We do not educate women to higher degree level to deny them a career. If we want women of that calibre to have families, and we should, well we have to give them a fair dinkum chance to do so. That is what this scheme [Coalition policy] of paid parental leave is all about.Tony Abbott has copped a lot of stick over the use of the word 'calibre' to describe well-educated, highly paid women, in an attempt to ascribe inherent virtue to them that goes beyond an individual's intelligence, drive, support networks, and good fortune. Some of it comes from a transgression of a basic rule of politics, but most of it comes from the force that comment has in smashing the contorted views of Abbott that are starting to appear like so many mushrooms: that Abbott is actually a nice guy, that he's not a snob or a sexist, that he'd be a decent Prime Minister, and that there is some sort of link between what he says and the policy outcomes we can expect from him.
- Tony Abbott, 7 May 2013, defending Liberal policy on paid parental leave
It's a basic rule of Australian politics that Liberals can't afford to be seen to be snobs. Every successful Liberal leader has promised stability and opportunity for (pretty much) everyone. Every failed Liberal leader has, fairly or not, created the impression that only those who are already wealthy deserve tax breaks and subsidies and other measures that cement them at the top of the heap. Current Liberal proposals to lower the tax-free threshold and tax superannuation for lower-income earners is mind-bogglingly stupid. It's hubris in its purest essence, and they will not look convincing when they have to run away from it.
As David Marr points out, Tony Abbott comes from a group of ambitious North Shore people who have been given lots of advantages in life and who are driven by a wish to appear to make the most of them. He's engaged in mutual admiration with Nick Cater over what they see as virtuous defence of the wealthy and the unity of wealth with virtue. Another high-profile example of this phenomenon is Miranda Devine, Abbott's sister-from-another-mother. Marr claims Abbott is not a snob, a common Canberra Insider theme, yet he acts all surprised when Abbott comes out with the 'calibre' comment, or the idea that men are to have dominion over women, or this excerpt from a speech he wrote for John Hewson twenty years ago (complete with, ah, Abbott's verbal, um, mannerisms):
In any street, of course, it's always easy to tell the rented houses. They're the ones where the lawn isn't mowed, the plants aren't watered and the fences aren't fixed.Abbott isn't a snob, he's an honourable man: and so says David Marr.
Abbott's Pollie Pedal is supposed to balance his fitness obsession with his generosity of spirit. No journalist looks into where the money goes, or even whether it's appropriate to bedeck himself in sponsorship. The fact that he claims a daily allowance for this supposedly recreational/charity work shows you what no journalist can bear to confront about this man. Marr wrote about Abbott's drop in income after going into Opposition without questioning why others similarly affected sucked it up and moved on.
Marr says Abbott is generous and unconcerned with money, and Marr is a great journalist.
The Liberals have put a lot of work into convincing aspirational voters who rely on their own efforts, and who no longer have steady, unionised jobs on offer, that a Liberal vote is the right vote for them. A retreat into the university-educated professions imperils that, and makes a joke of twenty years of careful long-term strategy. They sneer at Prime Minister Gillard for her insistence that a good education is the answer, yet in the 'calibre' comment is the tacit admission that she's right.
Clementine Ford makes two important points about Abbott's paid parental leave (PPL) policy. The first is that we are being asked to believe that he really is committed to his policy in a time of austerity, when he wasn't at a time of relative plenty:
When Abbott says, "we do not educate women to higher degree level to deny them a career", he's echoing a long held (liberal) feminist viewpoint. What was forgotten in Tuesday's online melee was that Abbott had earlier also said, "It's a very important sign that we get it when it comes to the modern family, the modern family invariably needs more than just one income. If we want to encourage families to have kids, if we want to make it easier for women to have careers and families, we need something like a proper paid parental leave scheme.Not quite 'something for everyone'. It represents an improvement over the government's current policy (a reverse of the parties' relative NBN policies), so in that sense Abbott is devoting a lot of effort to solve what in policy terms is a non-problem. What he is doing, of course, is attempting to address the very real problem over his perception by women - until he disowns it in the name of a budget surplus.
"We can't really afford to lose so many highly capable women in the prime of life and from the workforce. So I think this is not just a family policy or a social policy. It's not just something for women. This is something for everyone."
Fine words from a man who once said compulsory paid maternity leave would happen "over this government’s dead body, frankly. What we'll end up doing [with universal maternity leave] is creating more resentment in society. More division, more alienation and, I suspect, not produce more freedom of opportunity for women to enter the workforce."
Ford's point about analysis is well made. Rather than go for the gotcha, the media should analyse policies to the extent that Eva Cox did on PPL. It's inadequate to describe the Coalition's workplace relations policy to the extent that it isn't like WorkChoices, nor like Fair Work - hardly seems worth doing, really. The press gallery seem to be taking it seriously, and when you're stuck in the politico-media complex that counts for everything.
Tony Abbott was raised to think that social cohesion is under threat, and that women in the workforce is one of those threats: yet he is married to a woman with a career, and may well regard his daughters among the 'women of calibre' he describes. The trouble is, he hasn't reconciled those thoughts in his own head, and hasn't worked out which forms the basis for the policies with which he would govern us. He might recite Shakespeare or Augustine by the yard, if not the chain, but he can't reconcile competing thoughts within his own skull. It's that compartmentalisation that makes him unstable: you never know which bucket - thug bucket, Oxford bucket, Santamaria bucket - his thoughts will come from.
Marr can't critique Abbott effectively because he accepts Abbott's compartmentalisation. Tony Abbott is an intelligent and thoughtful man, and so says the press gallery.
This gets to the most genuinely horrible defence of Tony Abbott, by Mia Freedman:
Ok. So he proposes to do something extremely progressive, swims against the tide of many in his own party and floats a Paid Parental Scheme that leap-frogs the current scheme to the overwhelming benefit of women. And? Those same women seek to slam him for it, based on a single word.OK.
These predictably gleeful Gotcha! moments have become the toxic albatross of politics, sapping it of all authenticity and turning it into stultifyingly boring rhetoric. Wall-to-wall blah-blah-blah.
So what Tony giveth, Tony can and often does take away. If you know anything about Abbott at all (and the whole idea of the pics that prop up Freedman's piece is that she has some direct personal insight into those people that you and I lack), you know that his entire public life has been this doh-si-doh of making a statement, backtracking on it, making another statement etc.; anything to keep his name in the media without clarifying what he might do.
It's telling that the Liberal Party's once-formidable women were not the source of PPL policy; and that if Abbott, Joe Hockey and Andrew Robb change their minds on it, there's bugger-all those women can or will do about it (more so for non-Liberal proponents like Cox or Freedman). Labor and Greens people complain about abuses of democratic party processes more than Liberals, but if you're going to live by the sword of unilateral power then be prepared to die by it.
What's really revolting, though, is the idea that the penalty for going after Abbott's true opinions is to suffer more and more bullshit. The "wall-to-wall blah-blah-blah" only occurs when you have a media that places more of a premium on dumbly quoting what is said and avoiding actual analysis of policies and motives.
The reason why politicians' words are scrutinised, and why journalists occasionally draw them out on what they say, is because we need to know what they are doing with the power they have and what they might do if they had more. The sorts of people Freedman are used to interviewing are celebrities, who generate "wall-to-wall blah-blah-blah" because that's what they do. Tony Abbott's words are scrutinised because if he becomes Prime Minister, his words and actions will have real impacts on the real lives of real people. Abbott's verbal doh-si-dohs means you can't really tell what he thinks or what he might do.
Freedman sees bullshit (or as she calls it "wall-to-wall blah-blah-blah") as some sort of punishment for examining what is true - and that only if we accept what is said and done passively, then the defensive wall-of-blah might go away. I can't describe how much I reject that. There is no proof for it and we would be no better off, not even Freedman whose picfac opportunities (and that's what she really cares about, amirite?) would continue regardless.
I think Abbott's a bullshitter. He's about as likely to introduce a PPL as he is to climb Mount Everest. I also think he's a weak leader, as you can see buried in this story from a friendly media outlet that's not about PPL:
The referendum may be uncomfortable for Opposition Leader Tony Abbott, following recent reports several in his party room oppose his in-principle support for it.It can't be uncomfortable. He's been doing this sort of thing for more than three years as Opposition Leader:
- He floats an idea vaguely in agreement with the government, because he has few ideas of his own (believe it or not he did this with carbon pricing);
- The far right of the Liberal Party don't have many ideas either, but they need the kind of self-definition that can come with deep thought about what you value and your relationship with others. These fragile people have power over Abbott, they are his powerbase, but wherever he disagree with him they override him;
- In this instance, they gain self-definition by opposing what Labor proposes: Labor propose recognising local government, they oppose it. They've done it before, in 1974 and 1988, which gave Peter Reith a purpose that he has since lost (unless you count getting your face on ABC TV is a purpose) but may yet recover.
Stop refusing to blame that man for generating pablum and nonsense. Stop claiming he's not a snob and whatever else the evidence points to, accept what he is. Stop blaming those he would govern. You reveal yourself as having too small a calibre to supply people with the information and policy outcomes that they - we - need to choose in order to build their/our - lives.