05 October 2012

The Situation with women

Step to the rhythm step step to the ride
I've got an open mind so why don't you all get inside
Tune in turn on to my tune that's live
Ladies flock like bees to a hive
Hey ladies - get funky

- Beastie Boys Hey Ladies
The Liberals clearly recognise that women are reluctant to vote for an Abbott government, and that having Margie Abbott talk about her husband in glowing terms might help turn that around.

It is a standard tactic in American politics to have a candidate bring out their spouse as a way of generating positive impressions without the hard work of policy development and persuasion. Even the most appalling candidate can appeal to voters with a spouse or a family member who can tell endearing, humanising anecdotes about them.

Margie Abbott should be believed when she says that it was her idea to go on television to support her husband and deny that he has a problem with strong, capable women. It would be a misunderstanding to refer to her as someone who is "wheeled out" to spruik in the way one might refer to a backbencher, or to Chris Pyne, when they are required to prop up their increasingly inadequate leader.

The fact that Tony Abbott married a woman of substance requires not only a more nuanced understanding of her, but him too. Even people who loathe Tony Abbott should have more sympathy for his wife than they demonstrate when she makes a public stand in his favour.

At the same time, she has chosen to play the sort of blatantly partisan role that attracts negative attention from commentators, amateur and professional. Like Calpurnia, she speaks rarely and is above suspicion. In her public appearances Margie Abbott usually wears white, which probably isn't be a coincidence or simply due to her taste. If any criticism is due to her media appearances it is due to those who think they are clever in crafting media events of this type: to what extent will that appearance lift Tony Abbott's poll ratings? The judgment of and about those people, and not Mrs Abbott, lives or dies on those questions.

Liberal activists who bristle at any criticism whatsoever of Mrs Abbott are just being silly. Janet Albrechtsen's incredulity at describing people who dislike the policies and personalities of Abbott or John Howard drains her credibility on other matters. They are protesting a little too much, and clearly placing a lot of faith in a stunt an appearance like that to turn around perceptions. They are clearly bereft of other ideas about how to do this.

I didn't see the television interview but I read about it here, on a website that insists users pay to see articles whose quality is usually (often wildly) overestimated. That article was made publicly available as part of an effort to make the public think more highly of Tony Abbott than they/we do, and hardly entices anyone to fork out or more. Grog's Gamut deals with News Ltd coverage in more and better detail.

So what if Tony Abbott's sisters, wife and daughters are all strong and capable and love him dearly? Even members of the Liberal Party who have known him for many years (including members of his shadow ministry) and have learned to put up with him aren't that close to him. The voters of Australia are not being invited to join his family. The political premise behind Margie Abbott's remarks is absurd.

She should not have gone on television with Abbott next to her. It wasn't quite like a hostage haltingly reading out a badly-written statement with a Kalashnikov-wielding, balaclava-clad thug standing over - but she should have been free to tell the sort of anecdote that made him look like a bit of a doofus. Even better, she should have given an example of where she and/or the other women in his life have actually changed his seemingly inflexible mind. That might have made a difference.

He should also have recognised publicly that Barbara Ramjan, Cheryl Kernot and every other woman who has gotten in his way over the years are no less deserving of basic respect than the women closest to him. It would have built on the generous humanity in his comments to the Prime Minister on her father's death, and shifted the ground to an extent that puts opponents off balance and opens up some space in otherwise tight contests. Oh well, too late now.

That Tony Abbott's wife thinks he's nice is neither here nor there. An interview like this might have made a difference in early 2010, but it's too late. Again, the target here is Abbott's strategists, not his wife.

The question that should have been asked of her was: can you understand why some women don't like Tony? A good answer would have reinforced her as a basically sensible person whose opinions should be listened to, and given both of them the credibility that her husband clearly lacks. A poor answer (Albrechtsen-like incredulity, stand-by-your-man docility, and/or simply dumping on the media for misrepresenting him) would have invalidated the whole exercise and left it open to be defined by Twitter memes.

In any case, The Situation had better not have problems with strong and capable women. Julie Bishop is basically holding his leadership together.

The fight has gone out of Abbott. He failed to capitalise on Labor's divisions: the vote itself was decisive but the comments of Crean and other Gillard supporters have left scars ripe for the Coalition to pick at. He was reduced to unworthy targets like Craig Thomson and Peter Slipper, and even though he went after them with full force they are still in place ... my kingdom for a Carbon Tax! He's vulnerable and he knows it.

He's not above the fray, acting all Prime Ministerial. This is a man who doesn't know he's alive unless he's being punched in the head, and who will gladly punch himself if nobody else will oblige. Mind you, Greg Jericho thinks he may have done himself some damage already:

Julie Bishop has been useless as a Deputy Leader of the Liberal Party for most of the time she succeeded Peter Costello in the role. She smiled inanely as Brendan Nelson and Malcolm Turnbull floundered, and she has been rubbish in her policy roles. Ever since Labor's leadership contest earlier this year, however, she has lifted her game.

It is Julie Bishop who takes it up to the government in Question Time. It is she who stopped Mal Washer and other Liberal moderates from letting the government escape the fate of adopting Liberal asylum-seeker policy, or making Abbott look like a loser over same-sex marriage. She put Pyne in the attack-dog role, because a snarling Pekinese can be endearing if not certainly less threatening than Abbott's pitbull. When she says that the Tony Abbott she knows is a milk-of-human-kindness kind of guy: whether or not you agree, you have to believe her.

The current debate over wheat marketing is one of those issues that rarely makes it to the forefront of national debates, and smart-alecs in the press gallery use this as an excuse to ignore debates like this that require both mastery of detail and considerable passion simply to understand what is going on.

(If policy detail bores you, skip the next three paragraphs and go to the politics, starting with "It's a basic function of politics ...". You're welcome.)

The idea that wheat farmers should sell their crop en bloc rather than individually came from the middle of last century. During the Depression and drought of the 1930s, farmers' incomes collapsed; individual farmers were played against one another by brokers. Government in the 1930s was subject to austerity and small-state fetishism, which went the other way in the 1940s when rationing and bans generated enough economic activity for national survival and little else. By the 1950s, state and federal governments had recovered their fiscal strength while tempering their command-and-control impulses sufficiently to establish a "single desk" for marketing the nation's entire, undifferentiated wheat crop. This continued until the 1980s/'90s economic reforms elsewhere in the economy made it unsustainable; qangos such as the Australian Wheat Board and NSW Grains Corporation were privatised and became sellers' agents rather than compulsory acquirers.

Most growers seemed satisfied that a brokerage system balanced out the highs and lows of annual wheat crops better than any other system. Some were enthusiastic free-marketers in the good years and equally enthusiastic agrarian-socialists in the lean years; many of these are from Western Australia, where Julie Bishop also comes from.

Bishop initially sided with her home-town heroes who wanted to go the whole free-market route. Then it was impressed upon her that she is the Deputy Leader of a national organisation than just facilitator/enabler for left-coast cowboys (the role most WA Liberals see as their purpose in life), and the rest of the country contained a) wheat farmers who love their agrarian socialism, as well as b) urban Liberals who are enthusiastic free-marketers, urging her to her original position, and c) those who would dump the nation's wheat crop into the ocean, preferably onto a coral reef, rather than help the incumbent government.

It's a basic function of politics to resolve competing arguments and interests by negotiation, rather than violence and/or sheer weight of money. Abbott should have been alert to the political difficulties involved in this issue. He should have apprised himself of the issues and got the stakeholders together and worked something out. It would have made him look hundreds of times more Prime Ministerial than sitting with his wife talking about Downton Fucking Abbey (to use its full title).

Howard would have gotten across the issues, gathered people together and worked out a solution. It's the sort of thing the incumbent PM could and would do too, regardless of the fact that she isn't running a Liberal-National Coalition government. You don't have to be some sort of agricultural-policy wonk in order to do this (it might even be a hindrance), you have to be a skilled politician with experience in the highest level of government. You have to be someone who brings people together, someone who can cut a complex but workable deal and make it stick.

Abbott couldn't do that, he didn't even think it was important. To say that Labor won't win many wheat-belt seats is to miss the point that Abbott lacks the top-level political skills required of a Prime Minister. Press gallery journos who overlook wheat marketing as a political issue - "devil is in the detail" - aren't much use either.

It is Julie Bishop who is saving his bacon here. Laura Tingle thinks it's Tony Windsor but the point is Abbott is not stepping up and leading, he's not saving himself and so he gets no credit whatever happens. (Google the headline) Paul Kelly is right when he says that Abbott's advisers aren't much chop, but wrong to stop there. Abbott has delegated the leadership functions to the point where he has pretty much negated himself.

Tony Abbott has well and truly proven that he can cause trouble but not resolve it. Winners present themselves as healers and solvers of problems:
  • Bob Hawke titled his 1979 Boyer Lectures The Resolution of Conflict and presented himself as the constructive candidate in 1983.
  • In 1996 John Howard presented himself as a healer of the divisions brought about by Keating.
  • In 2007 it was Rudd who presented himself as the healer and resolver of impasses.
  • Tony Abbott. Healer. Problem-solver. Yeah, right (but there still are people who not only think he's the next Prime Minister, but that it's inevitable).
Character became an issue when the MSM basically gave up on explaining policy, and you couldn't trust politicians to carry out promised policy anyway. By playing the character card Abbott has shown the Coalition has pretty much given up on policy. For example:
  • Abbott's wife and sisters have done all the mothering they are likely to do;
  • Abbott's daughters are young women in their late teens/early twenties, so statistically at least they are unlikely to become eligible for parental leave during the 2013-16 period; and therefore
  • Those of you voting Coalition in the hope of Paid Parental Leave should keep this in mind as to non-core promises, budget black holes etc.
There might be thrills and spills in living with a guy who slips vodka into the communion wine or spear-tackles an elderly neighbour - c'mon, where's your sense of humour? After a while maybe you just learn to live with it, and perpetuate his parent's toxic insistence that You've Got To Let Tony Be Tony. You should be able to understand why others might be repelled, or can't be bothered even dealing with that sort of nonsense. Only once you start to get over yourself to that extent can you properly appraise the task ahead of you, whether you have got the right people for the job, and whether it is even worth the effort at all.


  1. LOL 4 hashtags on the twitter link and 14 themes in the blog.
    There's lots of good stuff here Andrew, but the piece jumps all over the place.
    eg. Julie Bishop goes from useless, to saviour in the space of 2 paras.
    Then again, it *is* Friday night, so my comprehension skills have probably been demolished by that cheeky bottle of chardonnay. :-)

    1. Useless mostly, recently indispensable. Surprised me too.

    2. Indispensable? C'mon, think Livia.

      Green vomit? I've never seen green before ...

    3. This Julie Bishop?
      "This time it's the perennial Liberal bridesmaid Julie Bishop, standing next to her newest partner Tony Abbott. The impeccably dressed Bishop smiles awkwardly as Abbott throws an arm around her shoulders, squeezes a few times, and tells the media mob before them, "She's a loyal girl". His grin is wide and goofy. And just in case we haven't all caught the message about who is boss, he squeezes Bishop one more time. She didn't show it on the outside, but surely Bishop flinched on the inside, knowing she wasn't a "loyal" girl at all. She hadn't voted for Abbott in the leadership ballot, and only the night before she'd been mocking him with her ex. She'd been laughing about his budgie smugglers and – according to a jilted Malcolm Turnbull – saying a whole lot more"

      Phillip Coorey SMH Dec '09


    4. Sorry -wrong author.
      Should be Virginia Haussegger.

      It did seem a bit strange.
      Oh and here's a bit more from the same article:
      "Australia no longer has room at the top for men who hug their female colleagues like baby sisters and call them loyal girls. Or mutter "that's bullshit" to their female opponents, while smiling for the cameras and refusing to look them in the eye. We've long passed the time when women will tolerate having their reproductive choices taken away from them: when they will accept a male health minister blocking their access to safe termination options. Women are well beyond being lectured to by men about unwanted pregnancies and told they must be "ashamed". And as economic and careers pressures continue to force women to delay childbearing, women are angry to hear the likes of Tony Abbot tell them that a woman at 43 is too old to deserve Medicare support for IVF. It may well be a difficult age at which to have a baby, but it's a woman's choice, not Abbott's. We all know that.

      Such public patronising of women doesn't wash with the general public anymore. They vote it down."

      Read more: http://www.smh.com.au/opinion/politics/weve-moved-on-from-abbotts-conservative-chorus-20091204-kae1.html#ixzz28T8UNNKT


  2. "Labor's handbag hit squad'

    That's from Kelly's article [yeah I followed your advice and got behind the paywall].
    Repeating Liberal spin that is both aggressive [hit squad] and sexist [handbag].
    Using the Liberal spin phrase as if factual despite acknowledging [not that it really makes that much difference] that not all Abbott's critics are male and...by this stage I was getting sick of Kelly's BS ..essentially ignoring Abbott's long history of aggression and misogyny and that attacks on his character are usually reactive not proactive and come from the public and not just the government and ...nup I'd read enough, too much actually.
    Thanks for confirming why I don't bother read the OO.


    ps Can't help being curious about Monday's Newspoll.

    1. Apparently there was a Newspoll last weekend but it has never been released.

  3. I thought wheeling out Peta was desperate, this is just pathetic. Are Crosby/Textor even trying anymore? Margie wanting to watch the footy whilst dear Tones pines for Downton Abbey?! Have we slipped into an early 90s sitcom? Will one of his best friends emerge as an asylum seeker next?

    Interesting that they deploy the emergency ballast after an error from a third party, god help them the next time Tones makes an ass of himself in a moderately serious interview.

  4. Last night I saw a Channel 9 Sunrise retweet about Tony and a special surprise guest being on in the morning. ( My imagination didn't stretch to Margie and the kids with the mother thrown in for free. The kids in bikinis provided an interesting touch though - but I digress)

    Later today I read Grog's excellent piece about the co-ordinated News Ltd coverage of this circus.

    Its just all so, so sad. Even though we know our news media is bad - we don't want the fact of this rubbed in our faces quite like this.

    Policy discussion anyone...

    David Perth

  5. Mel Gibson is married and has six children as well....

    Propaganda and family is such a tired old trick of the political class

    Obama doesnt have the same problem....why?

    Pvo put his own wife on his show to discuss nepotism and Jones


    joe hockey reveaked on kitchen cabinet that Mr Abbott thumped him at University

    Nice eh?

  6. Can we all now finally admit that News Ltd is focused solely putting Abbott in the Lodge?

    I know this isn't a shock to anyone, well, maybe Mark Scott is surprised, but can we finally stop pretending now?

    I find it hard to believe that these professional 'journalists' spent all those years working hard at school and university, perhaps slogging away for a few years at a small country newspaper, honing their writing skills and no doubt initially motivated by noble intentions, all this to become essentially a ghost writer for the Liberal Party.

    Do we have salt mines in Australia?

    1. No, but we do have a bunch of journos puzzled as to why their influence with the wider public is non-existent.

  7. Lost amongst Margiegate was Abbott's other gem yesterday: calling Credlin his 'defacto deputy leader'.

    In other words, in his desperation to prove how comfortable he is with wimmin Abbott craps all over ... Julie Bishop!

    He. Is. On. Fire!

  8. Blame the creepy Americanisation of Australian politics


    Gen y will do the same

    just watch

  9. Any chance Alby and Bill will do a bit of shirt fronting in the party room next week?

    1. Not really. Alby decided Costello should have been PM at one point, shows you what he knows

  10. Peta Credlin

    Hollow and shallow apparatchik

    Democracy is dead

    These women are really destroying the joint

    1. Nobody voted for her, but you watch how she'll cop the blame when Abbott falls over.

  11. Yes

    The point is theyre unelected staffers

    Thats the point

    Its not democratic

  12. I find it strange that the Liberals have only now realised that Tony Abbott is seen as a massive jerk by most Australians (women in particular).

    Who would have thought? Acting like an aggressive boofhead has consequences.

  13. Gillard killed it today in Parliament

  14. Great article Andrew, as usual, but please it's "apprise" not "appraise"!

  15. Sorry - on its first appearance. I believe your use of it towards the end of the article was correct.

  16. Bobalot

    Our pm performed extremely well against an Oxbridge educated jerk

    They are both eloquent in their own way

    Thats the dreg of the middle class for you within the political class

    Slippers resignation has made this into a Greek tragedy today

  17. I'm pleased Tony has a nice family but as a tactic, this is too little too late.

    The Coalition should wake up and realise Turnbull is their only hope.

  18. And Sensitive Tone accidentally used 'died of shame' again. I wonder how Margie will explain yet another disgusting gutter slur from her loving feminist husband.

  19. And, what a genius: using the "died of shame" again. Margie needn't have bothered

  20. The PMs tongue lashing has gone down in the history books as a great speech, while Abbotts15minute build up to the masterstroke ' died of shame' barb has withered and died.
    Ironically, his name will be forever linked to Gillards because of the most humiliating slapdown dished out by our first female PM.
    Guess he could look on the bright side -at least in the years to come, when his name is raised, we will remember, " Tony Abbott? oh yeah, the guy who got bitch slapped by Julia Gillard!"