In other words, Abbott let down his base for the sake of wider, national obligations. Any fool can develop a base and pander to it, which is why we have a Parliament that includes (but is not full of) gimlet-eyed freaks like Cory Bernardi and Lee Rhiannon; the major parties' problems with sub-factional warlords like Laurie Ferguson and Bill Heffernan are
Last week, the media reported Abbott declaring himself to be a born-again believer in multiculturalism. They didn't say what he meant by that, they simply did no more than they have done for the past five years: they took Abbott at his word.
On Wednesday this week, Abbott's chief of staff Peta Credlin was reported (by the press gallery's most Very Fine Journalists) as supporting the idea of banning Muslim women from Parliament if they cover their faces. Abbott said that he felt 'confronted' by such garments, despite (or because of?) their similarity to nuns' garb. Credlin and Abbott should be regarded as speaking with one voice on this matter.
When the Parliamentary Presiding Officers (Bronwyn Bishop and Stephen Parry) proposed shunting well-clad women to a glass enclosure, they were acting under Abbott's leadership. This is what it means to be a leader: to set the parameters, and have your followers fill in the details. It is rubbish to assert, as the Murdoch press does, that Bishop, Credlin and Parry were on some jag of their own with their monstrously silly proposal.
Those who reported these words did not relate his more recent words to his earlier ones. They should have, and in days gone by they would have, in an effort to show us how we are governed and what it means to be governed by these people now.
Targeting Muslim women is neither much of a problem nor a solution for government.
They are not well represented within the Nationals or the Liberal Party, in state or federal parliamentary ranks, nor atop its organisation, nor anywhere really. There are few Muslim women within political parties opposed (however nominally) to this government. There are no Muslim women in positions of power elsewhere in Australia, atop corporations or unions or other organisations with real clout. I can't think of any Muslim women with significant 'soft' or cultural power, but maybe that says more about me. They rarely feature in crime statistics, whether in violent or non-violent crimes.
Of the 60 (or is it 200?) Australians who have joined Daesh, I would be fascinated to know how many are well-clad women.
There are, as Waleed Aly points out, established procedures for screening well-clad people for weapons and facial recognition.
Muslim women wearing clothes that break up the lines of their bodies are, at worst, generally inoffensive; at best they may well be nice people and fine citizens of our nation. They would only be targeted by people insecure within themselves and unable to deal with their real problems.
This, of course, is the heart of the issue. The government spends a lot of time focused on a non-problem (no well-clad Muslim woman has apparently ever attended Parliament, let alone gotten rowdy there), while failing to deal effectively with real problems (health, education, the budget and all that it contains and means).
Anti-Muslim sentiment is a dog of a political tactic. Never mind that it's nasty, it just doesn't work.
Fred Nile has only turned to it because every plank in his political platform has crumbled beneath him: community support for abortion and homosexuality is strong not despite Nile, but because of him. Danny Nalliah disgraced himself by holding a World Congress of Families that omitted Muslims.
Whenever some local council considers a planning application for a mosque or Islamic school, the whole community is sullied by the ignorance and ugliness that results. Councils who vote them down embarrass themselves by citing traffic flow or whatever. They have to disguise the fact that they are voting against the worst elements of their own community as much as the application before them.
No community boasts, nor would any benefit from boasting, mosque-free status. This is true of places where the Muslim community is not big enough to want a mosque, or any service other than those provided by government to all residents. No politician in this country holds office because of anti-Muslim sentiment; even dills like George Christensen and Jacqui Lambie were elected for reasons other than that, and when they lose the Muslim vote will be the least of their problems.
The press gallery works in Parliament House, so what the Presiding Officers decide affects them directly (are there any Muslim women in the press gallery?) in a way that it doesn't affect those of us who don't. Because it works as a herd, and a lazy one, it decided The Story was whatever was closest to hand and easiest to understand.
The latter half of this week has apparently been all about a people who are not especially powerful but who, as Aly points out, suffer insults and shunning in ways that shame us all. Various deals to get the budget through, to go to war and to restrict our freedoms, have received less coverage than the non-issue of
Even proposals to send journalists to prison, similar to those incarcerating Peter Greste and his colleagues, have passed with little commentary from the press gallery. Only investigative journalists run that risk. They can't believe that good ol' Tony and George would ever do that to them, despite all the evidence and the fact that the government has led the press gallery away from the stories they should have been covering.
Because the government-supplied content was readily available, the press gallery has an excuse for not covering the real and important issues. When you don't have a clue, an excuse will do.
Even though few Muslim women visit Canberra the sting of exclusion will still be felt. Years from now they will flinch at entering a building that is as much yours or mine - as though they were second-class citizens in some way. This is a failure of leadership on Tony Abbott's part, and on the part of everyone who put and keeps him there.
Bronwyn Bishop is a nasty person. She was partisan when she chaired NSW Liberal State Council in the 1980s. As Defence Personnel Minister she covered up sexual abuse allegations. As Aged Care Minister she covered up pensioners getting kerosene baths. None of the press gallery could foresee what an awful Speaker she'd be, apparently, and none dare admit that Chris Pyne leads her by the nose. Her proposal to relegate people to different sections of the public gallery is both appalling and typical.
Lacking any real record of achievement, or a reputation for loving kindness, Bishop stands on her dignity. Her dignity has been sorely bruised lately, what with all those pictures of Pyne in her ear like a boy scout guiding some rickety pensioner across the street. Abbott now has to placate Bishop; a task at once huge and petty. She is not just another one of his ministers, who can simply be told to suck it up. She has statutory powers independent of Abbott, unlike ministers who can be overridden at will.
Howard was careful to balance the seeming independence of the Speaker while filling the role with those who would basically toe the line. Fraser appointed the man he rolled as leader, Billy Snedden, who also stood on his dignity and did not hesitate to put the Prime Minister in his place. If Abbott mishandles Bishop, as he probably will, watch her become more rebarbative and even-handed; watch the government lose some battles on the floor of the House.
Bronwyn Bishop has known Tony Abbott for decades, longer than any journalist; she probably thought that good ol' Tony would never drop her in it like this.
One day a Muslim woman will be elected to Parliament by thousands of voters. The Presiding Officers of the day will have to accommodate her rather than play silly-buggers as they are now. MPs cannot cover their faces as they vote in Parliament. This dates from an 18th century practice, where British MPs sent their butlers or coachmen cloaked-up into the voting lobbies while they enjoyed London. The fact that those butlers or coachmen would have made better MPs than many of their masters led to expansion of the voting franchise, and gave political staffers ideas above their station.
What this whole episode shows is that Muslim women don't appear to have the rights that other Australians have. There's a basic social compact which says that if you obey the laws, the government will leave you alone no matter what race or religion or gender you are. With the Prime Minister 'confronted' by Muslim women one day and placating them the next, nobody can be sure that they won't have some or all of their rights stripped away whenever the Prime Minister feels like it. These people are playthings of Liberal strategists (the kinds of 'strategists' whose busywork is utterly disconnected from the movement of actual votes in real elections), a situation that cannot endure.
The intervention of Senator Fierravanti-Wells into this debate is designed to make the government look reasonable. All it shows is that the "punishers and straighteners" aspect of conservatism is not its only basis, and that you can't tell whether to expect control-freakery or live-and-let-live from this government. It emphasises the mean and tricky nature of the current Prime Minister rather than deflecting from it.
Credit is due to the Labor Opposition and their principled stand against both the Presiding Officers and the Abbott government. The press gallery failed to give them that credit, and in so doing have failed us all.
Muslim women deserve the benefit of the doubt. The Abbott government, the Presiding Officers, and the press gallery, do not.