By now, you’ve probably seen the video of Prime Minister Julia Gillard spending the better part of 15 minutes calling the Leader of the Opposition a misogynist in parliament yesterday. But as satisfying as it was to see Tony Abbott get the verbal smackdown long due him (and I don’t deny there’s a lot of satisfaction to be had) it should be put in context.
Abbott’s ‘problem with women’ has been in the headlines for a while now, and it’s hardly out of character for him to attempt to turn a personal attack onto the PM herself. His fall guy was Peter Slipper, whose vile sexist text messages have been put on the public record, and whose career as Speaker was quite obviously on a time limit. Gillard’s speech was a response to that challenge. It is in no way irrelevant that despite it being a smart – and unprecedented – move to speak to the currently running narrative about sexism so bluntly, and to attack Abbott so openly on his quite obvious misogyny, she was doing so in defence of Slipper.
If winning or losing in politics was merely a matter of who had the best one-liners to throw along with their stones, then Gillard won yesterday hands down. But politics is not simply about whip-smart wisecracks and cutting speeches. It’s about policies and practices, legislation and social organisation.
Yesterday, the Gillard government also passed welfare reforms through the Senate that will cut single parent payments between $56 and $140 a week. This is a measure that will disproportionately affect women, and particularly those in the sectors of society that the Labor Party is traditionally supposed to represent. And yet, when the heavily debated reforms finally came to a vote in the Senate, only the Greens and Independents Madigan and Xenophon voted against it.
It’s been said before but it bears repeating: standing up for women’s rights is not just about calling sexism for what it is. It’s about agitating for specific change. It’s about making concrete demands of society and of the government. So if this is feminism that Gillard is representing in parliament, then I want to know, whose feminism is it? I don’t care how many sharp speeches she makes: her government is making life for some of the most vulnerable women in Australia even harder than it already is, and I want no part in it.
So here’s a call to arms. If we want to stand up for women, let’s start by standing up for these women. Let’s stand in the street and tell the federal government that this is not okay. That we want them to reverse the welfare cuts. That we want them to raise single parent pensions by $140 a week. That single parents undertaking study should be given more support, not less. Because this would make a qualitative difference to the lives of many women in Australia. This would be a win.