Well, that was some week in Parliament! Like many others, I watched the video of the proceedings in Parliament, transfixed. I gasped when Abbott used the phrase “dying of shame”. I inwardly cheered when my Prime Minister said those things that nearly all women think in their heads and do not say about small slights that mount into a sense of “What would you know, girlie?” I wonder what a historian twenty, fifty, a hundred years down the track will make of it? Of course, we as people living in the present, don’t know if it’s just yet another tumble in the hurly-burly of politics or whether something just shifted fundamentally.
I greatly admire a group of Australian historians loosely grouped under the term ‘the Melbourne School’, exemplified by Greg Dening, Inga Clendinnen, Rhys Isaac and Donna Merwick, and I think that you can detect their influence in more recent histories published by, for example, Robert Kenny, Alan Atkinson and Tom Griffiths. One of their techniques is to take a ‘performance’- particularly a ritualized performance- and to examine it almost frame by frame, teasing out the layers of meaning that are implicit in the words and actions.
Greg Dening described it like this:
The ritual occasion is marked off from everyday actions by special languages, formal postures, careful etiquette. There is always a ‘priest’ at ritual moments, someone who knows the established ways of doing things, someone who plans and marshalls the actions. Or there is a book of rubrics, a permanent record of the order of things. Of course in social actions of a symbolic kind it is always, in the phrase made famous about the ‘thick description’ of them, ‘wink upon wink upon wink’. The actions are a text in which the abstract realities are mythically read, certainly, but the participants are also observing many levels of meaning. [Greg Dening, Mr Bligh’s Bad Language p 199]
Parliament is our nation’s ritual performance writ large, and although there is little sign of careful etiquette, there are rules, and there is a permanent record through Hansard. It is not lost on me that the debate on Tuesday was about the very person (the ‘priest’ if you like) who as Speaker “knows the established ways of doing things, someone who plans and marshalls the actions.” [An aside: quite apart from his personal failings and offensive language that would make it absolutely untenable for him to have continued in the role, Slipper was able to control Parliament far better than his predecessor and successor seem to do. Under his speakership, Parliament no longer sounded like a rowdy Grade 9 class on a wet Friday afternoon.]
I was interested to see The New Yorker’s take on it. Our own media here has prided itself on the suggestion that Barack Obama could learn a few lessons from it, but I was more interested to see how the New Yorker contextualized it for a readership that I’m sure knows nothing about present Australian politics. I think they did a pretty good job, with my own commentary in italics and brackets:
- they picked up on Slipper’s rather Dickensian name [ how easy it is to slip into farce-mode; how the sense of theatricality is heightened]
- they noted Slipper’s reference to shellfish for female genitalia in a message to a staffer and that he is being sued for sexual harassment [eliding the fact that it is a male staffer who is suing him and that these comments emerged merely as background and had nothing to do with the sexual harassment case]
- Slipper had been in Abbott’s party but had left in the wake of an earlier scandal [what was the scandal again? That’s right- over use of travel entitlements. All seems a long time ago now], in effect becoming part of Gillard’s razor-thin majority coalition [not strictly true- no mention of the fact that she made him Speaker and the voting implications of that appointment]
- Abbott’s motion for him to be fired immediately rather than through parliamentary procedure [I’m indulging in a bit of what-if here- I don’t really think that he could have continued in the role anyway. Nor should he]
- The article lists other motives that Abbot might have had beyond the vile and derogatory texts- a personal friend who had become an embarrassment; chipping away at Gillard’s majority
- It then lists a number of examples of Abbott’s behaviour e.g. Abbott’s newspaper comment “what if men are by physiology and temperament more adapted…”; Abbott’s “make an honest woman” comment; allusion by a colleague to Gillard as “barren”; Abbott’s description of abortion as the “easy way out”; Abbott’s comment “housewives doing the ironing”; Abbott’s failure to denounce “a man’s bitch” and “ditch the witch” and being photographed with them.
- The article noted Margie Abbott’s contribution
- The article noted Alan Jones’ comment about her father dying of shame and Abbott echoing the same phrase.
- It identifies the carbon tax
- The article noted Anne Summers’ speech available in full here [Worth reading] which identified ‘Ju-liar’ and YouTube clips
There are ‘winks on winks on winks’ at work here. I’m thinking of the treatment that Kate Ellis received on Q & A on the previous night. Gillard’s speech the next day was not a direct response to it, but it was the sort of speech that women often wish they had made when they find themselves in Ellis’ situation.
There’s an interesting and very detailed analysis of the episode here that points out that Kate Ellis was interrupted 36 times during the course of the program. An example:
TONY JONES: Kate Ellis?
KATE ELLIS: Well, can I just say first up what I’m not going to take is a lecture from Piers Akerman on women issues and how women feel about issues in this country and I am really glad we’re actually able to speak on this. Going back to the actual question, I mean I think there is a couple of different issues here. What Australian women have been concerned about is not that Tony Abbott does not love his wife. Of course he does. It is not that Tony Abbott doesn’t love his daughters. It is not even whether Tony Abbott likes Downton Abbey or not. Like that was all very nice…
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: It’s a disgraceful campaign, Kate.
KATE ELLIS: That was all nice but it’s completely…
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: It’s an orchestrated campaign.
KATE ELLIS: …irrelevant to the concerns of Australian women…
LINDSAY TANNER: Don’t you like Downton Abbey either?
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: I love Downton Abbey.
KATE ELLIS: …and that is, if you’re going to…
LINDSAY TANNER: It’s a very good show.
KATE ELLIS: …if you’re going to…
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: I like the Dowager Duchess too. I think she’s hysterical.
LINDSAY TANNER: Maggie Smith is sensational. Sensational.
Another wink? The sotto voce comments that Abbott habitually makes across the despatch box in Parliament. Abbott checking his watch at the end of her speech. Winks, yes. Fleeting,” hold-on-what-was-that?” type actions; a shared indulgent here-we-go-again attitude held by those in a position of power smirking at the powerless. Small, inconsequential in themselves that you feel foolish in naming, and yet these small winks accumulate into a collective blindness.
As for our putative historian a hundred years down the track: Hansard won’t capture this performance. The video will capture it better. The media, mainstream and social, will capture the audience response. Time will be the arbiter.
I’m still not sure what I saw last Tuesday. When I read Michelle Grattan’s [enough said?] report on it in the Age’s the next day, I wondered if I’d even seen it at all. I don’t know if it changes anything. All I know, is that I said “Good on you” and feel perhaps a little stronger in speaking up at these winks on winks on winks as well.