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?

Bernard Keane — Politics editor

Bernard Keane

Politics editor

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

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

  1. Apollo

    Yes, it was worth it. Labors, Coalition and Greens are so mediocre I can’t bring myself to vote for any of them, the Australian public needs a side show for entertainment.

    Bring on Slipper, Alan Jones and whoever else!

  2. Suzanne Blake


    It was worth it for Labor, they go unpopular legislation passed, carbon tax, cut back in health rebates etc.

    Its all about the numbers / ego / pride , not about what is best for Australia

  3. Karen

    Bernard, a great article that is both sophisticated and nuanced. +1

  4. Aliar Jones

    Whatever anyone wants to say about Labor and the Greens cannot be taken seriously for a millisecond if they can’t also take the time to acknowledge how much lower down the evolutionary scale the Coaltion has sunk.

    If you think the government is a joke then you need to recalibrate your sense of humor and get a grip on reality.

  5. Lisa_Donna

    It’s not just the males that need to watch out either. Women can be just as prone to vulgarity and sexism as men

  6. Jimmy

    On the issue of people needing to watch what they have texted surel y Slipper isn’t the first person to have called Mirrabella a “botch”.

  7. GeeWizz

    6 Months

    That’s how long it takes Labor to realise it’s made a mistake.

    It took them that long to dump Craig Thompson.

    It took them that long to dump Peter Slipper.

    And yet they let these issues drag out by their own free-will and incompetence.

    Labor should have cut Slippery Pete loose 6 months ago and said he was of the Liberals making.. but instead they took ownership of him and his problems.

    And yet the numbers barely changed had they dumped him. Labor make such poor political decisions that you have to wonder if they are being run by school children.

  8. RoseL

    Unless we’re some kind of saint, I’m certain that we’ve all made vulgar and sexist remarks in private. I see a clear difference between public and private comments, why can’t the media? I don’t think that any of us would like our private messages exposed to the public. I’m sure that most reporters wouldn’t pass the test.

  9. The Pav

    So we had a speaker who was effective and got good policy through………Pity about the personal aspects but how can Gillard be held accountable for something his own party didn’t know of..or did they and did nothing?

    As to Abbotts “Shame” comment I refuse to believe it was accidental and makes me suspect that the line was cooked up weeks ago with Jones. After all they are in frequent contact.

    One question that has never been answered is that Jones just said he was repeating the comment so who did he hear it from first?

  10. Timehhh

    Good piece but not sure about the comment about voters not being enthused by Gillard’s speech because it was in support of Slipper.

    Normal people don’t watch Question Time and they don’t follow the “narrative”. Most of the many links I’ve seen posted to the speech show only Gillard’s speech, without much (if any) context. In isolation, the clips show a fired-up PM giving Abbott the kind of serve that many of the people posting the clip have been desperate to see for years. They don’t care what led to it, they just think Abbott deserved it by the bucketload and were pleased to see Gillard at her fiery best.

    To my eyes, approval/disapproval seems to be entirely a function of your previous disposition towards the two leaders.

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