I was nervous about looking back at the words I wrote on 9 October, 2012. I didn’t think my reporting would be terrible, I just doubted I’d be proud of it. Back then, my primary job was liveblogging federal politics. The Age, the broadsheet newspaper I worked for then, was transforming itself into a digital-first news agency. The transition was brutal. There was mass job shedding as the internet blew a hole in our business models. Journalists wondered what journalism actually was in this new age, and there were turf wars going on inside Fairfax as the newspaper and digital arms were integrated.
Live reporting was a refuge from those existential uncertainties. In that mode, I covered parliament in 10-or-15-minute intervals, sometimes posting for 12 hours at a time. We were making this style of reporting up as we went. Readers had a voracious appetite for news as it happened, and we were trying to migrate the old newspaper values to live reportage in the new world. None of this scene setting is an excuse, it’s just context. I’m scoping out my professional milieu as I sat, plugged into the matrix, and listened to Julia Gillard hurling the words that became the misogyny speech – a set of words powerful enough to travel around the world.
That day in the 43rd parliament was much like all the others. Labor governed in minority and every day was a struggle. My first post on the live blog that day was at 9.30am. This was a late start because I’d been out watching Gillard at a breakfast event outside the parliament. My last post on the blog on that day was at 10.35pm that night.
We’ll get to the specifics of the day shortly, but first some broad scene setting about the 43rd parliament. The Gillard government lacked a majority in both chambers but it had an ambitious policy agenda that it pursued relentlessly through the rollercoaster of contested party leadership. As Labor legislated a carbon price, paid parental leave and a national disability insurance scheme, Kevin Rudd hungered to return to the prime ministership he lost in 2010. As Labor slogged forward, battling what felt like a game of inches, the endorphin-charged opposition leader, Tony Abbott, intent on victory, engineered a daily sense of crisis in the parliament.
Abbott was a creature of institutions – Riverview, Oxford, the seminary, the Liberal party – and understood how to harness their power. Federal parliament was his playground. The pugilistic sound stage suited him. He moved near-daily suspensions of the standing orders – a procedure used to disrupt the parliamentary program – to create a palpable sense of the Gillard government teetering on the edge of collapse. Abbott was expert at cueing Australia’s rightwing media – the Murdoch-owned metropolitan tabloids, the national broadsheet the Australian, the “just us blokes” zone of talkback radio – and he used the content hungry white-water news cycle to amplify a governance crisis he fomented with ferocious precision.
On the day of the misogyny speech, the House of Representatives Speaker, Peter Slipper, was embroiled in a serious controversy. Labor had wooed Slipper, a Liberal, to the Speaker’s chair in an effort to bolster its control of the chamber. On that day in October, Abbott had moved to have Slipper removed as the Speaker. This followed the release of crude text messages Slipper had sent to a former adviser, James Ashby. The messages had surfaced in a sexual harassment case Ashby had launched against Slipper. Abbott was again on the offensive. “This Speaker had failed the character test,” he thundered in the parliament, adding Gillard had “failed the judgment test” by appointing him as a presiding officer.
Shame was Abbott’s rhetorical weapon of choice. “Should she (she being the prime minister) rise in this place to try to defend the Speaker, to say that she retains confidence in the Speaker, she will shame this parliament again,” Abbott said. “And every day the prime minister stands in this parliament to defend this Speaker will be another day of shame for this parliament, another day of shame for a government which should already have died of shame.”
I said before shame was Abbott’s rhetorical weapon of choice. Not just Abbott’s. A mate of the former prime minister’s, the Sydney radio shock jock Alan Jones, had contended just a few weeks earlier that Gillard’s late father, John, had “died of shame” because of his daughter’s political “lies” – slander he later had to walk back. At the same event where Jones sprayed his bile, a signed chaff bag was also auctioned off. This particular curio was a reference to an earlier observation from Jones that Gillard should be put into a chaff bag and thrown out to sea. Treachery was the trope of choice; Gillard’s behaviour, from the infamous empty fruit bowl to taking the Labor leadership rather than waiting for her turn, was unwomanly and therefore worthy of condemnation. The language deployed by the phalanx of Gillard haters was like a relay, ad hominem passed hand to hand, and conveyed up the field.
Abbott said nothing of his own shame, or the Liberal party’s shame by association, having preselected Slipper to stand as a Queensland representative, election after election. In the past, Abbott had attended Slipper’s wedding and referred to him as a friend. Abbott’s hypocrisy hovered thick in the air. We could all see it, but it was measured by the self-exonerating yardsticks of politics and the rampant “both sides-ism” deep etched in political journalism. In the way of politics, Abbott’s hypocrisy both mattered and did not matter, because the default is everyone is politics is capable of self-serving behaviour. Politics is built on fair-weather friendships, shifting alliances and transactional betrayal. That’s the sand on which the vocation stands and, periodically, sinks.
So reporters focused on the nuts and bolts of another huge day. Would Slipper survive as Speaker? Would this uproar spiral into a confidence vote? Would the Gillard government be shaken to its core? In the moment, and the 24/7 media cycle is all about the moment, this question felt important. Crucial, even.
Bear in mind the Hansard to this day records Gillard’s now iconic remarks perfunctorily as “Motions” “Speaker” “Speech”. My head was in those things – motions, Speaker, speech – in the minutiae of those things. The procedure I was documenting live was a series of moves on a chess board, moves I’d been trained to witness and report with clinical detachment. Of course, I heard Gillard’s words of rebuttal – which is what the misogyny speech was – a rebuttal of Abbott and his move against Slipper. I appreciated Gillard’s concision, her melodic repetitions, I will not; the fierce intelligence of a professional advocate informing another parliamentary improvisation. I glimpsed the white-hot anger she’d kept leashed in the prime ministership behind a visage of ironic detachment. On that day, during that hour, in those moments, Gillard thrummed like an Exocet. At 2.45pm I posted on my live blog: The prime minister’s voice is shaking. Rage? Nerves? Both?
Gillard was always brutal in parliament; withering and droll. The misogyny speech wasn’t some rhetorical bolt from the blue, it was the apotheosis of long practised lawyerly and parliamentary technique. It’s likely I cheered privately, in my mind, at some of her turns of phrase. I’m reasonably confident I did. I recall Wayne Swan’s face, a flicker of something, I thought unease because Swan often looked anxious in those anxious times, but perhaps it was admiration, as Gillard unleashed rhetorical blow after rhetorical blow. I also recall studying Abbott’s face as he watched Gillard skewer him across the dispatch box. At first, the opposition leader looked entirely pleased with himself. Later, a shadow of something – not remorse, obviously, that’s too much, it was something else – self-awareness perhaps? In any case, the impulse was quickly suppressed.
Gillard was fighting for her prime ministership, for her dignity, for her reputation, for fair treatment, for a measure of respect. This was an epic battle requiring inhuman levels of fortitude. It seems bizarre to me now how much we discounted that fact, how much we took her stoicism for granted, almost as if it were something we and the voting public were owed. We discounted it because Gillard did that most days. That’s one of the reasons we, the journalists who wrote the first draft of history on that day, missed the cultural power of the contribution, or rather looked through it. We discounted the essence of the speech because we were creatures of the Canberra cloisters. We were mired in those intrigues, masters of that environment, striving always for perfect fluency, for the authoritative translation. Our theatre of battle was intraday politics, and intraday politics was a battle Australia’s first female prime minister was losing.
When Gillard came to power, I celebrated that achievement like most Australian women. Her ascendancy seemed both remarkable and the natural way of things. As it should and must be. When the toxicity started, and it started almost immediately – Lady Macbeth, Ditch the Witch, Bob Brown’s Bitch; the oversized focus on the wardrobe, the earlobes, the suboptimal boyfriend, the chaff bag, the “small breasts, huge thighs and the big red box” (which was one depiction of the prime minister on a dinner menu at a Liberal party fundraiser in 2013) – I looked through the torrent of sexism and misogyny as one would survey a distant object shrouded in fog. Present in the line of sight, but somehow obscured.
Obviously all this was grotesque – an unreconstructed, gendered beatdown that could have only happened with cultural impunity in the pre-#MeToo era. The sexism Australia’s first female prime minister faced certainly wasn’t lost on me. I called it out periodically. I was so enraged by the allegedly comic At Home with Julia satire on the ABC in 2011 I sought some column inches in my newspaper to let rip.
But at some level I couldn’t process what was happening. I couldn’t fathom it. I understood that male entitlement remained a cultural default, but the male entitlement informing the gratuitous critique of Gillard’s looks, idioms and character by some of her political opponents, and some Neanderthal media figures, undermined truths about progress that I believed to be absolute. Without ever being particularly conscious of this being a decision, or an active accommodation I was making, I minimised the whole phenomenon in my mind. Most of the time, I put evidence that felt too awful to process into a box.
Periodically I unlocked the box and interrogated the contents. I coached myself to look beyond what was very obviously in front of me. This visceral backlash had to be more complicated than the fact Gillard was a woman occupying space that a man thought was rightfully his. Obviously, Australia’s 27th prime minister had her flaws, like every other occupant of the office. Being prime minister is a tough job. Every stumble is magnified, nobody thanks you for being competent. There were the contested circumstances of Gillard obtaining the leadership, regicidal conditions licensing loaded rhetoric like treachery, and shame. Back when I was a teenager, Richard Carleton had asked Bob Hawke whether he felt “a little embarrassed tonight by the blood that is on your hands” in a famous television interview after Hawke took the leadership from Bill Hayden. In the same genre, when Gillard took the leadership, Julia Irwin, a Labor MP, noted “not since Brutus stabbed Julius Caesar have we seen such an act of betrayal”. Politics was a tough business, robust criticism was an equal opportunity sport, and Gillard had proven herself the toughest of all – tough enough to move Rudd out of his prime ministerial office because a “good government had lost its way”.
So it was complicated, genuinely, and not just for me. Having sought to be a prime minister for all Australians, Gillard clearly did not want to style herself as a feminist martyr or as the prime minister for women. That would have gratified her enemies, leached energy from her prime ministership and stranded her in the cul-de-sac no professional woman wants to be in – the one where you are defined exclusively by gender. I suspect many of Gillard’s female contemporaries in Labor felt the same sort of cognitive dissonance and internal conflicts as I did, so bit their tongues.
But it was there. It was always there. That persistent undercurrent of animosity, of fury directed at a woman with the temerity to silence male power in the highest office in the land.
Good women are supposed to be ambivalent about power; to ask for it nicely, with charm, not force.
Nice girls don’t carry knives.
Gillard has described the misogyny speech as “a crack point”. In September 2013, she said: “I thought after everything I have experienced, I have to listen to Tony Abbott lecture me about sexism? That gave me the emotional start to the speech and once I started, it took on a life of its own”. A couple of years ago, Ben Rhodes, a former adviser to Barack Obama, confessed that presidential staff used to fire up the video of the speech at points when the administration was angry or frustrated with Tony Abbott. “That speech got watched a lot in the Obama White House, let me just put it that way,” Rhodes said in 2020.
For me, that speech is the Gillard prime ministership in microcosm. It showcases her fundamental capabilities, and the institutional limits she pressed up against from the moment she took the job. And the thing about the Gillard prime ministership is it picked me up and set me down in a different place.
I’m sure many Australian women had the same experience: the same forced recalibration of the notion of equality, and progress. When Gillard left office, I was more disconcerted than angry, more alive than I had ever been previously to pernicious structures of silencing. Political journalists are fascinated by power. We parse it in all its forms. We develop mud maps of institutions to better understand how power is allocated and exercised between groups and individuals. After Gillard, I understood that one of the relevant power dynamics to interrogate in Canberra was gender.
Can things change? Can we reach a point in time where a future female occupant of the Lodge won’t have to worry about facing the same treatment Gillard faced?
The answer to this question is simple. Things have already changed.
Sometimes change can be hard to see. But trust me, the progress of the past decade becomes much clearer if you go back and look at what was said about Gillard when she was prime minister; if you recap all the gendered vitriol and then try and imagine a universe where those things would be said, and amplified, now. A culture of impunity has shifted, in increments, to a culture of consequences.
When she left the prime ministership, Gillard predicted things would be easier for the woman who came next. At the time, that prediction felt incredibly optimistic. But I think she’s right. Gillard’s experiences in the prime ministership raised consciousness in Australia that the equality battle was far from over. The #MeToo movement has also shone light in dark corners, and given women a permission structure to talk about discrimination, harassment and predation.
Obviously, the patriarchy has not been routed. Obviously, progress isn’t linear. Progress is generally two steps forward, on step sideways and one back. But women occupying shared public space have become more comfortable about calling out atrocious behaviour. That’s what’s happened in the decade since Gillard stood at the dispatch box and let rip with that speech. Cultural change.
In Gillard’s former theatre of politics, there has also been practical change. The assault allegation made public in early 2021 sparked a rare session of introspection among Australia’s political class. Politics was compelled to assess its own customs, standards, behaviours, expectations. Scott Morrison commissioned an independent review by Australia’s sex discrimination commissioner, Kate Jenkins, which found that one in three staffers interviewed had been sexually harassed while working in commonwealth parliamentary workplaces. Jenkins recommended significant changes to human resources practices in political offices.
The 2022 federal election result provides another measure of tangible progress. Morrison’s inept handling of parliament’s own #MeToo moment infuriated many women. In the run-up to the campaign, we saw the birth of a feminised political movement – the so-called “teal” independents. The “doctor’s wives” (of the hoary old political pundits’ cliché in Australia) had become the doctors, hankering for their own buffer state in our democracy. These independents picked up six seats in the Liberal party’s metropolitan heartland on a platform of gender equality, climate action and integrity in politics – the biggest electoral realignment on the centre-right in Australia since the advent of the Australian Democrats in the 1970s.
After leaving political life, Gillard has continued to enlarge the space for women’s leadership. Unlike some of her contemporaries, she has not hovered on the edges of politics, relitigating her legacy. But Gillard did return to the fray for the 2022 campaign – a campaign that seemed to bookend a year in which Australian women insisted on being heard. Labor was promising voters cheaper childcare, pay equity, and stronger protections against sexual harassment at work.
On 20 May, 2022, Gillard stood next to Anthony Albanese in Adelaide. Instead of being intent on filing as I was back in October 2012, I permitted myself the luxury of standing up from my desk and wandering to a place in my office where I could watch the press conference. It was so rare to see Gillard engaged on the hustings, it was obvious she had something to say, and I wanted to listen rather than process the event journalistically.
Gillard spoke to the women who had stopped in their offices at work, or looked up from their caring responsibilities a decade earlier to listen when Australia’s first female prime minister demanded something better than sexist invective. I will not. She launched a call to action. “If you want to make a better choice, please, tomorrow, go to your ballot places, go to your polling stations and vote Labor and vote for Albo to be prime minister – I’m very confident it will be a government for women”.
On May 21, Morrison was swept from office. On May 23, Albanese was sworn in as the 31st prime minister of Australia.
This is an edited extract from Not Now, Not Ever, edited by Julia Gillard, out 5 October 2022 through Vintage Australia
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism