exposure of a trove of degrading texts that he conceded had ended his career as Speaker.

Being caught without a strategy to deal with the unravelling of Slipper's position and determined to protect Slipper to get his vote on key legislation later, the government resorted to attacking Abbott.

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Without any knowledge of the Coalition's plans to try to remove the Speaker or any hint independent MPs Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott were going to try to force him to resign, Labor framed a case of misogyny and sexism against Abbott on Tuesday. Leader of the house Anthony Albanese called a press conference minutes before question time and set out a charge sheet for Abbott. This is the case according to Albanese: "I want to give just a select four quotes that Tony Abbott made as either a minister or as Leader of the Opposition. In 1998, Tony Abbott, then a government frontbencher in the Howard government, did a very revealing round table that included Michael Costa, then a minister from NSW. Tony Abbott said this: 'If it's true ... that men have more power, generally speaking, than women, is that a bad thing?'"

Albanese continued: "Abbott: 'what if men are by physiology or temperament more adapted to exercise authority or to issue commands?' Tony Abbott then went on of course to be the health minister. And in March 2004, when a minister in the Howard government, he had this to say: 'Abortion is the easy way out.' Tony Abbott, of course, in more recent times as Opposition Leader, has assumed that housewives are the people who do the ironing. In his attitude towards the Prime Minister, he said on 25 February, 2011: 'I think if the Prime Minister wants to make, politically speaking, an honest woman of herself'."

This was Albanese's case, picked up by Gillard in parliament and prosecuted by Jenny Macklin, Tanya Plibersek and Penny Wong. Based on this argument, Macklin said on radio that Abbott - the father of three daughters - did "hate" women and girls. When asked, "So he has a hatred or dislike of women or girls?", Macklin said: "Well, all of the way that he behaves shows that that's true."

 


 

Plibersek said Abbott's "language" was the same as Slipper's - who grossly referred to women's genitalia in text messages - and said he should do what Slipper had done and resign.

Wong said: "I think Mr Slipper has done the right thing in standing down ... but I would say he's had the decency to do a couple of things Tony Abbott has failed to do, and that is apologise for his sexist comments and take responsibility for them by resigning."

This is the government's case; its judgment and sentence on Abbott, and Gillard's own defence for keeping Slipper in his job after even he decided it was untenable.

By equating Abbott's transgressions with Slipper's, the government was attempting to justify its decision to oppose the Coalition's motion to remove the Speaker because Abbott hadn't done the decent thing and resigned. It would seem too that the charge of hating women is probably too extreme to carry the day, particularly since Slipper said he thought Abbott was a man of good character and former Labor minister Con Sciacca thinks "it's just not right".

The strategy was also to continue to harp on Abbott's "problem with women" and associate him with slurs and despicable comments others had made about Gillard - notably Alan Jones's notorious remark that her father had died of shame.

It was also designed to inoculate Gillard from criticism so that anyone who criticised her would be lumped in with the "misogynists and cranks" who anonymously libelled and reviled the Prime Minister online.

Gillard's feisty defence of Labor's position propping up Slipper was designed to fit into the frame Albanese had set before question time on Tuesday and was then buttressed by Macklin, Plibersek and Wong.

In parliamentary terms, Gillard's performance was one of her best; it had controlled anger, emotion and conviction as well as her trademark withering put-downs and ripostes.

But the judgment among Labor MPs is mixed. The Prime Minister's office believes pursuing the line attacking Abbott as a misogynist, encouraging social media to debate the issue and getting international exposure for a video clip will attract female voters to Labor and entrench opposition to Abbott.

Others believe there is an overemphasis on social media, a preoccupation with a gender war that does not appeal to all voters or indeed all women, and that Labor's real difficulty is Gillard's problem with blue-collar working men.

Prime ministerial advisers were cock-a-hoop, boasting that it was the first time an Aussie PM's video clip had gone viral. In fact, working families would be more interested in the rise in unemployment yesterday, but in any case it's not the first time an Australian leader has "gone viral".

Kevin Rudd's video clips went viral twice and actually made prime-time television - the first was Rudd on the backbench picking his ear wax and appearing to eat it and the second was a leaked video of Rudd as prime minister in an expletive-ridden explosion trying to record a Chinese script.

Judgment has yet to be passed on whether the week's events will be a plus or minus for Abbott but it's clear some Labor MPs think this week has been another disaster for Gillard and that a viral video is no compensation.

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