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

Peter Fray

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