Ever since Peter Slipper came to more general attention with his elevation to the speakership of the Australian House of Representatives last year, he has been an object of awful (actually despite the spell-check I think I really mean aweful) fascination for me.
For one thing, there is his abandonment of the Liberal or Liberal National party.
For another, there is the whole thing about his involvement in the Anglican Catholic Church in Australia – including his ordination. (Mind you, I find Usyd Vice-chancellor Michael Spence”s ordination in the C of E almost as odd.)
There is Slipper’s reputation as a vigorous taker up of parliamentary entitlements and bon-vivantish participation in Canberra night life.
There was the whole matter of his fancy garb and ceremonial as speaker – explicable, perhaps, given his high-church leanings.
And then, he proved a surprisingly effective speaker for the short time he was in, probably because of his fearlessness – something his detractors might rather call brazenness. He ejected government as well as opposition front benchers and tightened things up.
Then the Ashby affair broke, and all began to unravel. Just for completeness, James Ashby was employed as Slipper’s staffer from late 2011, and in about April commenced proceedings against Slipper and the Commonwealth for, amongst other things, sexual harrassment by Slipper.
Ashby was represented by Harmers Workplace Lawyers, masters (as the David Jones case showed) of the pre-emptive publicity strike. The secret is to incorporate material which would otherwise be evidence (and so unable to be reported until it had been read in court) verbatim into an application filed with the court, thus enabling it to be reported straight away, before any opportunity could be taken to have it struck out as scandalous. That was the first round that saw Slipper obliged to step aside pending determination of the matters raised.
We still don’t know the full picture about the claims that Slipper misused cabcharge vouchers, though Ashby’s evidence was thin and that part of the claim was abandoned (it is still under investigation by the police). Counter-allegations about criminal offences by Ashby came and went. Malcolm Brough, Slipper’s political rival and now successor as Liberal-National preselected candidate for his seat, came in and out of the picture, together with some pretty unconvincing denials by him of any dealings with Ashby.
It all seemed a pretty murky story. There were some patterns though. The most damaging, for Slipper, had to be the public/private divide between Slipper, the rule-maker and Slipper the rule-breaker and non-respecter of boundaries. Other aspects of his behaviour had a familiar flavour. What gay man has not at some stage been the receiving end of some rather odd quasi-jocular over-familiarity from an [ostensibly at least – and its always ostensible until anyone is dead] straight man? On the other hand, what was it with Ashby? Where had he come from and what were his motives? Could this really be a honey-pot plot?
As a lawyer I have possibly even less faith than others in judicial process as a means of unearthing the actual truth, but so far as the public truth is concerned this certainly seemed a situation where you would have to wait for the process to work itself through.
Then came the settlement with the Commonwealth, and a fresh load of sms messages read into evidence in response to Slipper’s application to dismiss the proceedings.
All of a sudden, Slipper’s position was untenable. He had sent SMS messages to Ashby that were most mildly described as “ribald” and otherwise reported as making obscene references to female genitalia. Most reports I saw at first were coy about what was actually written. Now we know that Slipper drew a resemblance between vaginas and mussels, and referred to mussel-meat in jars as “briny cunts.”
There was also a reference to Sophie Mirabella as an “ignorant botch” but I don’t think that was so damaging to Slipper – it was a private message within a normal range of abuse after a conflict. It was the apparent shellfish obsession which caused the outrage.
All of this intersected with the Abbott-Jones-misogyny debate. Striking while the iron was hot, the opposition moved that Slipper be removed as speaker. The Government opposed that on the grounds of due process but (so the press gallery clearly thought) also on grounds of political expediency. Julia Gillard gave one of her back-against-the-wall-coming-out-swinging speeches, where she always does best, about not wanting to be lectured about misogyny by “that man” (Abbott).
Just jumping back a bit, there is something striking about the discomfort which has clearly been felt with Slipper’s shellfish fetish. It’s been described as misogyny. It certainly feels like it, but is all ribaldry misogyny, and is it the most harmful kind, or just part of the furniture? What about comparable phrases such as “camel foot” or (in the opposite direction) “budgie smugglers”? In my youth I first encountered from some gay people a usage of the word “fish” that I would be far quicker to describe as misogynistic, though I think it was more accurately characterised as a rather pathetic defensive declaration of aversion as a disclaimer of attraction. (One specific defensive reason is that women attract straight men, who attack gay men, though that is only a small part of it.)
What seems more creepy to me is Slipper’s harping on such matters with Ashby. Even then you cannot judge the messages alone without knowing what went on in conversations as well in both directions.
It is not as if the comparison between mussels and vaginas is so surprising. I cooked mussels earlier this year and even on my rusty memory (or perhaps precisely because of my that) a resemblance came to mind. But I didn’t send an sms to my clerk about it. I also doubt if the thought would occur to me in the opposite direction. This could just be because vaginas are rarely on my mind. If they were, I don’t think I would be thinking of mussels.
But just going back to the debate on the motion to remove Slipper, and in particular the varying reception of the press and the internet commentariat to Gillard’s counter-attack or attack on Abbott.
Paul Sheehan, Fairfax’s rightest of columnists, was of course against Gillard. He is developing nick-names for various government ministers now which have a kind of built-in abuse which he can then incorporate into his commentary- one is member for Gutter, one is member for Sewer. It all makes for a bit of a rant in the “Ju-Liar” tradition, and this one was a doozy.
I read it online. At the bottom, there was a note:
Editors Note: This story was changed post-publication and, in the 9th paragraph, a reference to the Prime Minister was deleted.
What could that have been?
From the twittersphere
, this is the ninth paragraph as it originally appeared, with the deleted phrase in bold:
Why tip a bucket of bilgewater into a fierce wind? Why invoke the accusation of misogyny, hatred of women, against an Opposition Leader whose chief of staff, Peta Credlin, is famously one of the most formidable woman in politics, whose mostly female staff is devoted to their boss and who, unlike the Prime Minister, has raised three daughters?
Obviously somebody decided the bit in bold was a step too far, though once you know it has been there, the deletion hardly makes things any better.
As far as I’m concerned, Sheehan has made Gillard’s point for her again in spades. I dedicate the title of this post to him.