Now the Dust has Settled

Has anyone else been feeling insultingly patronised by the MSM this past week? The embarrassment of completely misreading the wider impact of the Prime Minister’s speech (you know, that one) was such that most high-profile newspaper columnists spent the rest of the week explaining to readers exactly why we were the ones who didn’t get it, not them. They understood better than us because they were thinking about – Context!

However, context is never one piece of information. In this instance it is best thought of as a series of concentric circles. The Canberra press gallery saw context as extending only as far as that day, in that room. Most did not try to stretch beyond assuming that Gillard’s argument against the proposed motion was an attempt to keep the voting numbers stable by hanging on to Slipper as Speaker. That would suggest a government more hopelessly naive than grossly cynical. It was obvious by then that Slipper was going down, the tactical move was in making sure that Abbott did not go on record as having proposed a successful motion emanating from a newly discovered objection to sexism. Lenore Taylor calls this Labor spin, part of the context that is supposed to help us see the tawdriness of the whole event. But expand the context by one level, to the point of thinking about the parliamentary record as a permanent historic document, not just something that exists on that day, and denying Abbott the chance to score such a deeply undeserved point looks not just legitimate, but imperative. Gillard’s decision to respond as she did means that instead of Abbott forever after being able to refer that that time he struck a blow for the dignity of women, what will be found in Hansard is a conveniently collated list of many of the more appalling things the Opposition Leader has said and done.

The next step out in the circle of context is that Australia has an extraordinarily powerful anti-whinging culture. At all costs don’t dob, don’t whine, suck it up and show you’re tough enough to take it. There’s no other way to be respected. No attitude could be better arranged to serve bullies. It’s perfect for them. In fact, it requires them, to facilitate the test of someone’s mettle. In further context, both the no-whingers attitude and the bullies are perfect servants of the status quo. This speech was a direct challenge to that shameful and damaging aspect of our culture. That is context, too, and just as relevant.

I’ve got more context for you: the historic kind. The discussion of Gillard’s speech as being no more than a building block in a Labor strategy to put female voters off Abbott pinions the columnists so far within the central circle as to make the idea of context a joke. Framing the pointing out of his sexism as merely an attempt to make Abbott appear less personally appealing neglects the realities of the power of the role he aspires to. You know what the actual context of that is? That having a sexist PM will have a tangible effect on the ability of the female half of the electorate to live their lives. That reminding people of that is not only legitimate, but responsible. When a man is in charge who believes that men are better physiologically and temperamentally suited to command, we know from history that what follows is a self-fulfilling prophesy of fewer women being appointed to positions of authority. Remember what happened to women employed by Harvard when Larry Summers was President? The number making tenure dropped further each year that he held the post. In Australia, we have already felt the real-world consequences of a Prime Minister who believed women had a place they should stay in. To refuse to acknowledge this as a legitimate concern that the public might have is to ignore history still vividly recalled by the majority of voters.

The blitheness with which columnists have scoffed at the idea that Abbott might even be sexist, let alone misogynist is such that I am seriously beginning to doubt their ability to cognitively process proffered evidence. Were they so busy taking shorthand in their stenographers’ notebooks that they didn’t actually hear the list of his past actions that Gillard recited? Have they not been doing their background reading, to be aware of the ones she left out? If there is anyone who should not be giving lectures on the influence of context on the meaning extracted from statements made, it is people whose entire livelihood is based on immersing themselves in the briny waters of sociopolitical discourse, and yet have not absorbed how routine it is to respond to a criticism of sexist behaviour with mutterings about the “gender card”. It’s not only a sign that you don’t have an argument, it’s a cliché. If they aren’t familiar enough with the context provided by the entire history of talking about sexism, they need to spend some more time online.

You know what goes nicely with context? Perspective. In one of the more ridiculous columns immediately after the speech, Peter Hartcher claimed that the Prime Minister, in choosing to speak as she did, “gained nothing and lost a great deal.” Trapped in his tiny, central circle, he could only see that the speaker would be gone by the end of the day, anyway. Stepping outside that circle, a politician might be thinking about what they will have to look back on. A legacy might at times be less tangible than legislation passed, or roads and schools built. As Jane Caro pointed out (on Channel 9’s Mornings, link is to the Media Watch segment that includes the clip), people will be quoting this speech for decades, long after nobody remembers who Peter Slipper is.

Ultimately, Julia Baird located the incident where it belongs when she spoke of how Gillard “made a speech millions of women have rehearsed in their heads for years – against a colleague, boss or opponent they consider to be obnoxious or sexist – but never made.” As a result, the verb “to Gillard” is now in circulation, meaning to verbally eviscerate someone in sore need of it. Now that, my friends, is context.

Categories: gender & feminism, media, parties and factions

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17 replies

  1. Hear, hear.

  2. I certainly have felt patronised. At times it was as if I had suddenly woken in a parallel universe where everything I had heard said by Julia Gillard had never happened. I was so impressed by her manner and the way she quoted actual instances and they were simply being brushed over – and sadly not only by male commentators.

  3. One thing which appears to have been missed in all the talk of “context” is that what Julia Gillard’s speech did (besides ripping the Leader of the Opposition a new one) was put his motion of censure into its correct context as a politically opportunist move in and of itself.
    Consider: in the course of a fifteen minute speech, Ms Gillard pointed out that firstly, sexist sentiments about women are not something the Leader of the Opposition has ever restrained himself from airing on a personal basis; secondly, he was a personal friend of Mr Slipper long before Mr Slipper became Speaker of the House of Representatives; and thirdly, Mr Abbott was well aware of (and most likely agreed with) the kinds of views about women Mr Slipper held years before the text messages for which he was attempting to excoriate Mr Slipper were ever made.
    So, in context, his attempt to get Peter Slipper pushed out of the job of Speaker was basically political opportunism of the most blatant and base kind, wrapped up in a cynical attempt to grab the moral high ground. And of course, all of it was just a move to try and get himself framed as being “pro-woman”, when in actual fact his agenda is one of the more blatantly anti-woman ones out there.
    If we have to talk about the context of Ms Gillard’s speech, let’s also talk about the context of Mr Abbott’s motion.

  4. What a great analysis.
    Since just about everyone writing for the MSM has seen fit to give us his or her 2 cents about the PM’s speech I’ve discovered some interesting things, such as that Annabel Crabb is willing to employ the “things are so much worse in the third world” non-argument, and that John Birmingham can’t hear past Julia Gillard’s accent. It’s all been very revealing. I’ve especially enjoyed reading blokes who clearly haven’t thought about the topic all that much over the years explaining to us gals why we aren’t allowed to use the word “misogyny” unless they give us the go-ahead.

  5. Spot on Megpie71. Not a single journalist has mentioned the context in which Abbott put forward the motion. But they never do, do they? They have this idea that the way they hold the Government to account is by opposing everything, but all that does is make them the Opposition. Fact-checking claims made by the Government and the Opposition is how you hold them to account. Getting non-political expert comment on claims made by the Government and the Opposition is how you hold them to account. Were journalists always this naive?

  6. I’ve seen it pointed out in a few places too that the legacy media political journalists are missing a crucial factor in dismissing the huge positive reaction to Gillard’s speech on the twittersphere and blogosphere and facebook etc as unrepresentative of what ordinary Australians want to know about politics: that it’s not generally “ordinary Australians” who actually read their columns regularly – the consumers of their columns are exactly the politragics of the twitter/blogo/fb-sphere who share these links all the time, and the consumers of their columns are precisely the ones who are telling them that they are out of touch.

  7. Most did not try to stretch beyond assuming that Gillard’s argument against the proposed motion was an attempt to keep the voting numbers stable by hanging on to Slipper as Speaker. That would suggest a government more hopelessly naive than grossly cynical. It was obvious by then that Slipper was going down, the tactical move was in making sure that Abbott did not go on record as having proposed a successful motion emanating from a newly discovered objection to sexism.

    The government had known the content of Slipper’s SMS for quite a while before they became public. And it should have been blindingly obvious to the government that once they did Abbott would move a motion against the speaker (this is the guy who like clockwork tries to censure the PM or some other minister each question time.
    So except for trying to hold on to the extra vote why didn’t they (perhaps quietly) push Slipper out themselves sooner? It would have avoided the perception of hypocrisy as well as avoided giving Abbott a win the lower house.

  8. Brilliant. Thank you.

  9. Great post.
    I was particularly disappointed in Lenore Taylor’s article. Some extracts:

    Or like the context that the speech was given to defend the indefensible, namely the continuation of Peter Slipper in the role of speaker after the latest ream of offensive and explicit text messages were revealed.

    She was arguing that the Parliament should not vote for Slipper’s removal.

    From Gillard’s speech

    I am offended by those text messages but I also believe that, in making a decision about the speakership, this parliament should recognise that there is court case in progress and that the judge has reserved his decision. Having waited for a number of months for the legal matters surrounding Mr Slipper to come to a conclusion, this parliament should see that conclusion. I believe that is the appropriate path forward and that people will then have an opportunity to make up their minds with the fullest information available to them.

    All four Labor speakers disapproved of Slipper’s texts, and argued that Parliament’s consideration of the matter should take place once the legal proceedings were finalised. Daryl Melham pointed out that the Speaker should be present and have the opportunity to defend himself.
    These are not trivial points. Reading the texts makes clear that Mal Brough was involved in choosing the nuclear option of Ashby bringing a legal complaint. It was designed to explode Slipper’s career with maximum publicity.
    Abbott’s strategy of bringing a motion without notice during question time was a political stunt and part of his broader strategy of trashing parliament to make it look chaotic and unworkable in its minority form.
    These are some of the contexts the MSM almost invariably ignored showing they don’t listen, have tin ears or have internalised LNP spin.

  10. Great post. When you invoke context, you have to think of the whole context of the speech,not just the Peter Slipper context.

  11. Jennifer, in my view the speech needs to be seen in a number of contexts. One question is why Abbott chose the examples he did. Basically he chose two: the one about shell-less mussels in a jar and the other where he was supposed to have called Sophie Mirabella an “ignorant botch” when discussing why he as Deputy Speaker threw her out of parliament just before the vote on the carbon price legislation.
    The second, read in context, is designed to give a false impression of bias on Slipper’s part. In fact the words were Asby’s. Slipper responded that she was “smart” but took things too far. Then he made a bit of a joke about Ashby’s misspelling.
    On the first, the more important aspect of the early part of the relationship when Ashby was not working for Slipper full-time was Slipper’s persistent and intrusive questioning of Ashby about whether he was having sex with his friend.
    The more important part revealed in the texts was later on, when Ashby was an employee, when Slipper appeared to seek a sexual relationship with Ashby, even after Ashby had made it clear he wasn’t interested.
    This evidence is not completely clearcut, and it will be interesting to see what the judge makes of it.
    The point here is that it was Abbott who played the sexism/mysogyny card by highlighting certain aspects, when other parts of the evidence were more pertinent to Slipper’s suitability as Speaker. The way Abbott went about it revealed him as a ruthless politician who had no thought for the personal impact on Slipper and others who will suffer collateral damage, rather than as a responsible parliamentarian.

  12. Hear! Hear! I don’t think I have anything to add, except my wholehearted support. THIS. IN SPADES.

  13. I really loved this post. Thank you for writing it.

  14. Has anyone else been feeling insultingly patronised by the MSM this past week?

    Suspect I’ve been enjoying the usual level of patronisation from the MSM… 😉
    Thanks for this post – it needed to be said.

  15. A couple of links. Mary Crooks talking to Steve Austin about her monograph, A Switch in Time and Anne Summers on Radio Adelaide Breakfast. Mary Crooks thinks the Gillard speech was ‘Nicky Winmar’ moment. For the uninitiated that was when Aboriginal player Nicky Winmar who had been vilified racially lifted his jumper and pointed at his skin.
    BTW ABC RN is routinely saying that Gillard played the race card, and Abbott is talking about “Labor smear”.

  16. Both the links in the above comment are courtesy of The Victorian Women’s Trust where Mary Crooks is Executive Director.

  17. Good links, Brian! blue milk posted an excerpt from an article by George Megalogenis (paywalled) which points out how well-timed Gillard’s speech was in terms of waiting for a moment when Abbott had clearly over-reached, thus optimising its impact; and Mr Denmore has a summary of the general newspaper vs blogs/social-media division which the coverage of Gillard’s speech so clearly highlights.

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