Slipper meets a predictable end, despite the fireworks
When Tony Abbott’s parliamentary tactics team met at 8.30 on Tuesday morning, the line of attack for the first day back after the break was obvious.
After a fortnight of moralising by Labor’s “handbag hit-squad’‘, the duplicity of the Government downplaying degrading text messages by the PM’s handpicked Speaker Peter Slipper, was too rich to ignore.
What the Abbott brains-trust needed to decide was how best to proceed.
Slipper’s text exchanges, laced with school-boy imagery and abusive profanity had been in the public realm for several days and had been widely reported.
The idea that the Government would continue to stand by him given the undeniable misogyny involved seemed preposterous.
It was agreed that a no-confidence motion in the Speaker would be moved during Question Time, at 2.00pm.
But some in the room felt they should do it first thing at 11.00am.
“We thought the Government would want to beat us to the punch and move on him before Question Time,’’ confided one insider.
It was a reasonable concern given what was known.
Shadow attorney-general George Brandis had already called for the Speaker to resign the previous Friday after text massages likening female anatomy to shelled mussels had been read into evidence in the Slipper v Ashby case.
Newspapers had carried stories then and over the weekend and Ministers had squirmed and parried questions on Sunday morning chat shows on whether the Speaker’s position remained tenable.
To Abbott’s surprise, the Government seemed convinced of its arcane argument that with a court case afoot, the parliament should not become a kangaroo court.
He held his nerve opting to do it at the commencement of QT.
By the end of the same day of course, Mr Slipper had resigned - only the second Speaker of the House of Representatives to be forced out in 112 years.
When it did come it met with unanimous agreement.
However it was the debate on Abbott’s motion that turned a simmering battle into a gloves-off gender war reframing political exchange, dividing the sexes like never before and eliciting complaints Labor wanted to shut down all criticism of Ms Gillard.
Mr Abbott’s echo of the offensive Alan Jones phrase ignited the firestorm when he said the Government should already have “died of shame”.
Ms Gillard’s response was ferocious.
Her 15 minute evisceration went not to Slipper’s fitness for office but to Abbott’s fitness to even comment.
Declaring she would not be lectured about sexism by “this man” she detailed examples of his past words and dismissive behaviour and accused him of being a serial offender.
To her supporters it was a stunning and long-overdue retort in which the Opposition Leader appeared to shrink under the tirade. Video uploaded on the ABC’s website went viral with hundreds of thousands of hits.
Websites and media outlets in the UK and the US lauded the Australian PM’s forthright attack on the way men treat women on a daily basis.
One of the most telling moments came when the Opposition Leader looked at his watch bringing the sarcastic jibe from the fired up PM that he had done so because “a woman had been speaking for too long’‘.
The speech has resonated with many women who are tired of the way they are routinely treated by men.
For many, the precise political details of the Slipper vote etc. was irrelevant. They responded to the issues Ms Gillard raised and the obvious built-up frustration evident in her tone. To that extent the speech was a tour de force.
Yet despite her reluctance to engage with the Slipper aspect, what was the most devastating attack on entrenched male power ever made in this country came while protecting the rampant sexism of her own Speaker.
Her kangaroo court argument about the parliament usurping the courts convinced few but was nonsense anyway.
What the court is adjudicating on is a claim of sexual harassment and a counter claim of abuse of process.
The parliament on the other hand was being asked to decide if Mr Slipper had brought it into disrepute and if he was an appropriate person to govern its debates and uphold its standards.
More particularly, it was being asked if the Speaker, in light of the public evidence, retained the confidence of the House.
The answer to that was obvious well before the Opposition motion and well before the Speaker did what was necessary.
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