The danger of the Slipper witch-hunt

The hounding of Peter Slipper over what was a private communication is an assault on personal freedoms. Many politicians have privately harboured misogynist, racist or homophobic thoughts. It's what they do in public that counts.

Mulling over yesterday's extraordinary events in parliament, I had the profound feeling that a line had been crossed, but I could not at first put my finger on what it was.
 
Then I remembered. Two decades ago, just months before I joined the noble profession of journalism, I worked alongside a rather uncouth woman in a call-centre who filled the time between incoming calls with filthy humour. The one that sticks in my mind was a comment about a celebrity's sagging breasts. My colleague elegantly averred that "I could stick one teat in my mouth and the other up my arse". Not pretty, but being of the dominant sex I ignored the sexist and degrading comment and carried on taking calls.
 
But can you see what I've just done? I took a private comment and made it public, no doubt causing some offence.
 
I have hundreds more like that, though it's fair to say that few of them are remarks from women – they are mostly from private conversations with men, and I think it's fair to say that they (generally) become more ribald and graphic the further down the socio-economic scale one goes. Then again, some of those jokes have been made in boardrooms, and even a few in parliament house. I must mix with the wrong crowd.
 
What has happened in the Peter Slipper affair is that a private communication has been made public and has caused a great deal more offence than the joke above ever could. That, of course, is partly a function of the high office Slipper filled – partly, too, a function of a prurient national media that itches to put 'jars of mussels' on the front page.
 
Slipper's text messages, until the sexual harassment case was brought against him, were fully private – not tweets, not Facebook comments, not even a joke told loudly in a packed bar.
 
Yes, they were ugly. And I'm sure that even to real misogynists they don't look very funny. But they were made in private, between two individuals who at the time still had a friendly relationship.
 
They have direct bearing on the question as to whether or not Slipper harassed a colleague – a very serious accusation – and really no bearing on his ability to discharge his duties as speaker. Of course, for the good of the nation, he did the right thing in stepping down – parliament had virtually ground to a halt over a nasty, and fairly lame joke.
 
But if anyone thinks that similar comments are not periodically made by MPs from both sides of politics, try hanging around the bars of Canberra's Kingston or Manuka at closing time – you'll hear language and sentiments to make your hair stand on end.


This is a delicate topic, so let me be very clear about what I'm arguing – that Canberra and the nation more generally is awash with sexist, racist, homophobic and religiously intolerant humour that is best left in the private spaces in which it's uttered. It is only through a high-profile court case that Slipper's comments crossed over into the public domain.
 
I made the same point last week in relation to Alan Jones' right to say what the hell he likes behind closed doors, but to accept the consequences of making them in public.
 
To recap, I wrote: "All of us are entitled to make disgraceful jokes and paranoid comments with friends (or even with journalists) behind closed doors, but taking the same sentiments into a public forum – be it a Liberal or Labor conference, or a mass-media performance – is something else altogether. Jokes and comments in private are where we test the boundaries of what is decent, and discover what is indecent, but they are not, in themselves, political acts. Taking them to the wider public is."
 
Let's also distinguish between private comments made between individuals in a friendly, and fairly equal relationship in terms of power relations, and those made where a large power imbalance exists. I did not feel threatened or sexually harassed by my colleague in the call centre, but had the shoe been on the other foot, it may well have been appropriate to instigate sexual harassment proceedings. That kind of power imbalance is what underpins James Ashby's claims against Slipper.
 
But until Slipper's text message are shown to be part of a pattern of harassment, they remain just crap jokes – offensive yes, but also private.
 
And so back to that line that has been crossed. 


Yesterday's tumultuous debate in parliament pitted the public utterances and actions of Tony Abbott against the private utterances of Peter Slipper.
 
Abbott was a misogynist, said a furious Prime Minister Gillard, because he stood publicly alongside people who called her a 'witch' and a 'bitch' – gendered insults that would not be made against a male prime minister.
 
She reeled off three other quotes from Abbott's earlier career, including the choice phrases "abortion is the easy way out", that "what the housewives of Australia need to understand as they do the ironing..." and "if the Prime Minister wants to, politically speaking, make an honest woman of herself..."
 
Those quotes do not conclusively prove Abbott is a misogynist. Actions, as they say, speak louder that words, and the intervention of Margie Abbott in recent days provides a strong counter argument – namely that the women who know him best think the misogyny claim is "just wrong".
 
Be that as it may, Gillard's tirade against Abbott yesterday was fully legitimate – a man who wishes to lead the nation was reminded of his very public utterances, actions and associations.


Business Spectator reader Graeme Harris yesterday posted a comment reminding us of Voltaire's words: "I do not agree with what you have to say, but I'll defend to the death your right to say it."
 
Wise words. But if Voltaire would die to protect our right to say anything publicly, would he have to die twice to defend our right to make tasteless remarks in private?
 
The harassment case brought against Slipper is a very serious matter, of concern to everyone.
 
But the witch-hunt against Slipper for offensive remarks made in private crossed a line. 

Be careful what you say or think in private – you are no longer free to decide the boundaries of good taste for yourself. From now on, everything you say is public.

    Related Articles