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Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Gillard and the misogynists

They Had It Coming

By Judith Brett 

Last month’s debate about misogyny and sexism in high places – of Alan Jones, Peter Slipper and Tony Abbott – reveals just how confused the relationship between private and public has become in the age of social media.

Let’s begin with Peter Slipper, the former speaker, whose obscene text messages to a young man he was flirting with reveal him to have a misogynistic fear of women’s sexuality – or at least to be prepared to entertain such fears. Men have been exchanging dirty jokes about women’s genitalia for centuries, and many men have unspeakable fantasies about women’s sexuality, including surely men sitting on both sides of the House and in the Senate. The difference is that Slipper left a permanent record by putting his dirty little quip in a text message which was called up in court and so cast doubt on his character. Fair enough, and he has now resigned, having been exposed as rather pathetic. But Slipper’s private transgressions made public are not of the same order as the transgressions of Jones and Abbott, which were public in the first place.

Abbott standing in front of the “Ditch the Witch” and “Juliar: Bob Brown’s Bitch” signs at the anti–carbon tax rally, or Jones suggesting on radio that Gillard be put in a chaff bag and thrown out to sea, were deliberate political actions. These are much worse offences than Peter Slipper’s because they were attempts to mobilise sexist and misogynist attitudes for political gain, not just a private, failed come-on. This is why the claim that Labor was inconsistent to attack Abbott for misogyny yet support Slipper as speaker seemed weak to so many women. Abbott had it coming. Slipper simply provided the occasion, and perhaps Abbott’s echoing of Jones’s derogatory comment about her father having “died of shame” was the tipping point for Gillard, supplying the emotional charge that made the speech so electrifying.

Jones’s comments brought the boundary between public and private into play around a different primal human experience: not sex but death. Jones was speaking at a dinner at the Sydney University Liberal Club. This is what he said: “Every person in the caucus of the Labor Party knows that Julia Gillard is a liar. Everybody … The old man recently died a few weeks ago of shame. To think that he had a daughter who told lies every time she stood for parliament.” Jones was not simply attacking Gillard, he was demeaning the dead.

This was beyond appalling because it breached the social conventions that protect death and mourning from the intrusion of politics. The changes in attitudes to sex and gender since the 1960s have been the subject of political debate. Feminism as a political movement engendered counter movements from those defending traditional gender roles. Similarly, the increasing liberalisation of sexual practices has been the subject of political debate. But, apart from the debate about euthanasia, death has not been subject to partisan political differences, and the strength and swiftness of the public’s reaction to the revelation of Jones’s comment shows that most believe it should not be. John Gillard was not a public figure and his death should not have been used to score political points against his daughter. And she, although a public figure, should have been allowed the privacy of her grief.

But no. Jones went further in his speech, implying that she was milking her bereavement for political ends. Later, in the wake of Gillard’s speech castigating Abbott, Melbourne’s Andrew Bolt followed suit, claiming, “Power is Julia Gillard’s true passion as she plays the gender card, victim card and her father’s death for advantage.”

Jones and Bolt put Gillard into a place beyond human feeling, where she is so motivated by power that ordinary human emotions, even grief for her beloved father, become nothing more than pretexts for cynical political manipulation in her determination to keep from office legitimate male aspirants. This is Lady Macbeth dashing the suckling child from her breast lest her maternal feelings soften her resolve to do what it takes to put her husband on the throne. Lady Macbeth has been evoked by supporters of both pretenders to her position – Abbott and Rudd. Earlier this year, Christopher Pyne claimed that to compare Gillard to Lady Macbeth was unfair to Lady Macbeth as “she only had one victim to her name; this prime minister has a list of victims longer than Richard III”. What elicited this comparison was Gillard’s adviser tipping off some protesters about comments Tony Abbott had made about Canberra’s Aboriginal tent embassy, which precipitated an unseemly security scuffle. To this crime Pyne added the dispatch of Kevin Rudd, the ‘no carbon tax’ pledge she made to win the election, the demotion of a cabinet minister, and a few other manoeuvres of the sort that are standard fare in day-to-day parliamentary politics. But none of this was the real crime, which was that she, a woman, had usurped a man.

Since becoming prime minister, Gillard has been repeatedly attacked for her role in Kevin Rudd’s removal, by Liberals, by the Rudd camp and by journalists. The message is clear: she became prime minister illegitimately; then, when she became leader of a minority government through processes that were par for the course in a democracy, she’d lied her way through by negotiating on a carbon tax. The point has been made before: such vitriol has generally not been directed at men who have defeated a rival and reneged on a core policy.

Lady Macbeth has figured in the country’s political imagination before. When Robert Menzies wanted to depict the communists as illegitimate aspirants to political power, he put into their mouths Lady Macbeth’s advice to her husband as they welcomed Duncan to their castle, where they planned to murder him: “Look like the innocent flower, but be the serpent under it.” When Menzies suspected his popular minister Percy Spender of nursing ambitions towards his position he said to Spender’s wife, Jean: “Give me the dagger, Lady Macbeth.” Lady Macbeth is a figure of female ambition, using underhand and illegitimate means to dispatch men from power. Calling Gillard a witch points more crudely to the same archetype of an evil, manipulative female power that threatens to kill and emasculate men. Faced with this sort of assault, deep from the unconscious of so many men, it has been very hard for the real Julia. What does one do when the misogynist fantasies of so many men are being projected onto you on a daily basis? How do you remind people that you are an ordinary human being, when not even bereavement protects you? In the end she did perhaps the only thing she could do. She fought back.

About the author Judith Brett
Judith Brett is a professor of politics at La Trobe University and author of Robert Menzies' Forgotten People and Australian Liberals and the Moral Middle Class.