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Australia's prime minister comes out swinging in sexism row

By Monica Attard for CNN
updated 10:00 AM EDT, Wed October 10, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Australian PM Julia Gillard hits out at opposition leader in parliament
  • Gillard was speaking out against a motion by Tony Abbott to sack Parliament speaker
  • Peter Slipper was accused of sending sexist and offensive text messages
  • Gillard condemned the texts but slammed Abbott's sexist behavior towards her

Sydney, Australia (CNN) -- "Smoking hot" was how many observers described Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard's blistering attack on sexism and misogyny in the bear pit of Australia's Parliament on Tuesday.

The roar of support from Australian women on Twitter was deafening. So too was their rage when the parliamentary press gallery almost uniformly condemned Gillard's excoriation of the Leader of the Opposition coalition, Tony Abbott, as hypocritical and showing poor political judgment.

For 15 minutes Gillard tore into Abbott before the Australian House of Representatives, the expression on his face going from a wry smile to embarrassment.

The occasion was a highly charged debate on a motion brought by Abbott to sack the Speaker of the House, Peter Slipper. Slipper, a coalition turncoat who helped the government bolster its numbers by taking up the highly paid position last year, stepped aside in April amid allegations of fraud and sexual harassment.

In court documents published last week, text messages between Slipper and his accuser in the sexual harassment action revealed deeply disturbing and offensive banter. In one of the messages, Slipper described female genitalia as looking like "a mussel removed from its shell." Abbott said the messages showed Slipper was not fit to be the standard-bearer of good behavior in Parliament. Gillard, while condemning the text messages, refused to support the motion to sack Slipper.

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'
Julia Gillard

Instead, she unfurled two years of pent up rage at the coalition leader for what she described as his own sexist, misogynistic attitude toward her and women generally.

Shock jock targets Gillard

"I will not be lectured about sexism and misogyny by this man. I will not," she said, pointing at Abbott. "And the government will not be lectured about sexism and misogyny by this man. Not now, not ever.

"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."

The prime minister then presented her evidence.

She reminded Abbott of his response to a question about lower female representation in positions of power: "What if men are by physiology or temperament more adapted to exercise authority or to issue command?" She then cited his statements that "abortion is the easy way out" and "what the housewives of Australia need to understand as they do the ironing ..." during a debate on the recently introduced carbon tax.

"I was offended too," Gillard continued, "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.

"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.'"

But the prime minister's anger turned into white-hot rage when she responded to Abbott's assertion, made during his speech in support of Tuesday's motion to sack the speaker, that every day Gillard supported Slipper was "another day of shame for a government which should already have died of shame."

I indicate to the leader of the opposition, the government is not dying of shame, my father did not die of shame.
Julia Gillard

Just a week earlier, a coalition-supporting commercial radio presenter, Alan Jones, provoked outrage across the nation when he told a gathering of young Liberals that the prime minister's recently deceased father had "died of shame."

The prime minister had refused to comment on the controversy. Yesterday she broke her silence:

"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," she said.

Not long after Abbot's motion narrowly failed in a parliamentary vote, with the prime minister victorious, Slipper resigned his post.

Gillard's speech has ignited excitement and debate internationally. The venerable New Yorker magazine implored U.S. President Barack Obama to learn a lesson from the way politics is played in Australia.

"After his performance last week, supporters of President Obama, watching Gillard cut through the disingenuousness and feigned moral outrage of her opponent to call him out for his own personal prejudice, hypocrisy, and aversion to facts, might be wishing their man would take a lesson from Australia," it intoned.

Britain's Guardian applauded Gillard for pulling no punches but noted the prime minister "isn't quite the stuff of feminist fantasies" because she has repeatedly refused to support same sex marriage in Australia.

From the journalists permanently reporting from the Australian Parliament, there were many questions -- in particular why the prime minister welcomed Peter Slipper's resignation over his bawdy and offensive text messages but was unprepared to sack him?

Peter Hartcher, political and international editor for the Sydney Morning Herald, led the charge. Gillard faced a choice, he wrote, "between the political defense of her parliamentary numbers or the defense of the principle of respect for women."

She made the wrong choice, wrote Hartcher. The prime minister chose power over principle in deciding not to support the sacking of the house speaker and in so doing, "The prime minister gained nothing and lost a great deal," he added.

Taking the pulse of social media, there are very few women who agree with him.

"Where does he get off taking the high moral ground pffft!" posted @abissicus on Twitter. "What utter s***" wrote @vikkiking88.

Australia now has a female prime minister, a female speaker of the House -- elected after Slipper resigned -- and a female governor-general.

Just another day in Australian politics.

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