Australian leader slams sexism in now-viral speech [Video]

Fifteen minutes in the Australian Parliament have become the diatribe heard 'round the world: a blistering speech by Prime Minister Julia Gillard against her chief political foe, excoriating him over what she denounced as sexist attacks.

The impassioned speech was delivered Tuesday in defense of a Gillard ally who sent vulgar text messages to one of his advisors, a gay man who is now suing him for sexual harassment.

Opposition leader Tony Abbott had pushed for the ouster of Australian parliamentary speaker Peter Slipper, saying the crude messages reportedly referring to female genitalia, revealed during the sexual harassment suit, made him unfit for office.

Gillard fired back that Abbott was in no position to talk about sexism. “I will not be lectured about sexism and misogyny by this man,” the prime minister declared Tuesday, arguing that if Abbott wanted to see what misogyny looked like in modern Australia, he needed only a mirror.

The prime minister went on to castigate Abbott for standing alongside signs that called her a witch and worse, saying his concern about sexism was nowhere to be seen in the past. Abbott, she charged, had also catcalled her and said “abortion is the easy way out” while serving as health minister, actions she slammed as just as offensive as the vulgar texts.

Inside Australia, her decision to attack Abbott was seen by many pundits as a craven political ploy, playing “the gender card” to distract attention from the unsavory text messages. Slipper ultimately survived the push to remove him but chose to resign anyway, a step that weakened the Gillard government because the speaker can break ties in the House of Representatives.

“She chose power over principle. It was the wrong choice. It was an unprincipled decision and turned out not to be pragmatic either. The prime minister gained nothing and lost a great deal,” Sydney Morning Herald political editor Peter Hartcher wrote in a column titled “We expected more of Gillard.”

Abbott dismissed the speech the same way, calling it “a political ruse” meant to “intimidate people out of legitimate criticism of this government.”

But abroad, her fiery speech has gone viral, seen as a bold and gutsy declaration against misogyny rather than a sling in a distant political scandal. Video clips of the speech racked up hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube. Bloggers called Gillard “badass” and dubbed her speech “epic.”

“Somewhere in Hollywood Meryl Streep is standing in front of a mirror practicing Julia Gillard's accent,” Australian radio host Ant Simpson quipped on Twitter as the speech spread online.

The gulf between Australian media skepticism about the speech and the international applause struck columnist Anne Summers, who argued that the dismissive reaction was also at odds with how her outrage had been received by ordinary Australians weighing in on Facebook and Twitter.

“Only in Canberra, it seems, did her words fall on skeptical and tone-deaf ears,” Summers wrote in a column run on the Australian Broadcasting Corp. website. Bemused, she asked, “Is the Canberra press gallery so thoroughly disillusioned with Gillard after two and a bit years of reporting her prime ministership that it cannot adjust its perspective when the game changes?”

Whether the speech was indeed a game-changer still remains to be seen, with parliamentary elections slated for next year. Gillard shot ahead of Abbott in approval ratings in September, according to polls published by the Australian newspaper, but her party has trailed his political coalition in support.

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-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles

 
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