Keeping them Nervous - Australian Fabians
21 May, 2023

Keeping them Nervous - Ten years since Gillard’s Misogyny Speech, have things finally changed? By Yvette Andrews


It’s hard to believe, but October 2022 was the 10th anniversary of Julia Gillard’s famous misogyny speech. The speech grabbed worldwide attention, as our first female prime minister called out the persistent sexism she faced in Federal Parliament, particularly from the Leader of the Opposition, Tony Abbott. 

To mark the anniversary, Gillard has compiled an account of the impact of the speech in a book called ‘Not Now, Not Ever’.

The year 2022 is also a milestone for the Annual Ernie Awards for Sexist Remarks. After three decades of ‘keeping them nervous’, the Ernies have come to an end. The 30th and final Ernie Awards ceremony, attended by 320 rowdy feminists, took place in August.

It’s now time to hand over to our younger, social media-savvy sisters who are taking on the patriarchy with memes and caustic tweets. These women are eagle-eyed and relentless. A sexist stuff-up will spread through social media networks almost instantaneously.

The misogyny speech and Annual Ernie Awards are uniquely Australian responses to public sexism. They tell an important story about the determination of Australian women to stamp out misogyny.

The Ernies women have not just focussed their sights on politicians. Demeaning judges, prejudiced priests, chauvinist sporting commentators and even macho chefs have all felt our wrath. 

To understand just how bad things were, it is worth exploring the sexist comments we collected from federal MPs and political commentators, particularly those directed towards Julia Gillard.

Let’s look at how things have changed over these years and consider whether there is now hope for a less sexist future.

The Ernie Awards began in 1993 with a bunch of women celebrating the retirement of Ernie Ecob as Secretary of the Australian Workers Union. He was a notorious misogynist who women unionists had been battling for many years. It seemed appropriate to award ‘a sheep rampant on a plinth’ as the first Gold Ernie for the year’s most sexist remark (the AWU was once the Shearers’ Union). 

Back in the 1990s, exposing public sexism involved studiously saving up snippets from newspapers to be revealed at the annual awards. Many quotes were found in stories deep inside the papers by our scarce but intrepid female journalists.

In the early years of the Ernies, the winners were dominated by union officials and the judiciary. But by 1997, attention shifted to the new prime minister. 

John Howard immediately gave the directive that the term ‘Chairperson’ would not be used in any papers that came across the prime minister’s desk. His 1950s attitudes enraged the Ernies women.

Howard’s sustained sexism, along with that of other regular nominees, Alan Jones and Piers Akerman, led to the introduction in 1998 of a new Ernies category for ‘Repeat Offender’. John Howard won it three times, but that was nothing on Tony Abbott who received the Ernies ‘Repeat offender’ award eleven times, followed by Mark Latham with four such gongs. 

John Howard eventually won the Gold Ernie in 2001 for declaring there was ‘no appropriate woman’ for governor general. 

This type of excuse had already been called out in 1997 when Labor Minister for the Olympics, Michael Knight, won the Gold Ernie for saying there were no women on the SOCOG Board because ‘appointments were made on merit not sex’.

Howard ignored our public shaming, but one of his senators was keen to engage. After winning the Political Ernie in 2006, Senator Bill Heffernan rang organiser Meredith Burgmann to say he was delighted with the award. He went on to justify his slag against Julia Gillard that she was ‘deliberately barren’ by explaining that he was an old farmer and knew about ‘heifers and bulls and rams and ewes.’

This style of attack on Gillard was a sign of things to come. 

Tony Abbott was making himself known to the Ernies crowd as early as 2002 when he won the Political Ernie for this: ‘A bad boss is a little bit like a bad father or a bad husband — notwithstanding all his faults you find he tends to do more good than harm’. He had also declared that making paid maternity leave compulsory would be ‘over this government’s dead body’.

Like Howard, Abbott offered a healthy dose of 1950s values. ‘What the housewives of Australia need to understand as they do the ironing … ’ he proclaimed in 2010, a year he received a record eight Ernie nominations.

The swearing-in of Australia’s first woman prime minister brought out his true colours.

Abbott won the Political Ernie in 2011 for standing in front of ‘Ditch the Witch’ and ‘Bob Brown’s Bitch’ placards at a Canberra rally. 

Tony Abbott led the way and the conservative press piled on. From repeated remarks about being ‘deliberately barren’, to Alan Jones offering to throw her out to sea in a chaff bag, Julia Gillard faced a barrage of sexist insults during her three years as prime minister. 

Opinion writer, Janet Albrechtsen, won an Elaine (for Remark Least Helpful to the Sisterhood) for this: ‘While lack of humour infects both sides of politics, the Labor girls in particular need to loosen their pigtails. In Canberra today, there are far too few Fred Dalys and far too many Tanya Pliberseks’.

Some comments were incredibly hurtful. Alan Jones accused Gillard of causing her father to die of shame, just days after he passed away.

And who could forget Mal Brough who hosted a Liberal Party fundraising dinner with a menu that featured ‘Julia Gillard Kentucky Fried Quail — Small Breasts, Huge Thighs and a Big Red Box’.

In October 2012, faced with a no confidence motion moved by Abbott against the Speaker of the House for sending lurid text messages, Gillard responded to Abbott’s hypocrisy: ‘I will not be lectured on sexism and misogyny by this man. I will not. This government will not be lectured on sexism and misogyny by this man. Not now, not ever.’

Gillard explains that the speech grew from the ‘frustration that sexism and misogyny could still be so bad in the twenty-first century. The toll of not pointing it out.’

The misogyny speech, as it became known, was celebrated on TikTok and watched by White House staff. ‘Not Now, Not Ever’ became a rallying cry for women.

It really got under the conservatives’ skin. Even John Howard felt the need to re-enter the fray with ‘I think [the misogyny speech] is the worst possible way of promoting a greater involvement by women in public life.’ 

The Ernies women were totally exasperated by the sexist state of affairs in Federal Parliament. Horrible things being said about women MPs was nothing new. The Ernies had documented Liberal backbencher Don Randall accusing Cheryl Kernot as having ‘the morals of an alley cat on heat’ back in the 90s. But it was deeply depressing that the rear-guard action from chauvinist dinosaurs towards Australia’s first woman prime minister was so vitriolic. 

Women turned up in fancy dress to the Ernie’s dinner as ‘the Handbag Hit Squad’, proudly appropriating the slur levelled at women ministers who had opposed Abbott’s misogyny. Liberal MP Kelly O’Dwyer won the Elaine for coining the phrase. 

Other women turned up representing ‘Destroy the Joint’, a social media movement who describe themselves as being ‘for people who are sick of the sexism dished out to women in Australia, whether they be our first female Prime Minister or any other woman.’ This group formed in response to Alan Jones accusing women of destroying the joint. 

Over the next 10 years, exasperation turned to anger. 

The MFW Facebook group arose when then Minister for Immigration, Peter Dutton, called journalist Samantha Maiden a ‘mad fucking witch’. The group has run a merciless campaign targeting companies who advertise on shows with sexist hosts and commentators. MFW have contributed to Sam Newman, Alan Jones and Pauline Hanson losing their spots on the airwaves.

Women across the country are tackling public misogyny in different ways, building on the early efforts of the Ernies. Sexist remarks are no longer conveniently hidden away. 

Abbott was ousted by Malcolm Turnbull as Prime Minister in 2015 and then in 2019 by his own electorate, who voted in Zali Steggall. Little did we know that Abbott’s sexist sledging would be replaced by something equally damaging — Scott Morrison’s bewildering lack of self-awareness.

We were all stunned when Morrison needed to consult his wife to understand that the alleged rape of a young woman at Parliament House needed a serious and immediate response. He explained: ‘Jenny and I spoke last night and she said to me you have to think about this as a father first. What would you want if it were our girls? ... Jenny has a way of clarifying things.’

His verbal gymnastics became downright annoying. ‘We want to see women rise. But we don’t want to see women rise only on the basis of others doing worse.’ Did he mean goblins and elves? Or was he just referring to men? 

He proudly patronised the women protesters ‘Marching4Justice’, declaring ‘not far from here, such marches, even now, are being met with bullets, but not here in this country’.

By the end of the Morrison Government, the rallying cry of women had become ‘Enough is Enough’. 

In the 2022 election, women made their feelings clear. We’d had enough of Morrison’s inaction in response to rape allegations and constant outbreaks of unacceptable behaviour in Parliament.

The women of Australia carried their anger from protest marches in 2021 to the ballot box. According to The Australia Institute exit poll, support for the Coalition among women was 30%, seven percentage points less than men. Research shows that the Coalition’s treatment of women was seen as one of their biggest weaknesses.

So have things finally changed for the better? 

The record number of women in Anthony Albanese’s cabinet is certainly a promising sign of change. Their leadership in this government is already clear from Penny Wong’s instant impact on relations in the Pacific to Linda Burney’s leadership on the Statement from the Heart. 

The 2022 Parliament is the most diverse in our history. The number of women in the House of Representatives has jumped from 45 to 58. It is a very different place from when Julia Gillard was prime minister. 

Whether the Coalition has changed is still up for debate. Already Shadow Treasurer, Angus Taylor, has referred to Deputy Speaker Sharon Claydon as Mr Speaker a dozen times, even after she asked him to stop. 

But there is definitely a new feeling of optimism. 

There are many more women in a position to effectively call out misogyny than there were in 1993. There are more women journalists in the Canberra Press Gallery and throughout the media, particularly reporting on current affairs and sport. 

More men are speaking up too. These days, the Good Ernie (for Men Behaving Better) is very competitive. 

Social media is reshaping the conversation. A tweet from Grace Tame can cut through just about anything. 

We may not have completely dismantled the patriarchy, but we would like to think that the Annual Ernie Awards and our diligent newspaper clippings collections will have a lasting impact. And we certainly hope that the next woman prime minister of Australia does not need to make another misogyny speech. 


Yvette Andrews is a co-host of the Annual Ernie Awards. She wrote ‘The Ernies Book - 1000 Terrible Things Australian Men Have Said About Women’ with Meredith Burgmann.

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