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Oct 10, 2012

So Peter Slipper slides out -- was it all worth it?

Peter Slipper's departure from the speaker's chair enables an assessment of exactly what Labor got from him and what price it paid. So was it all worth it?

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Peter Slipper, serial rat, frequenter of Canberra nightspots, creative user of travel expenses, brief prisoner of a parliamentary toilet, has left the speakership, allowing us to answer the question I posed about the government the day it made him speaker — “what price will it pay for elevating a man like Slipper?”

Labor ended up getting two things from Slipper: the opportunity to renege on its deal with Andrew Wilkie, which it did within two months of Slipper’s ascension, heading off a damaging campaign by the pokies industry and taking some ammunition from the resurgent Rudd forces. The other was the passage of its cuts to the private health insurance rebate, which only passed because Slipper was in the speaker’s chair. Slipper himself complained at the time that he wanted to vote against the bill.

Labor also got a more independent, indeed surprisingly effective, speaker, for all his weird fixation with playing dress-ups, although whether the Labor MPs (including Wayne Swan) who got turfed from the chamber by Slipper appreciated that isn’t clear. Bizarrely, Slipper actually leaves a strong legacy in terms of a better, if only because quicker, question time from his short time in the role.

At least the private health insurance cuts were good policy. Elevating a creature like Slipper and using it as a basis to renege on the deal with Wilkie was grossly amoral on the part of Labor. Ruthless, clever, and grossly amoral. It got Julia Gillard out of a terrible fix on poker machines, but added to her reputation with voters for doing anything — and recanting on anything — necessary to retain power.

It also linked Labor, and this Parliament, to a growing reputation for sleaze, though that was mostly because of the HSU and allegations about Craig Thomson. It was always assumed the LNP and the media would dig up further dirt from Slipper’s extended time in politics. As it turned out, most of that had already been mined. It was Slipper’s behaviour once he became speaker that was to become the basis for his downfall.

How much any of that was responsible for Labor’s dismal polling over the last 11 months is debatable. Voters already disliked the Prime Minister, already thought she’d readily break her word if it meant holding on to power, already thought this whole hung Parliament thing was a disaster, despite the persistent evidence of a government scoring win after legislative win. So was Slipper worth it for Labor? Probably not, on balance, but in straight, amoral political terms the issue is less clear cut than a lot of today’s commentary insists.

And so to yesterday, with the clash of two fatally-compromised forces: the Coalition, led by a bloke with a long history of saying problematic things about women, complaining about s-xism. Then Labor, which has been prosecuting a s-xism-based attack on him, having to defend a man responsible for grossly misogynist private messages. The narratives: Abbott the hypocritical misogynist versus Gillard the defender of Slipper.

As more than a few have since pointed out, it’s of course welcome that the men of the Coalition now care so much about s-xism in public life and we can of course expect them to maintain this laser-like focus on the issue henceforth.

Tactically, Abbott was leading with his chin in focusing on the s-xism of Slipper’s texts, something he perhaps didn’t fully realise until the Prime Minister, who sat there for much of his speech with a faint look of bemusement, rose and clobbered him. In fact she hit him so hard it left Abbott, and his frontbench, looking stunned. They perhaps hadn’t expected Gillard to go right to the nub of the issue in the way she did, as quickly as she did, but they opened the door to her on misogyny and she came through it with fury.

The slumped shoulders on the Coalition side were also because Abbott, surely by accident, used the “died of shame” phrase, which handed the Prime Minister a killer line to shoot back, not the sort carefully cooked up in spitball sessions in the PMO, but one from a fired-up leader on-message and on her feet.

The PM’s attack, which has duly gone viral across the internet and resonated strongly on social media, probably won’t do much for voters, who would only have seen two leaders they dislike tearing at each other; such moments tend merely to confirm existing voter sentiments anyway. That it was in the service of supporting someone like Slipper won’t help either.

But his narrow survival and the warnings of Tony Windsor, a man whose common sense and straight thinking have been invaluable in this Parliament, meant Slipper’s time was up, something even the man himself realised. Labor’s defence of him had been for nought, except for a crystallising moment of gender politics between a female Prime Minister and her male opponent.

There’ll be much speculation about which way Slipper will vote as an independent, but the important point is that the government has already secured passage of its key reform legislation for this term. The Gonski reforms remain, but that’s one issue where Labor very definitely wants a fight with the Coalition, indeed is counting on it, and in any event doesn’t need to pass legislation before the election — it currently proposes to pass a kind of aspirational bill about educational outcomes.

This was Gillard’s argument to Caucus yesterday — the strategy for this term had always been a “long game” in which big reforms were introduced by mid-term and the government focused on governing thereafter. Bills that won’t pass will simply be held back to preserve the government’s legislative record, until the election or a deal with an independent can secure an extra vote.

There is of course one final aspect of all this that is yet to play out. In demanding Slipper’s departure, the Coalition has just set a new benchmark for political behaviour, one that, courtesy of the government’s defence of Slipper, doesn’t apply to anyone except itself and Wilkie. All male Coalition MPs and Wilkie will now need to reflect: did they ever send a vulgar message or email privately to a staffer, a colleague or a journalist? Did they ever reflect on the appearance of a female colleague? Did they ever call someone a c-nt? Did they ever make a smutty joke that, stripped of its private context and cast into newsprint, will look s-xist?

If they did, they’re all now just one leak, one disgruntled former adviser, one factional enemy, away from a world of pain. One they voted for yesterday.

*What did the newspaper pundits think? Read our wrap on the Crikey website

Bernard Keane — Politics Editor

Bernard Keane

Politics Editor

Bernard Keane is Crikey’s political editor. Before that he was Crikey’s Canberra press gallery correspondent, covering politics, national security and economics.

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65 thoughts on “So Peter Slipper slides out — was it all worth it?

  1. Dogs breakfast

    Many good points in all this. As Zut alors and others point out, anyone who sends a text or email has to understand that those electronic records are kept, and can be subpoena’d by the courts. The sublime naivety is puzzling.

    How many people have to get caught out before it is common knowledge, and practice? I regularly lecture my kids about their facebook entries. They get it, they’re 12 and 15!

    As Person Ordinary (better not call him PO!) and others point out, JG did not defend Slipper’s texts, only the process of outing a Speaker on that basis. This isn’t a highly nuanced analysis, it is a bald-faced reality. Unfortunately many commentators, News Ltd and Peter Hartcher among them, somehow missed the bleeding obvious.

    I can’t agree that this won’t affect people’s attitudes. Sure, a lot of this will go on party lines, but a lot of women who were coalition voters will still say ‘hear, hear’ to JG’s speech, and a lot of blokes too. We aren’t all unreconstructed males (Dogs Breakfast is a male, and yes, I know there should be a comma in Dog’s but the html doesn’t handle commas properly) Sorry I digress.

    JG stood up. It’s true that some women hide behind the sexist allegation to avoid scrutiny, but to deny that Gillard has faced unrivalled abuse for a PM for the entire period of her career is to live in fantasy land.

    Personally, I don’t mind the argy-bargy, the passion, I can’t stand the anodyne. Bring it on pollies, show us what really makes you tick, what you really believe, and let the public decide. If we can’t have civility, let’s at least have honesty.

    Civility can be over-rated sometimes.

    I wish you all well. The comments section often reassures me that not all my fellow men and women are stoopid!

  2. Liz45

    How was JG to know of Slipper’s attitude to women? Her crystal ball was at the cleaners.

    The Opposition for all its condemnation of Slipper yesterday; today they’re going to welcome his vote! I don’t want to hear any more about hypocrisy? OK?

    They didn’t say one word about Craig Thomson for two years – until the No-alition realized they could milk it for all it was worth. Incidentally, he still has NOT been arrested and charged with any offence!

    Gee Wizz – If you continue to remain ignorant, will you please stop advertising it? Go and look at some of the foul stuff the PM has had to put up with over the last 2 plus years. I suggest that all the women in Parlt would cop this sort of garbage from some?

    She is not “coming off as precious now”? It’s people like you who’ve been throwing accusations like this around – and that doesn’t make it fact!

    She;s put up with it long enough, and now she won’t cop it any more! If the revolting men start behaving themselves and not using her gender to insult her, there’d be no problem.

    I heard Rob Oakeshott tonight on Lateline, and he reinforced my liking for him, and Tony Windsor – I just disagreed with him about Abbott and his shameful sexist behaviour. “He doesn’t hate women”? Just because he finds women sexually attractive has nothing to do with his attitude to one/some/all? Particularly if they get the upper hand. He only knows one way to handle that – be as rude and vulgar as he can! He referred to the PM today as a “piece of work’? Charming manners of an allegedly adult male!

    My ex could be kind and helpful to some women outside the home – but was an absolute a******e at home – to me! Even asking our children to join in his abuse!

    Tony Abbott needs to take a course in how to behave like a mature adult – about conflict resolution, and how to ‘play the ball, not the woman’?

    I suspect that you could probably engage in the same educational experience! SB certainly could!

  3. Warren Joffe

    I have the privilege of being let in on a lot of jolly female vulgarity at the expense of men, often very funny. Like several commenters my female acquaintance would, while turning up their noses at Slipper’s texts and feeling a bit queasy about him and his sexuality generally, regard the public attitudes of MPs and most media people as somewhat hypocritical and humbug.

    A niece whose mother is about Slipper’s age and a magistrate learned that her mother had texted (or emailed) that X was said to be hung like a horse but she didn’t believe it, “hung like a donkey” might be about right. She gave her mother a good lecture on being old and naive about the uses (and privacy) of texts…… So Slipper may not be so much stupid as wrong generation in his use of texts (as well as tacky).
    As for telling a (then) trusted staff member what you thought of one of the MPs (the tentative agreement with Ashby’s description of Sophie Mirabella) – C’mon!!! What does anyone think judges say to each other and to their Associates about counsel, witnesses etc. The ridiculous implication of the criticism of Slipper for the “ignorant botch” text is that he should not actually have opinions about the people he had served in Parliament with (and on the same side) for years, not just that he shouldn’t express them to anyone at all.

    Still, justice has been served. Gillard has suffered again for bad judgment and her own amoral slippery manoeuvres and Slipper has been got rid of. (He may have been quite a capable Speaker in the chair but I wouldn’t mind betting that many Parliamentary staff would be pleased to see the end of his reign on more than one ground).

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