Sue Kedgley: Gillard speech on sexism lauded

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Women in Parliament have to endure a torrent of abuse.

Australia's Prime Minister Julia Gillard has put up with a lot. Photo / AP
Australia's Prime Minister Julia Gillard has put up with a lot. Photo / AP

Australia is always being held up as an example for New Zealand to follow. But who could admire the toxic way they do politics in Australia, or the way politics is covered in the Australian media?

Australian politicians have to put up with a level of abuse and vitriol in their media that is fortunately not yet common over here - such as radio personality Alan Jones saying on air that Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard should be put in a chaff bag and taken out to sea.

Inflammatory comments like these seem to be considered acceptable, in the Australian media context, although thankfully, his more recent statement that Julia Gillard's father died of shame from her daughter's lies, has provoked outrage.

I have always wondered how Julia Gillard has put up with the constant torrent of sexist abuse and innuendo she has been subjected to over the years, in the media, and by other politicians.

There's the sneering comments about her childlessness; the endless derogatory comments about her clothes, her appearance, her boyfriend; and the Australians who wave banners in front of the television cameras, describing her as a witch or a lying bitch.

There's the vitriolic comments by shock jocks such as Alan Jones, and the constant put downs by male parliamentarians, in particular, the Leader of the Opposition, Tony Abbott.

No male prime minister would have been subjected to such a constant stream of abuse. Well, Julia Gillard finally fought back in Parliament last week with a stunning, fiery speech, where she castigated Opposition leader Tony Abbott for his relentless sexism and misogyny, quoting from his recent comments.

"If Tony Abbott wants to know what misogyny looks like in modern Australia, he doesn't need a motion in the House of Representatives," she declared. "He needs a mirror."

It was electrifying to see a Prime Minister telling it like it is, standing up in Parliament in front of Tony Abbott, declaring that she would not tolerate his bullying or misogyny any more.

"I will not be lectured about sexism or misogyny by this man. I will not," she declared furiously.

Her speech immediately went viral on YouTube, and has been receiving accolades right around the world.

I cheered as I watched her speak, and I suspect many women politicians would have done the same.

It seemed to be a rebuke for all the indignities women parliamentarians have suffered over the years - and the appalling treatment so many women in public life have had to endure.

Australian Green party leader Christine Milne hit the nail on the head when she said, "All female parliamentarians experience sexism - that's the reality".

It was certainly the reality for our former Prime Minister, Helen Clark, who had to put up with continuous snide comments about her childlessness and questions about her sexuality.

It was the reality too, for former Labour MP Sonja Davies.

On her first day in the House, John Banks (then in Opposition,) called out "here comes Granny!" And he continued to yell this out whenever she spoke in the House or met him in Parliament.

Journalist Barry Soper used to continuously refer to me as "Parliament's babe". Now Nicky Kaye and Jacinda Ahern are referred to as babes, and headlines in the media trumpeting "the battle of the babes", are commonplace.

I have seen female parliamentary colleagues described as "fishwives," "witches," or even "dried out". Normally women politicians are advised to ignore these sorts of comments and innuendos, which is why Julia Gillard's speech was so remarkable.

Let's hope her historic speech has put a line in the sand, for New Zealand as well as Australian women, and that in future others will stand up to sexist comments with the same courage and passion that she did.

Interestingly, Sonja Davies finally put a stop to the abuse she had to endure in Parliament when she stood up and demanded an end to it one day. When the then Leader of the House, Paul East, yelled out "here's Auntie", Sonja said the fire entered her soul.

She leapt to her feet and declared she wouldn't put up with ageist or sexist comments any more. And they stopped overnight.

- NZ Herald

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