If you think David Cameron has a ‘woman’s problem’, meet Tony Abbott: the new Australian PM who, among other things, said people should vote for him because he has “not bad looking” daughters. Now he’s only employed one woman to his cabinet, tensions are at boiling point says Australian writer Van Badham.
When then Prime Minister of Australia Julia Gillard denounced her opposite number, the conservative Tony Abbott, as “the definition of misogyny in modern Australia”, her words, and her fury, went viral. She had, after all, been subjected to the man’s taunts, eye-rolling, jibes and sexist comments for the entire tenure of her prime ministership. Women across the globe recognised her level of frustration as a woman in a leadership position consistently undermined by gendered attacks. Abbott had, after all, challenged the Labor Prime Minister to “make an honest woman of herself”. He’d been photographed in front of protest signs denouncing the Prime Minister as a “bitch” and “witch”. He’d said that “abortion is the easy way out” for women, that women were “physiologically unsuited to leadership”. When Gillard tore him to shreds the whole world seemed behind her, but, alas, Australia wasn’t listening: on September 7, 2013, Tony Abbott was elected Prime Minister in a federal election.
His opponent wasn’t Gillard, but Kevin Rudd – the former Prime Minister whose internal battle to regain the leadership Gillard herself had earlier wrested from him became the deciding narrative of this election cycle. It’s often said that Australians don’t vote for conservative governments but against Labor ones, and the destabilising, internecine Labor warfare had dominated the news since Rudd’s deposition in 2010. With Labor effectively doomed by infighting, all Tony Abbott has to do was keep a low profile to win the election. He refused to be interviewed. He released policies in dot points and with no costings. When humiliated by Gillard in her “misogyny speech”, Tony Abbott’s people immediately swamped the press with pictures of the man surrounded by his wife and three young adult daughters. “My Tony’s a Good Man,” was the official line, avec photo of devoted wife, used to douse what conservatives knew was Tony’s “woman problem”.
Australians got to see a lot of the Abbott daughters, usually dressed in white, over the course of the campaign. Infamously, Abbott released a “vote for me” message to the Australian Big Brother household, flanked by the girls and with the actually expressed sentiment “Vote for me because I’m the guy with the not bad looking daughters”. He appeared on a cooking programme with his daughters as his kitchen assistants. He deployed them as talking shields when questions were raised of what appeared to be sexist behaviour on the campaign trail; when Tony Abbott described one of his own candidates, Fiona Scott, as being worth voting for because she had “sex appeal”, the incident was written off as a “daggy dad” moment. It was a “daggy dad” moment when he suggested to video a female worker in a service utility was “popular” because of the way she looked. It was again a “daggy dad” moment when Tony Abbott had himself videoed with a teenage female netball team and expressed the desire “to be younger” and that “a bit of full body contact never hurt anyone”.
Again and again the women of Australia were reassured by conservative spokespeople that Tony was no sexist, but that it was Gillard herself who’d played “the gender card” in her famous speech. The Abbott daughters spoke at their father’s campaign launch. His wife gave exclusive interviews about how much he loved women to just about everyone. He got elected.
Thing is, merely saying someone is not sexist does not alter reality if they truly are. Tony Abbott has been Prime Minister for a week and has just announced his ministry and cabinet. Of eighteen cabinet ministers chosen by Abbott, only one, Julie Bishop, the new Foreign Minister, is a woman. In Gillard’s cabinet, there were seven. Of the 12 parliamentary secretaries chosen by Abbott, only one there is female, too. Abbott has excused his selection by saying that he’s “disappointed” there aren’t more women in his cabinet, but that it’s been chosen “on merit” and there are women “knocking on the door” of cabinet in the outer ministry – still, of course, heavily outnumbered by men. That Abbott’s cabinet contains a Treasurer who couldn’t correctly add up a costings document, an Attorney General who believes religious rights trump human rights and an agriculture minister who thinks equal marriage rights for gay couples might somehow affect his daughters’ chances of finding husbands, the “merit” defence does not carry much weight. Especially not, as the Labor Opposition Leader pointed out today, Australia now has less female representation at cabinet level than Afghanistan.
It’s a sorry state of affairs for what has been a modern and progressive country to find itself in, and what it will mean for Australian women to have a leader who doesn’t enfranchise women at a political level, who has actively campaigned against abortion rights and said “the right of women to withhold sex … needs to be moderated” is a thought this writer can only countenance with nausea and dread.
The impassioned reaction of outgoing Australian senator Sue Boyce to the ministry announcement sums up what many are feeling. “Shocked and embarrassed,” she announced to the press today, “How embarrassing to be a government with only one woman at a senior level”.
She’s not an ideological opponent of Abbott’s, either. She’s a senator of his own party.