Julia Gillard, the first female Prime Minister of Australia, has landed a stunning, perhaps historic, blow against male chauvinism in government by launching an extraordinary and lengthy broadside in parliament against the leader of the opposition, Tony Abbott.
The unprecedented drama erupted after the opposition demanded the resignation of parliament Speaker Peter Slipper (a member of Gillard's Labor Party), who admitted sending offensive text messages to a former male staffer that included sexist and misogynistic language -- described as “vile” by Abbott.
In an unambiguous condemnation of Slipper, Abbott stated: "It is clear that this Speaker [Slipper] is no longer a fit and proper person to uphold the dignity of the Parliament. It is clear that he is no longer a fit and proper person to uphold the standing orders of this House. This Speaker is disqualified from high office.”
Gillard conceded that Slipper's private texts reflected poor taste and judgment, but she refused to fire him from his post as speaker.
Ultimately, the opposition Liberal party got what it wanted (the forced resignation of Slipper, who apologized profusely), but not before Gillard took the opportunity to assail the Liberals for what she perceived as their hypocrisy.
Among other charges, Gillard cited that, as a former member of the Liberal party, Slipper was himself closely linked to Abbott.
Then, she noted: "The Leader of the Opposition [Abbott] is keen to lecture others about what they ought to know or did know about Mr. Slipper. Well , with respect, I'd say to the Leader of the Opposition after a long personal association including attending Mr. Slipper's wedding, it would be interesting to know whether the Leader of the Opposition was surprised by these text messages. He's certainly in a position to speak more intimately about Mr. Slipper than I am, and many other people in this Parliament, given this long personal association.''
But, of greater significance, the Prime Minister directly attacked sexist remarks allegedly made by Abbott in the past.
In unusually direct and personal language, Gillard declared on the floor in Canberra: "I say to the Leader of the Opposition I will not be lectured about sexism and misogyny by this man [Abbott], I will not. And the Government will not be lectured about sexism and misogyny by this man. Not now, not ever.''
Gillard then cataloged Abbott's previous gaffes with respect to women.
"I was very offended personally when the Leader of the Opposition, as Minister of Health, said, and I quote, 'Abortion is the easy way out'. I was very personally offended by those comments. You said that in March 2004, I suggest you check the records,'' she said.
"I was also very offended on behalf of the women of Australia when in the course of this carbon [pricing] campaign, the Leader of the Opposition said 'what the housewives of Australia need to understand as they do the ironing ... ' Thank you for that painting of women's roles in modern Australia.”
Gillard continued unabated.
"And then of course, I was offended too by the sexism, by the misogyny of the Leader of the Opposition catcalling across this table at me as I sit here as Prime Minister, 'If the Prime Minister wants to, politically speaking, make an honest woman of herself ... ', something that would never have been said to any man sitting in this chair,” she said.
"I was offended when the Leader of the Opposition went outside in the front of Parliament and stood next to a sign that said 'Ditch the witch.' I was offended when the Leader of the Opposition stood next to a sign that described me as a man's b_tch. I was offended by those things. Misogyny, sexism, every day from this Leader of the Opposition.”
During her lengthy harangue, Gillard noticed that Abbott was apparently distracted by something, leading her to sneer that he was "now looking at his watch because apparently a woman's spoken too long''.
And in what was possibly her coup de grace, she thundered: “If he [Abbott] 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.”
Gillard also addressed remarks recently made against her by Liberal supporter and broadcaster Alan Jones at a fundraising dinner in which he claimed that the Prime Minister was a “liar” and that her father “died in shame.”
Abbott had used similar language himself to demean the Labor government.
In an emotional response, Gillard stated: "Well, can I indicate to the Leader of the Opposition the Government is not dying of shame, my father did not die of shame. What the Leader of the Opposition should be ashamed of is his performance in this Parliament and the sexism he brings with it. Every day in every way, across the time the Leader of the Opposition has sat in that chair and I've sat in this chair, that is all we have heard from him.”
Gillard’s 15-minute attack on Abbott has attracted attention from not only the Australian public but from people around the world (both positive and negative).
The U.S-based blog Jezebel.com called the YouTube video of speech the "best thing you'll see all day: Australia's female prime minister rips misogynist a new one in epic speech on sexism. She [Gillard] basically ripped him [Abbott] a new [expletive].”
Anthony Sharwood, a columnist for The Punch, an Australian news website, gushed: “To use a modern phrase, Tony Abbott just got ‘owned.' He was utterly torn to shreds by the finest performance Julia Gillard has ever delivered on the floor of the House of [Representatives] … Tony Abbott got the shellacking he deserved.”
Sharwood also believes that her speech may win her re-election.
The Daily Telegraph called the Prime Minister’s speech a "brilliant political pivot" that shifted focus away from Slipper’s misconduct to her own battles against sexism.
"Watching a female Prime Minister tear apart the male leader of the Opposition with such aplomb, composure -- but most importantly armed with a brilliantly impressive set of insults -- backed up with dates and times of when each shocking comment was said -- was the best card Gillard, ever the political animal, could have played in such a situation," the Telegraph’s Emma Barnett wrote.
Barnett added: “Defending the indefensible is a pretty tough job and could still cost her dear. But what she did have was an impressive set of insults to launch at the high and mighty Abbott -- which has completely and cleverly shifted the focus of the entire news story ever since.”
Others were less impressed by Gillard’s diatribe, including Abbott himself.
"She played the victim in an insipid and pathetic performance that was un-prime ministerial," he told parliament.
Julie Bishop, the deputy leader of the Liberal Party, also attacked Gillard.
"The prime minister is setting back the cause of women decades by using sexism as a shield against criticisms of her performance,” she said.
"She's using the charge of sexism and misogyny as a weapon against her critics ... Instead of being remembered as Australia's first female prime minister, she'll be remembered as the prime minister who let down the women of Australia.”
Peter Hartcher, a political editor at the Sydney Morning Herald, also criticized the prime minister.
“She chose power over principle,” he wrote. “It was the wrong choice. It was an unprincipled decision and turned out not to be pragmatic either. The Prime Minister gained nothing and lost a great deal.”
Hartcher also indicated that by defending Slipper and keeping him at his speaker’s post, she “chose to defend the indefensible, to excuse the inexcusable.”
He added: "If there was one thing that should have been different about Gillard's prime ministership, it should have been that Australia's first female prime minister should have been a flag bearer for women … Gillard's judgment was flawed. All she achieved was a serious loss of credibility.”
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.