Now it's personal

Julia Gillard's 'misogyny' speech could become the defining moment of the election. Those 15 minutes shifted the narrative away from policy failures and onto that more emotive and visceral subject, character.

Has a single off-the-cuff speech, dripping in acidity, changed the contemporary political landscape?

As we all know, it went viral and made headlines around the world. It was Julia Gillard angry, pointed and lashing out at what she saw as treatment of her and her gender.
It was politics in the raw and deeply personal.

It has dominated old and new media from the moment the words sarcastically dripped from the Prime Minister’s mouth as she stood at the dispatch box almost two weeks ago -- gesturing and glaring -- in the Lower House of Parliament.

It galvanized the left and the right. It cemented entrenched views on sexism in the workplace and the role of women in life.

"Old white men” and "feminists” traded invective -- not about policy, but about character.

For the closeted Canberra Press Gallery the story was "context” and how Gillard had used the wrong occasion for her lecture. But around the kitchen table men, women and children didn’t care about "context”. They wanted to hear her words and look her in the eye.

Of course, there is context. It’s called the 2010 election result.

Julia Gillard beat Tony Abbott for the job he craves. It was a behind doors fight seemingly eons ago. But Gillard out-manoeuvred her opponent at the end and claimed the prize.

Ever since, it’s been "game on”.

Tony Abbott has waged an unrelenting campaign against his opponent. He’s been single-minded, aggressive, full-on and with little care of the consequences of his words.

He has been on the front-foot, controlling the media agenda and forcing Gillard on the defensive.

He has cut a swathe through the processes of Parliament. He’s constantly on his feet with taunts of lies, shame, and deceit -- to the point where question time is little more than a cauldron of insults, name-calling and personal rancour. There’s little or no civility at all, from either side.

He’s dragged his team into a "no contest” election winning position. In raw political terms, he’s been doing his job.

But for every act, there are consequences. What he has also done, especially with his seemingly calculated "died of shame” reference, is allow Gillard to shape a new debate and present herself in a way that many voters once saw her.

Gillard was losing on policy. She was losing on presentation. She was being trampled on and mocked by the Canberra hacks that came to see her as a tainted and second-rate Prime Minister.

She was advised months ago on the front page of a Fairfax broadsheet to "fall on her sword” and resign. She was told she was weeks from being toppled. And even after her misogyny speech another of the press gallery pundits called her a liar.

And to this day she continues to face orchestrated accusations from her own side about her fitness to govern. It seems that Kevin is not too far away.

Now -- because of that moment in Parliament -- she is in territory which could yet define her. The issue is not tax policy, balanced budgets, debt, economic management, "boats”, uranium sales to India, troops in Afghanistan or the meaning and worth of a two-year seat on the UN Security Council. The issue is "character”.

In the public policy debate, the ALP these days generally lose. The Liberals are seen as custodians of the economy and superior managers. The imminent MYEFO will cement that view. Even in health and education policy -- the old ALP stronghold -- the Liberals are competitive.

In that battle on public policy with Tony Abbott, Gillard will struggle.

But if the debate switches and stays on issues of character and beliefs then the contest takes us into interesting territory.

Tony Abbott is not a misogynist, nor sexist -- far from it. He simply hates losing. But he does have a "character” issue with women -- just as Julia Gillard has with a plurality of dreaded older white males.

Polls tell us that Gillard and Abbott have high disapproval ratings -- although Gillard is preferred as Prime Minister. But that’s a measure normally with the incumbent.

So on policy, despite sound economic numbers -- Gillard loses. The polls still show an overwhelming win to the Opposition. But on issues of beliefs, status and gender then Julia Gillard has a "differential” narrative to promote and sell.

John Howard went to the polls in October 2004 against a pugnacious, flawed Mark Latham on the issue of "who do you trust”, albeit couched in economic terms. But the underlying code was plain.

And now about a year out from the due date of the next election, are we about to see a repeat -- with "character” -- and not economic management at the forefront of public awareness?

Given political history, we will almost certainly be drawn to the hip pocket and "leadership” when we stand at the ballot box -- but, just maybe because of that viral and acidic 15 minute roller-coaster of a speech, there could be other big things on our minds as well.

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