Those who heard Prime Minister Gillard in parliament on October 9 screeching like a demented cockatoo over Tony Abbott’s non-existent sexism could draw only two conclusions from her performance.
Either she did not mean it and was cynically exploiting Alan Jones’s notorious remarks about her father — which, if so, was contemptible and unworthy of the nation’s political leader — or else she did mean it, which was worse.
If it was the latter case, it shows an alarming lack of the self-control, dignity and gravitas which are such essential parts of a national leader’s equipment.
I myself have had only a small involvement on the fringe of politics, but I have had insults hurled at me from day one of my political activity, including disparaging references to my father, of whose political career and memory I am very proud. (When I discovered that the communists had made up an uncomplimentary song about him over his role in breaking up a wharf strike, I felt vicariously flattered).
I have no doubt that these insults, directed not only at me but at Liberals and/or conservatives in general, are not the products of spontaneous rage, but have been deliberately thought up to hurt and demoralise. I have always ignored them.
How many times, incidentally, has Gillard rebuked Labor figures for calling Tony Abbott “the Mad Monk”? This is quite a serious insult when you think about it, and obviously thought up to be as politically damaging as possible.
Taking offence too readily is to give your opponents the game. Taking offence at something that has not even been said by them is to look ridiculous — as ridiculous as attributing misogyny at all to Tony Abbott, a man in a long-term happy marriage and the father of three daughters.
It is a grubby equivalent of some of the lunatic charges recently hurled by some of America’s Democrats against recent Republican presidential candidate, Mitt Romney. This phenomenon, increasingly visible in the last few years around the English-speaking world, is in turn symptomatic of the general moral deterioration of the parliamentary and cultural Left, which in Australia was dragged down to new lows by Paul Keating and Mark Latham.
While the conservative side of politics has by no means been perfect, it has in general set a superior standard of dignity and civility.
A double standard clearly applies in Australian public life. Imagine if a Liberal leader called a female journalist a “skanky ho” (filthy whore), as Mark Latham did in 2002, a year before he became Labor leader. Imagine if a Liberal leader — male or female — went into a screaming fury because of some remark made by a left-leaning radio talk-show host at a university Labor Club function, and then took up an inordinate amount of parliament’s limited time dwelling on it.
Quite simply, this wouldn’t happen — or it wouldn’t happen like that. It is honestly not even possible to imagine.
Would Sir Robert Menzies have ever behaved in such a way? Or John Howard? Or John Gorton, thought to be understandably sensitive about having had half his face blown off during the war? Or, for that matter, past Labor leaders John Curtin or Ben Chifley? Or, to take a name from the present federal parliament, can one imagine Liberal deputy leader Julie Bishop being so lacking in political nous — not to mention dignity — as to behave in a comparable manner?
Bert Kelly, the low-tariff campaigner whose biography I have recently written, made many speeches in parliament, in which he pointed out that high tariffs on cotton goods were inflating the prices of women’s dresses. Sir John McEwen, at the time leader of the Country Party and Deputy Prime Minister, was his bitter enemy and attacked him continuously. But if McEwen had read “misogyny” into Bert Kelly’s speeches about frocks and wedding-dresses (“So that’s what he thinks women are good for!”), his political career would probably have been brief.
Prime Minister Gillard also showed an astonishing lack of judgement in trying to defend the appointment of the Honourable and Reverend Peter Slipper, even after the Revd Mr Slipper’s vile text messages came to light. No doubt these will provide smutty amusement for future generations of historians. But the Prime Minister should have possessed enough sheer common sense to realise that in this gentleman she had a political hot potato which she couldn’t have held onto with any decorum for one moment longer.
Had she instead behaved with dignity or restricted herself to a single short statement, she might well have won some public sympathy. Instead, the quality of her prime ministership will from now onwards be indelibly associated with the record of her shrill, hectoring voice going on and on, her distinctive accent giving it an obsessive quality like a cracked record. Yet this is the characteristic behaviour of a woman by whose judgements the future of the nation may, in some future crisis, be decided.
Of course, all of this raises another more disturbing point — a suspicion that Julia Gillard’s whole performance was nothing more than a red herring. If so, we shall doubtless find out in due course.
Hal G.P. Colebatch, PhD, is a Perth author and lawyer. His latest book, The Modest Member: The Life and Times of Bert Kelly, was reviewed by Jeffry Babb in the previous edition of News Weekly.