Prime Minister Julia Gillard's shaky grip on power was further weakened yesterday when the Speaker of the Australian parliament stepped down following the release of text messages in which he described female genitalia as "shell-less mussels".
Peter Slipper also referred to a woman MP as an "ignorant botch" [sic] in the messages, which were made public as part of a legal action. His resignation as Speaker forced the minority Labor government to replace him with one of its own MPs, Anna Burke, leaving it reliant on the votes of five cross-benchers to get a majority of one. It followed sexual harassment charges brought by a former aide to Mr Slipper, James Ashby, who is suing him for damages.
On a day of political high drama, Mr Slipper earlier survived a no-confidence motion that sparked vitriolic exchanges between Ms Gillard and the Opposition leader, Tony Abbott. After Mr Abbott accused the Prime Minister of "defending the indefensible" in supporting Mr Slipper, she rounded on him, telling MPs: "I will not be lectured on sexism or misogyny by this man. If he wants to know what sexism looks like in the House of Representatives, he doesn't need a motion, he needs a mirror."
She recalled how at a rally against a carbon tax Mr Abbott had stood next to protesters waving placards stating "Ditch the Witch" – and how he had declared that the tax's effects on electricity prices needed to be understood by "the housewives of Australia … as they do the ironing".
Mr Abbott has also previously described abortion as "the easy way out", and been criticised for making sexist "catcalls" across the dispatch table to Ms Gillard during Question Time. But there is no doubt that Labor's elevation of Mr Slipper – known as "Slippery Pete" in political circles – to the Speaker's chair a year ago has backfired badly. The move was aimed at giving the government a bigger voting margin, since it took one vote off the opposition – he was then a member of the conservative Liberal Party – and gave one back to Labor.
Within less than six months, though, came Mr Ashby's explosive allegations, forcing Mr Slipper to step aside while they were investigated. Mr Slipper denies any wrongdoing. Although the civil case has yet to be heard, Mr Ashby, 33, has disclosed hundreds of emails and texts to the court – and it was the less edifying among them that prompted the Speaker's resignation.
The messages were sent between the two men during friendlier times, and they revealed a jocular relationship involving plenty of ribald jokes and sexual innuendo. At some point the relationship soured, and Mr Ashby now claims that his former boss harassed him by – among other things- leaving the bathroom door open while he was showering and asking him for a massage. The pair were sharing a Canberra flat at the time.
Mr Abbott provoked another storm yesterday when he described Ms Gillard's administration as "a government which should already have died of shame" – an echo of recent claims by a "shock jock" broadcaster, Alan Jones, that the Prime Minister's father, John, who passed away last month, had "died of shame" because of his daughter's "lies".