In the United States, we joke that the sure cure for insomnia is to watch C-SPAN, the channel that airs live footage from the Senate and House chambers. That stuff is boring beyond belief because nothing actually happens in chambers. All of our politics takes place outside chambers, where the lobbyists and back room dealers can push their influence. (It used to be a lot more interesting — we even had fistfights and one near-fatal cane whipping back in the old days, but those days are long gone.)
So we’re always amazed at footage from nations that have robust parliamentary systems, where stuff does happen in chambers, and it’s often great drama. I’ve watched quite a few speeches from the British Parliament where I had no idea what was going on, but it was good fun all the same. (There’s nothing quite like insults being tossed back and forth in surface-polite, formal language.)
But what just came out of the Australian House of Representatives is surely going to go down in history as one of the most epic takedowns of all time. For fifteen riveting minutes, Prime Minister Julia Gillard rips Tony Abbot, the leader of the opposition, up one side and down the other on his blatant hypocrisy, his misogyny and his sexism. It’s beautiful to watch — not just her steady, devastating attack, complete with quotes and dates, but also his facial and body language, which starts out dismissive and gradually loses all color.
There is of course quite a backstory, and I’ve summarized it below the video for those who are interested. But you don’t need to know the details to appreciate the pure theater of this no-holds-barred takedown, by a prime minister who has just made herself heard around the world.
Julia Gillard’s coalition holds a razor-thin majority, and one of those votes is a minister named Peter Slipper. Originally in Tony Abbot’s party, at which point they were such good friends that Abbot attended Slipper’s wedding, Slipper left the party and became an independent in order to accept the post of Speaker, a position offered by Gillard. Suddenly he and Abbot weren’t such good friends anymore.
Slipper is clearly a slimeball. He’s already been involved in an expense scandal, but the kicker was the sexual harassment suit lodged by one of his advisors, an openly gay man, in April of this year. Slipper stood down from his Speaker post, allowing the Deputy Speaker to take over, but did not resign. If this was an attempt to hunker down until things blew over, it failed when the harassment suit resulted in hundreds of Slipper’s text messages being made public. In several of them, he seems to have had a particular revulsion for female genitalia, likening them to mussels (I do wonder what his wife thought of these texts), and referred to a female minister as “an ignorant botch,” apparently not proofreading before he hit Send.
Former friend Tony Abbot jumped on these texts as a means of getting rid of Slipper (and his vote) for good by introducing a motion condemning his sexism and misogyny, and forcing him out. This is the motion Gillard is responding to. She certainly can’t defend Slipper’s texts, and states that she is offended by them as well. But the sheer hypocrisy of Abbot introducing this motion — a man reeking of sexism and misogyny himself, and who has directed much of his sexist vitriol against Gillard — appears to have trod her last nerve.
An additional bit of backstory: at a recent fundraiser for Abbot’s party, Australia’s version of Rush Limbaugh provided entertainment and said that Julia Gillard’s father, who had died just a week previously, “died of shame” due to her policies. Abbot distanced himself from those comments but then used the exact same wording in his motion calling for Gillard to fire Slipper: “another day of shame for a government that has already died of shame.” If he meant to drive a dagger into her heart, it appears he miscalculated. The dagger was turned back on him.