Abbott’s Charm Offensive28 February 2013
John Harris on Tony’s luck with the ladies.
Australian gender politics is stuck between a rock and a hard place.
Tony Abbott’s wife, Margaret, has only given a handful of personal media appearances in her husband’s political career. Given how long that career has been, anyone can see the importance of her stepping out to defend her husband in October last year. Defending him on accusations of misogyny, her testimony was based on experience—the personal interactions that show him to be a loving and respectful man towards the women in his life.
Margie has not been the only woman to come out in defence of Abbott. The most recent shepherding has come from his Chief of Staff, Peta Credlin. Her interview in Marie Claire illustrates a man who has always held her as a respected colleague and even a close friend. She tells of how supportive Abbott has been in her struggle to have a child through IVF with her husband, Brian Loughnane, the Federal Director of the Liberal Party.
The truth of the matter is that Abbott is perceived to have a problem with women, but not these women.
Many have come out in opposition of Abbott due to fears he will put in place draconian policy, winding back hard-fought women’s rights. Mia Freedman is one of Abbott’s most virulent opponents and worries that the election of him will mean a Prime Minister who is “anti-abortion, anti-IVF, anti-stem cell research and who wants to ban no-fault divorce”.
Yet this doesn’t fit in with the picture painted of Abbott by those who interact with him on a daily basis. There’s the rub. It is his interaction with the idea of women and in particular, the way he treats them in a confrontational context that has worried people within his own party. It could undermine their chances of an election victory.
For Abbott his only recourse is to bring forward those who can speak from personal experience with the man behind the ears. His problem remains, however, because they are also the ones most biased when giving testimony.
But, what else can he do? There are on the record statements—his included—about having the opposite opinion to many of the views that women hold important. David Marr’s essay, Political Animal, illustrates that Abbott has moved on from religious-based policy, largely out of pragmatism. He knows that he will never be able to re-criminalise abortion in the same way he has accepted the benefit of IVF. Abbott also knows that there is going to be no one from the other side of the House who will come out to defend him, certainly not those who benefit from a politician who can’t win a female vote.
Those who criticise his female defenders overlook this problem either out of convenience or sloppy intellectualism. It is convenient if the perception of Abbott as a chauvinist patriarch continues to haemorrhage his vote. It is also simplistic to take the statements of women close to him as puppeteering by their macho man behind the curtain. After all, these are women who have to deal with the daily rigours of federal politics, a game in which no one with a faint heart can survive long.
The accepted wisdom of the media is that when commentators like Mia Freedman and Anne Summers speak on behalf of independent, free women they are championing the rights and privileges of women in general. No one in the media has considered that they may be puppets in an overwhelmingly left-wing establishment, trotting out the old anti-Abbott slogans draped in tired feminist rhetoric. They’re not, obviously. When Margie Abbott and Peta Credlin speak of their views people assume they must be subservient to their right-wing husbands’ or employers’ demands. They’re not, either.
Perhaps this gender politicking only matters to an elite few, pushing a broad brush to cover whatever credibility Abbott might in fact have with women.
In the eyes of the electorate, this is relatively unimportant because to the average voter, gender issues remain a distant priority. Poll jumps, particularly those based on issues such as this, are short term at best. Data that was released over the period from October to January has shown that the Male/Female voting trend has followed the same pattern as the last six years, well before we had a female PM or even an Abbott Coalition.
The testimony of women being tainted if they are in defence of Abbott speaks volumes about how commentators view women in general. Are they the political tool of a husband or the voice of an oppressed minority? They can’t be one but not the other.