By Alex Mitchell
Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s speech in the House of Representatives on October 9 was one of the finest pieces of parliamentary oratory you are ever likely to hear. It was bold, stirring, direct and compelling. I urge you to find it on the web and listen to it in full.
The last person to make a speech of such quality was probably Gough Whitlam in the Old Parliament House 40 years ago. Another great speaker, Paul Keating, delivered his best speeches outside the house and not at the despatch box.
The coverage by the Canberra Press Gallery was misleading and simply wrong. In unison they argued that Ms Gillard was guilty of hypocrisy because she did not condemn Peter Slipper’s sexist text messages and hyperbole because she accused Tony Abbott of being a misogynist. The first charge is a complete furphy because Ms Gillard stated in her address to MPs: “On the conduct of Mr Slipper, and on the text messages that are in the public domain, I have seen the press reports of those text messages. I am offended by their content. I am offended by their content because I am always offended by sexism. I am offended by their content because I am always offended by statements that are anti-women.”
As to the second charge of Abbott’s misogyny the Prime Minister dealt with this very convincingly when she said: “… if he 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. That’s what he needs.” Hear, hear.
The PM’s speech served to highlight the herd mentality of the Press Gallery. They follow each other like cattle on the way to the milking stalls. Their uniform response underlined the gallery’s lack of political sophistication and nous. A moment of history was enacted on the floor of the chamber and none of them recognised it for what it was.
The speech went global and earned an editorial in the London Guardian but was misread as just another day at the office by those watching from the press gallery.
Over the following days they scrambled to justify their slothful and skewed coverage of Ms Gillard’s speech. Not one came clean and said, “We got it wrong”. Yet these are the same people who are perpetually calling on Ministers and MPs to apologise for their lapses and misdeeds. I would simply say, what’s good for the goose …
THE COST OF BEING INSTITUTIONALISED
The gallery will argue that is a collection of free spirits reporting national politics with independence and integrity. If that is the case, how come they always sound the same and share the same opinions? In the case of Ms Gillard’s immensely powerful speech they reacted uniformly. What’s most devastating is that the women journalists were as one with their male colleagues. It was as if they were reading/speaking from the same script. (I exempt the brilliant Laura Tingle of the Australian Financial Review).
Why is this so? The Press Gallery is an institution of the institution of parliament. As such, it is institution within an institution. The ones who have inhabited the gallery sub-institution for years – the lifers – become institutionalised (I exempt the ever-questioning Laurie Oakes, political editor of Channel Nine). The novices quickly fall under the powerfully pervasive culture of both institutions – parliament and the gallery – and they become embedded too.
When the female journalists lined up with their male colleagues to criticise Ms Gillard’s speech they found themselves at odds with the majority of professional women and leading women’s rights advocates such as Anne Summers.
They had misread the politics of the speech, its timing and its significance and they should have been applauding her powerful rejection of Abbott’s publicity-seeking, point-scoring motion with a speech which was all the more remarkable because it was delivered on the spot without any preparation or notes.
Forty-eight hours after his motion failed Abbott and his henchmen were caught red-handed and their hypocrisy exposed when it was revealed they were seeking the odious Slipper’s vote in future divisions.
LABOR FACING SHOVEL-READY VOTERS
Will Julia Gillard’s magnificent speech in parliament boost her popularity rating and Labor’s prospects at the next federal election? No it won’t. Labor’s fate is sealed and gender politics will not improve its miserable standing with the electorate. While she was correct to bucket Abbott over his opportunistic and hypocritical motion in the house, she would be ill-advised to pursue the argument for any perceived electoral advantage. There isn’t one. Labor’s problems won’t be resolved by establishing a firewall against sexism – however necessary that is – but by elaborating a social and economic programme based on equity, justice and an improved future for the 99 per cent. Sadly, no one in the current ALP believes in such a programme.