A blistering attack by Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard labeling Australia’s opposition leader a misogynist has gained global attention, but sparked a divisive reaction about her judgement and the role of sexism in politics.
Gillard, the nation’s first female leader, lashed out on Tuesday at Australian leader of the opposition Tony Abbott after he called for the removal of former speaker of the Australian House of Representatives Peter Slipper over lurid text messages, which referenced female genitalia.
Slipper, who stood aside in April amid claims of gay sexual harassment, survived an opposition motion to dump him with the support of Gillard and her ruling Labor Party, but later resigned.
During the debate, a fired-up Gillard accused Abbott of hypocrisy, saying she had been offended by many of his remarks over the years and she would not be “lectured about sexism and misogyny by this man.”
Her tough comments went viral and won international praise.
However, her decision to defend Slipper, whom she was instrumental in appointing to bolster Labor’s voting numbers, while at the same time criticizing Abbott, was slammed in Australia.
Australian Deputy Leader of the Opposition Julie Bishop accused Gillard of using sexism as a weapon against criticism and said women deserved better.
“The prime minister is setting back the cause of women decades by using sexism as a shield against criticisms of her performance,” Bishop said. “Instead of being remembered as Australia’s first female prime minister, she’ll be remembered as the prime minister who let down the women of Australia when she was put to the test.”
Abbott also weighed in, saying it was time “everyone in this parliament moved on from the gender card which so many members of the government have been playing.”
The media were also critical, with the Sydney Morning Herald saying Gillard faced the stark choice of defending her parliamentary numbers, or defending the principle of respect for women.
“She chose to defend her numbers,” said the newspaper’s political editor, Peter Hartcher. “She chose power over principles. It was the wrong choice. The prime minister gained nothing and lost a great deal.”
Elsewhere, her scathing words were praised, with US feminist blog Jezebel calling her “badass.”
Another online US media outlet, The Daily Beast, said: “Margaret Thatcher must be smiling,” while The New Yorker said US President Barack Obama could learn debating tips from Gillard.
Gillard’s colleagues also defended her reaction to Abbott’s “outrageous personal abuse.”
“He calls her names across the table, repeatedly,” Australian Minister for Family, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs Jenny Macklin said, while Australian Minister for Health Tanya Plibersek said there was a key difference between Abbott and Slipper.
“The difference between Peter Slipper and Tony Abbott is Peter Slipper takes responsibility, he puts his hand up, he apologizes, he acknowledges it’s wrong, and he resigns,” she said.
Slipper’s demise was a blow to Gillard, who last year engineered his promotion to speaker after he defected from Abbott’s Liberal Party.
That move lost the opposition one vote and shored up Labor’s wafer-thin hold on power.
Following his departure and the promotion of Anna Burke to speaker, Labor has 70 members of parliament on the floor to the coalition’s 72. There are seven crossbenchers, with Labor needing the support of five to win any votes.