Julia Gillard's misogyny speech turns musical

22:47, Mar 20 2014

It was one of those moments that made you feel deeply, wonderfully proud to be Australian.

The then Leader of the Opposition Tony Abbott had been needling Prime Minister Julia Gillard for months - years, even - in his 'everyman' attempt to drag politics down to the gutter and keep it whimpering there.

Nothing was off-limits for him, it seemed: particularly her sex. A woman! In politics! Who would have dreamed of such an occurrence? Certainly not Abbott and his cronies, still firmly rooted in the testosterone-laden locker room of Australian politics of the '60s and White Australia.

Women should look good, and shut up, that's the impression male throwbacks like Tony Abbott give. (He might change his policies at the drop of an opinion poll but that's one thing he's fairly solid on.) He'd also do stuff, like campaign in front of posters bearing the slogan "Ditch the witch".

Something had irked Abbott, or - more likely - he saw an opportunity to score another cheap political point, something to do with the Speaker's demeanour. It doesn't really matter what now - but Abbott decided that the House needed a lecture on sexism.


Enough was enough. Gillard rose, and famously declaimed (with more passion then she'd exhibited in her previous three years in charge): "I will not be lectured on sexism and misogyny by this man; I will not". She then proceeded to tear him apart, every which way.

How we all cheered. The female Prime Minister directly addressing the issue of gender discrimination that continues to plague public life in Australia. Um... didn't we? Well no actually.

The Australian wrote:

"Is it possible for a political party and a prime minister to have more egg on their collective faces than Labor and Julia Gillard do right now?"

The Age wrote:

"The screeching of the most senior members of the Gillard government and the Abbott opposition yesterday was the sound of Australia's Parliament scraping the bottom of its barrel ..." 

It was left to the commentators abroad to offer support.

In the UK, an expatriate Australian columnist wrote in The Guardian, "It's good to see Julia Gillard tackle sexism head-on" and referred to the speech as a "masterful, righteous take-down". Similar opinions were expressed in North America. A YouTube video of the speech attracted a million hits in a week.

Clearly, Gillard had touched a nerve somewhere, whether the commentators back at home - entrenched as they were in the male locker room mentality of Australian politics - wanted to admit it or not.

Sound Lecturer in Composition at the University of Queensland, Brisbane-based Robert A. B. Davidson was one of those moved by the speech.

"I've been interested in composing music based around speech ever since I was about 6-years-old," he says "partly because it helps reveal stuff that isn't so noticeable in the words themselves. Speech intonation can reveal hidden meanings and emotions that can't be conjured by words. Also, it's fun. In this particular case, I felt Julia Gillard was simply being political but being quite personal as well - and I like public figures being personal. So I thought I'd try to draw a few of those hidden meanings out."

In conjunction with the young Australian Voices choir, Davidson created a video/sound piece Not Now, Not Ever! based around Gillard's misogyny speech. The finished work is quite stunning. The composer uses repetition and choral harmonics for emphasis, picking on certain words, ignoring others - sometimes the words are near shouted the way they're accentuated, sometimes a solitary female lead picks up a wordless lead for a few seconds.

You certainly get the impression that Davidson believes in the authenticity of this particular speech, the importance of it. The overall effect is one of... well, complex emotions and perhaps a slight wonder that such a speech could have happened within the stuffy confines of the Australian Parliament. The music itself creates a secondary political narrative separate to the surface narrative taking place in the public eye.

"I enjoy using quite recognisable speeches," Davidson explains. "There is a certain fun in taking something familiar and giving it a new perspective, realising there's this music going on in the background at the same time. I did a piece around a Kevin Rudd policy speech [the historic 2008 apology to aboriginal Australians] which was more critical, and I've also recorded a whole album with Jonathan Diamond and Jamie Clarke, Airwaves, which involved going through older radio broadcasts - Gandhi, Churchill, Clinton... I'm trying to get behind the words and get the distractions of the words out the way."

"There's a wonderful passage in Oliver Sacks' The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat, where the author talks about being in a whole room of people who've had strokes and brain lesions. They're called aphasics, they have not got the ability to understand words but have the ability to understand intonation and musical language - he describes a whole room of people back in the '80s watching President Reagan give a speech on the TV, and they're all laughing. They say it's because you can't lie to an aphasic because they always hear what's underneath. I'm trying to give everyone the perspective of an aphasic."

Following Julia Gillard's speech, the Macquarie Dictionary changed its definition of misogyny from "hatred of women" to "an entrenched prejudice of women".

-The Vine