Julia Gillard’s time as Australian prime minister may only have lasted three years but the former Labor leader delivered one of the most memorable moments in Australian political history.
On 9 October 2012, the country’s first female prime minister was under immense pressure to keep her government in power amid scandals and increasingly personal attacks.
Then-opposition leader Tony Abbott had recently been photographed at an anti-carbon tax rally next to placards calling her “Juliar”, “[Greens leader] Bob Brown’s bitch” and reading “Ditch the witch”.
Opposition leader Tony Abbott speaking in March 2011. Source: AAP / Alan Porritt
There was a fixation on her wardrobe and a photo showing an , for some a symbol of Ms Gillard’s childlessness.
Ms Gillard later said she wished she had called out sexist media coverage earlier, saying she “didn’t realise it was going to get as mad as it did”. But under pressure in parliament, Ms Gillard addressed the issue in a speech that was voted the “most unforgettable” moment in Australian TV history by a Guardian Australia poll this year.
Julia Gillard in 2012. Source: AAP / Alan Porritt
Ms Gillard said she was initially “confused and amused” by the overwhelming response, including from media around the world, and even resentful her years of parliamentary work had come down to one moment, but has now made peace with it.
“At the end of the day, if it’s the only thing people overseas know about Australian politics — and it often is — it’s a pretty good one thing to know,” she told the Harvard Business Review in 2019.
Who was ‘Slippery Pete’?
The year before, Ms Gillard had managed to convince an Opposition MP, Peter Slipper, to become Speaker of the House of Representatives, which meant one of her own MPs did not need to take the role. That ensured Labor still had enough seats to remain in power.
One reason Mr Slipper, the Queensland MP for Fisher, was eager to betray his own party was because he was on track to lose Liberal preselection of his seat. He was reportedly nicknamed “Slippery Pete” by some in Canberra – a name repeated in the media – due to alleged incidents of drunken behaviour and questions around his use of parliamentary travel entitlements.
Peter Slipper and Julia Gillard during Question Time at Parliament House. Source: AAP / Lukas Coch
Mr Slipper acknowledged: “I’ve made some mistakes, as some of the colourful stories about me reveal,” when he took the role as Speaker, but blamed dental medication rather than being drunk when he was refused permission to board a flight in 2003, and said being thrown out of a Canberra nightclub in 2007 was “entirely unprovoked”. He would go on to win his appeal against a conviction for misusing taxpayer-funded taxi vouchers for non-job-related visits to wineries outside Canberra in 2015.
In the past, Mr Abbott had chosen to continue supporting Mr Slipper but there were now plans to replace him. The Opposition was furious when Mr Slipper defected.
Labor’s arrangement with Mr Slipper began to unravel when staffer James Ashby accused Mr Slipper of sexual harassment. Court proceedings revealed text messages Mr Slipper had sent Mr Ashby which used sexist language. The allegations came to a head on 9 October 2012 – the day of Ms Gillard’s speech – when Mr Abbott demanded Mr Slipper’s resignation as Speaker, a motion that was unsuccessful, although .
The sexual harassment allegation was later found to be politically motivated and thrown out of court. Mr Ashby was successful in appealing that decision which he claimed made “significant findings … that the harassment had in fact occurred.”
Mr Slipper said that suggestion was “wholly incorrect” and the court decision meant only that Mr Ashby could bring his allegations before the court to be tested, but Mr Ashby
Comments about Gillard’s father
“Every day the Prime Minister stands in this parliament to defend this Speaker will be another day of shame for this parliament and another day of shame for a government which should have already died of shame,” Mr Abbott told the parliament, referring to Ms Gillard.
His words echoed those of former 2GB radio host Alan Jones, who infamously said.
Alan Jones attacked Julia Gillard on air.
Speaking at a Young Liberals dinner in Sydney, Jones said: “Every person in the caucus of the Labor Party knows that Julia Gillard is a liar, everybody. I will come to that in a moment. The old man recently died a few weeks ago of shame. To think that he has a daughter who told lies every time she stood for Parliament,” Jones said.
Jones later apologised.
Gillard delivers blistering attack
When Ms Gillard got up to oppose Mr Abbott’s motion, her sense of outrage towards Mr Abbott was immediately on display, delivering the now immortal lines: “I will not be lectured about sexism and misogyny by this man. I will not. The government will not be lectured about sexism and misogyny by this man — not now, not ever”.
Her 15-minute speech went on to list previous sexist comments Mr Abbott had made and some of the behaviour Ms Gillard had herself been subjected to, while Mr Abbott could be seen looking more and more uncomfortable.
“I was offended when the leader of the Opposition went outside the front of the parliament and stood next to a sign that said ‘Ditch the witch’. I was offended when the leader of the Opposition stood next to a sign that described me as a man’s bitch. I was offended by those things. It is misogyny, sexism, every day from this Leader of the Opposition.”
Ms Gillard later said there was little preparation for the speech but she had been expecting Mr Abbott to talk about sexism that day, so had asked her office to give her his top sexist quotes.
“It wasn’t some thought-through strategy with a wonderfully chiselled speech that we’d been working on for days. It welled up. I got a blank piece of paper and just scribbled down words to help guide me from one point to another,” she told the .
“Looking back, I think it was driven by a deep frustration that after every sexist thing directed at me that I’d bitten my lip on, now I was going to be accused of sexism — the unfairness of that. That anger propelled it.”
Speech goes viral
While almost all of Australia’s press gallery dismissed Ms Gillard’s speech as a flawed attempt to cling on to power and analysed it from the context of the day’s politics, the speech began to resonate far beyond the parliament’s walls.
It , with feminist website Jezebel calling it “the best thing you’ll see all day”. It headlined its story: “Australia’s Female Prime Minister Rips Misogynist a New One in Epic Speech on Sexism”. Viral news website Buzzfeed broke the speech into a series of animated GIFs, calling it “awesome”.
In the years since, her speech has been cited as an inspiration for many women, including Australian activist and founder of consent and sexuality education movement Teach Us Consent, Chanel Contos. She said she was 14 years old when she first heard the speech and “was in a social situation where it was made clear to my peers and I that women were subordinate to men”.
Sydney activist Chanel Contos. Source: Instagram
“The speech really changed the conversation and challenged my perception of what it means to be a woman in society,” Ms Contos told this month.
“The next day at school, everyone was talking about misogyny and what that word meant, so I started to learn from my peers. It’s gut-wrenching now to think about the sexism Julia endured and how we were all complicit.
“I’m still in the process of being able to confidently speak up in situations because so much of my socialisation as a girl has been to be submissive and passive. It’s a lot easier to stand up for other people than yourself, which is why what Julia did was so incredible. Thanks to Julia paving the way, we can now take our turn.”
Years later, women were still expressing gratitude to Ms Gillard for her words. In 2019, Ms Gillard posted a note on Facebook that she had received from a stranger on a flight, thanking her for being “such a strong, intelligent and unapologetic role model for myself and so many of my peers”. She wrote that Ms Gillard had inspired her to move to Canberra and work for the public service.
The woman said when she and her girlfriends felt they were being unfairly sidelined they would ask “WWJD?” or “What Would Julia Do?”.
And even former , a former adviser claimed this year.
In a piece for , political science academic Dr Blair Williams of the Australian National University said the speech had come to define Ms Gillard’s prime ministership and was also part of the pop cultural canon, inspiring young women today to create memes and TikToks paying homage to her famous words.
“Gillard’s misogyny speech and her time as our first woman prime minister changed the way that politics and sexism were talked about in Australia and highlighted the toxic nature of parliament,” Dr Williams wrote.
“Rather than ‘playing the gender card’, Gillard drew attention to it, calling out the sexism and misogyny that many women in politics had to silently endure.”
The speech even led to a change in the definition of “misogynist” in Australia, with the Macquarie Dictionary updating the meaning of the word from “hatred of women” to “entrenched prejudice against women”.
Editor Sue Butler told the ABC the word “misogyny” had not been used to mean “hatred of women” for about the last 20 or 30 years.
“Particularly in feminist language … if you refer to someone as a misogynist in that kind of argument you’re not really saying that they have a pathological sickness … they don’t have this hatred that extends to all women. They merely have an entrenched prejudice against women.”
Dr Williams said Ms Gillard had left a lasting legacy as a role model for girls and young women, not just because of her political career but also for the graceful way she had moved on, continuing her work in education, mental health and women’s leadership.
“Like all politicians, she’ll continue to have her critics, but her post-political life and demeanour has largely been admired,” Dr Williams wrote. “Gillard’s former foe, Abbott, even attended the 2018 unveiling of her official portrait.”
Read and watch Julia Gillard’s speech in full
JULIA GILLARD: “I rise to oppose the motion moved by the Leader of the Opposition, and in so doing I say to the Leader of the Opposition: I will not be lectured about sexism and misogyny by this man. I will not. The government will not be lectured about sexism and misogyny by this man — not now, not ever. The Leader of the Opposition says that people who hold sexist views and who are misogynists are not appropriate for high office. Well, I hope the Leader of the Opposition has a piece of paper and he is writing out his resignation, because if he wants to know what misogyny looks like in modern Australia he does not need a motion in the House of Representatives; he needs a mirror. That is what he needs.
Let’s go through the Opposition leader’s repulsive double standards when it comes to misogyny and sexism. We are now supposed to take seriously that the Leader of the Opposition is offended by Mr Slipper’s text messages, when this is what the Leader of the Opposition said when he was a minister under the last government — not when he was a student, not when he was in high school but when he was a minister under the last government. In a discussion about women being underrepresented in institutions of power in Australia, the interviewer was a man called Stavros and the Leader of the Opposition said: ‘If it’s true, Stavros, that men have more power, generally speaking, than women, is that a bad thing?’
Then a discussion ensued and another person being interviewed said: ‘I want my daughter to have as much opportunity as my son,’ to which the Leader of the Opposition said: ‘Yes, I completely agree, but what if men are by physiology or temperament more adapted to exercise authority or to issue command?’ Then ensues another discussion about women’s role in modern society, and the other person participating in the discussions says: ‘I think it’s very hard to deny that there is an underrepresentation of women,’ to which the Leader of the Opposition says: ‘But there’s an assumption that this is a bad thing.’ This is the man from whom we are supposed to take lectures about sexism!
And it goes on. I was very offended personally when the Leader of the Opposition as Minister for Health said: ‘Abortion is the easy way out.’ I was very personally offended by those comments. He said that in March 2004, and I suggest he check the records. I was also very offended on behalf of the women of Australia when in the course of the carbon pricing campaign the leader of the Opposition said: ‘What the housewives of Australia need to understand as they do the ironing.’ Thank you for that painting of women’s roles in modern Australia! Then, of course, I am offended by the sexism, by the misogyny, of the Leader of the Opposition catcalling across this table at me as I sit here as Prime Minister, ‘if the Prime Minister wants to, politically speaking, make an honest woman of herself’ — something that would never have been said to any man sitting in this chair.
I was offended when the Leader of the Opposition went outside the front of the parliament and stood next to a sign that said ‘Ditch the witch’. I was offended when the Leader of the Opposition stood next to a sign that described me as a man’s bitch. I was offended by those things. It is misogyny, sexism, every day from this Leader of the Opposition. Every day, in every way, across the time the leader of the Opposition has sat in that chair and I have sat in this chair, that is all we have heard from him.
Now the Leader of the Opposition wants to be taken seriously. Apparently he has woken up, after this track record and all of these statements, and has gone: ‘Oh dear, there is this thing called sexism; oh my lord, there is this thing called misogyny. Who is one of them? The Speaker must be because that suits my political purpose.’ He does not turn a hair about any of his past statements; does not walk into this parliament and apologise to the women of Australia; does not walk into this parliament and apologise to me for the things that have come out of his mouth — but he now seeks to use this as a battering ram against someone else. This kind of hypocrisy should not be tolerated, which is why this motion from the Leader of the Opposition should not be taken seriously.
Second, the Leader of the Opposition is always wonderful at walking into this parliament and giving me and others a lecture about what they should take responsibility for. He is always wonderful about everything that I should take responsibility for, now apparently including the text messages of the member for Fisher. He is always keen to say others should assume responsibility, particularly me. Can anybody remind me whether the Leader of the Opposition has taken any responsibility for the conduct of the Sydney Young Liberals and the attendance at their event of members of his frontbench? Has he taken any responsibility for the conduct of members of his political party and members of his frontbench, who apparently when the most vile things were being said about my family raised no voice of objection.
DEPUTY SPEAKER (Anna Burke): Order! Ministers on the front bench are not assisting.
JULIA GILLARD: No-one walked out of the room, no-one walked up to Mr Jones and said that this was not acceptable. Instead, it was all viewed as good fun — until it was run in a Sunday newspaper, and then the Leader of the Opposition and others started ducking for cover. He is big on lectures on responsibility; very light on accepting responsibility himself for the vile conduct of members of his political party.
I turn to the third reason why the Leader of the Opposition should not be taken seriously on this motion. The Leader of the Opposition and the Deputy Leader of the Opposition have come into this place and talked about the member for Fisher. Let me remind the opposition, and the Leader of the Opposition particularly, about their track record and association with the member for Fisher. I remind them that the National Party preselected the member for Fisher for the 1984 election, that the National Party preselected the member for Fisher for the 1987 election, and that the Liberal Party preselected the member for Fisher for the 1993 election, then for the 1996 election, then for the 1998 election, then for the 2001 election, then for the 2004 election, then for the 2007 election and then for the 2010 election. Across many of those preselections, Mr Slipper enjoyed the personal support of the Leader of the Opposition. I remind the Leader of the Opposition that on 28 September 2010, following the last election campaign when Mr Slipper was elected as Deputy Speaker, the Leader of the Opposition referred to the member for Maranoa, who was also elected to a position at the same time, and went on:
… the member for Maranoa and the member for Fisher will serve as a fine complement to the member for Scullin in the chair. I believe that the parliament will be well served by the team which will occupy the chair in this chamber … I congratulate the member for Fisher, who has been a friend of mine for a very long time, who has served this parliament in many capacities with distinction …
They are the words of the Leader of the Opposition on record about his personal friendship with Mr Slipper and on record about his view of Mr Slipper’s qualities and attributes to be the Speaker. There is no walking away from those words — they were the statements of the Leader of the Opposition then.
I remind the Leader of the Opposition, who now comes in here and speaks about Mr Slipper and apparently his inability to work with or talk to Mr Slipper, that he attended Mr Slipper’s wedding. Did he walk up to Mr Slipper in the middle of the service and say he was disgusted to be there? Was that the attitude he took? No, he attended that wedding as a friend. The Leader of the Opposition is keen to lecture others about what they ought to know or did know about Mr Slipper but, with respect, I would say to the Leader of the Opposition that, after a long personal association, including attending Mr Slipper’s wedding, it would be interesting to know whether the Leader of the Opposition was surprised by these text messages. He is certainly in a position to speak more intimately about Mr Slipper than I am and many other people in this parliament are, given this long personal association. Then, of course, the Leader of the Opposition comes into this place and says:
And every day the Prime Minister stands in this parliament to defend this Speaker will be another day of shame for this parliament; another day of shame for a government which should already have died of shame.
I indicate to the Leader of the Opposition that the government is not dying of shame—and my father did not die of shame. What the Leader of the Opposition should be ashamed of is his performance in this parliament and the sexism he brings with it.
Opposition members interjecting—
JULIA GILLARD: That is a direct quote from the Leader of the Opposition, so I suggest those groaning have a word with him.
On the conduct of Mr Slipper and on the text messages which are in the public domain—I have seen the press reports of those text messages and I am offended by their content. I am offended by their content because I am always offended by sexism. I am offended by their content because I am always offended by statements which are anti women. I am offended by those things in the same way I have been offended by things the Leader of the Opposition has said and no doubt will continue to say in the future — because if this, today, was an exhibition of his new feminine side, I do not think we have much to look forward to in terms of changed conduct.
I am offended by those text messages but I also believe that, in making a decision about the speakership, this parliament should recognise that there is court case in progress and that the judge has reserved his decision. Having waited for a number of months for the legal matters surrounding Mr Slipper to come to a conclusion, this parliament should see that conclusion. I believe that is the appropriate path forward and that people will then have an opportunity to make up their minds with the fullest information available to them.
But, whenever people make up their minds about those questions, what I will not stand for— what I will never stand for — is the Leader of the Opposition coming into this place and peddling a double standard. I will not stand for him peddling a standard for Mr Slipper he would not set for himself, peddling a standard for Mr Slipper he has not set for other members of his frontbench or peddling a standard for Mr Slipper which has not been met by the people — such as his former shadow parliamentary secretary, Senator Bernardi — who have been sent out to say the vilest and most revolting things. I will not ever allow the Leader of the Opposition to impose his double standards on this parliament.
Sexism should always be unacceptable. We should always conduct ourselves in such a way as to make it clear that it is unacceptable. The Leader of the Opposition says: ‘Do something.’ He could do something himself if he wanted to deal with sexism in this parliament. He could change his behaviour, he could apologise for all his past statements and he could apologise for standing next to signs describing me as a witch and a bitch—terminology now objected to by the frontbench of the Opposition. He could change standards himself if he sought to do so. But we will see none of that from the Leader of the Opposition, because on these questions he is incapable of change. He is capable of double standards but incapable of change. His double standards should not rule this parliament.
Good sense, common sense and proper process are what should rule this parliament. That is what I believe is the path forward for this parliament, not the kinds of double standards and political game-playing imposed by the Leader of the Opposition, who is now looking at his watch because, apparently, a woman has spoken for too long — I have, in the past, had him yell at me to shut up.
But I will take the remaining seconds of my speaking time to say to the Leader of the Opposition that I think the best course for him is to reflect on the standards he has exhibited in public life, on the responsibility he should take for his public statements, on his close personal connection with Peter Slipper and on the hypocrisy he has displayed in this House today. On that basis, because of the Leader of the Opposition’s motivations, this parliament should today reject this motion, and the Leader of the Opposition should think seriously about the role of women in public life and in Australian society — because we are entitled to a better standard than this.”