- Popular Australian shock jock Alan Jones in clash with Prime Minister
- Just days after Gillard's father's death, Jones said he had "died of shame"
- Advertisers pulling funding from Jones' radio show, online campaign calls for his sacking
- Commentators say outrage may give Gillard an unexpected boost in the polls
Australia has a female prime minister. Her name is Julia Eileen Gillard.
Australia also has a shock jock commercial radio broadcaster and his name is Alan Belford Jones. His dislike of the prime minister is as legendary as his typically adoring, right-wing retiree listeners are loyal.
The two have been involved in an almighty collision that is proving commercially and politically disastrous for Jones and a likely polling gift for Gillard.
Jones is a former coach of the Australian National Rugby Union team who sought Liberal Party pre-selection in the late 1970s. He is also a determined climate change denier who 13 years ago was investigated over allegations of accepting commercial support from companies in exchange for favorable comment. Despite this, the take-no-prisoner broadcaster remains one of Australia's most popular and highly paid radio announcers.
Since she snatched the premiership from Kevin Rudd in 2010, Gillard claims she has been the target of persistent misogynist invective and otherwise abusive treatment that some commentators agree would not have been directed at a male incumbent.
If not her hair, then her distinctive drawl, physical attributes, and dress style have attracted negative comment in mainstream press and on social media, along with her de facto relationship with Tim Mathieson, a former hairdresser who is now in real estate.
However, in the past week, the disrespect flew off the Richter scale and the culprit was Jones.
Having ruled the airwaves for more than two decades with a very large, if aging audience, Jones has enraged and offended much of Australia. He took aim at the most tender and raw of emotions: the prime minister's palpable grief at the recent death of her beloved father, John Gillard, after a long illness.
"The old man died a few weeks ago of shame," Jones told a gathering of the Sydney University Young Liberals a week ago.
"To think that he had a daughter who told lies every time she stood for Parliament," he is heard saying on a recording of the event taken by a journalist from Rupert Murdoch's News Limited paper The Sunday Telegraph.
The "lie" Jones referred to was Prime Minister Gillard's promise before the 2010 election that no government she led would introduce a carbon tax. However, Gillard abandoned her stance when the election produced a hung parliament.
Jones has led several anti-carbon tax rallies and he has said that the prime minister should be better known as Ju-LIAR. He has suggested the guillotine be brought back to deal with her and that she be thrown to the sea in a chaff bag. Later he claimed that Gillard, along with a handful of other female political leaders, was "destroying the joint."
Jones claims his attacks on Gillard are squarely aimed at her policies, but some commentators, and Gillard herself, suspect that his barbs have more to do with her gender. His claim that Gillard's father died of shame was the last straw for campaigners on social media, many companies that advertise on Jones' show and some regional radio stations that buy his daily show.
A significant number of major companies, amongst them Mercedes Benz and supermarket giant Woolworths, have pulled valuable advertising from his show. On its Twitter profile, in response to a social media campaign, home wares store Freedom noted: "You spoke, we listened. We do not support the comments made by Alan Jones. We have pulled our advertising off the air."
Those which have not yet withdrawn their advertising dollars from the network are under intense pressure to follow suit.
Jones for his part has been less than contrite. In a rambling 45-minute media conference the day after the content of his speech was made public, he insisted he was merely "repeating" a comment he had heard at a social function. He said he had phoned Gillard to apologize, but she had refused to take his call. The prime minister said Wednesday that she wouldn't be speaking to Jones, nor would she appear on his show.
Two days after apologizing, Jones was back on air and his followers were backing him all the way. Even those who thought his comment offensive and distasteful threw their weight behind Jones: "I believe you were wrong in what you said, but I am so proud to have a man stand up and apologize," one listener told him.
Condemnation from the prime minister's Labor Party was swift. The leader of the opposition Liberal-National Party Coalition, Tony Abbott, a staunch friend of Jones, issued a brief statement, saying "Alan's remarks regarding the PM were completely out of line." "It's good that he's recognized this and apologized for them," he added.
Abbott now faces intense political pressure to go further and prevent Jones from attending any Liberal Party functions. It has been a difficult few weeks for the Coalition leader who, just a few weeks ago, was riding high in the polls. He has battled a perception that he has difficulty relating to women. He stands accused of being a misogynist himself over an alleged incident 30 years ago in which he's alleged to have punched the wall behind a female candidate after she won a student council election. Abbott denies the incident ever happened.
What impact the Jones affair will have on his polling is yet to be seen. While many commentators believe the Gillard's decision not to speak with Jones, on or off air, could result in a lift in the polls, others think if her cabinet supporters protest too loudly, the gains will be lost.
A reader poll in one newspaper showed an overwhelming desire for Jones' employer, the Macquarie Media Network, to sack him. And, at the time of writing, more than 100,000 people had signed an online petition calling for his dismissal.
Commentators say that it's unlikely he'll go. Jones is the company's fourth largest shareholder and as stockbroker Roger Coleman told the Crikey website: "His key listeners are over 55, they are right wing. They agree with him that Julia Gillard is a bitch and witch. There is no mismatch between him and his listeners."
Although the advertisers will likely return to the country's highest rating broadcaster, they might at the very least have cause to question Jones' dictum that it is women who are "destroying the joint." Gillard may prove the polls wrong too and end up running the joint for another three years after the 2013 election.