Tony Abbott and the politics of gender

Kate Gleeson, Macquarie University
Carol Johnson, University of Adelaide

Susan Mitchell Tony Abbott: A Man’s Man, Melbourne, Scribe, 2011 (196 pp). ISBN 9-78192184-430-0 (paperback) RRP $32.95.

Susan Mitchell is best known for her biographies of prominent Australian women, including the late Margaret Whitlam. Her recent book on Tony Abbott is very different. It neither claims to be a conventional biography nor a scholarly work of political science. Rather, it would sit comfortably within the longstanding, respectable tradition of political pamphleteering. Peaking at the turn of the 20th century, the political pamphlet was the most direct means by which to influence votes and raise awareness of impending doom and crisis. Today’s imminent source of national destruction is, according to Mitchell, Tony Abbott, the ‘most dangerous man’ ever to seek office in Australia (p. 1).

Consequently, we found ourselves in very unexpected circumstances on reading this book, namely the need to argue for a much more nuanced feminist analysis than the passionate critique of Abbott as a ‘man’s man’ that Susan Mitchell provides here. Mitchell rightly identifies the lack of scholarship on Abbott and the modern conservatives, and argues that we need to look behind the labels of ‘the Mad Monk’ and ‘Captain Catholic’ to understand his motivations. But hers risks being an overly simplistic picture based, at times, on speculative attempts at psychoanalysis of Abbott and his family, which falls short of its aims of providing a deeper understanding of the man she fears might one day lead the country.

There is no doubting the sincerity and passion motivating Mitchell, who seems genuinely to fear Abbott in office. And there is no disputing some of her observations about Abbott’s rash and unpredictable leadership style, especially his inconsistency (or incapacity) on policy, and his conservative social views. She also does a good job of bringing together some (although not all) of his most politically contentious statements on women and other social issues, including unemployment and welfare. But the book suffers from its tone and the urgency with which it was written undermines what might otherwise have been a timely examination of the complex enigma that is Tony Abbott. ‘Enigma’ because, although Mitchell seems determined to diminish this fact, by all accounts the man she describes as both sexist and misogynous—though not ‘bad’ or ‘mad’ (p. 164)—is quite liked by many people including, at least, the occasional woman. Given Mitchell’s purpose of averting the Abbott ascendancy, she could have usefully spent more time determining the nature of his appeal.

Mitchell seems genuinely to fear Abbott in office.

In true pamphlet style the book constitutes a warning, that Abbott is dangerous because of his ‘retrogressive beliefs about women’ (p. 1) and his narrow ideological outlook in general; both the product of his elite male-centric upbringing. He is incapable of change because his values were ‘created and nurtured by men from another era’, namely the Catholic clergy (p. 2); the opinions and experiences of women are all but irrelevant to Abbott, unless expressed as fawning admiration. This neglect of the role of women in Abbott’s life presents the first hurdle to credibility for Mitchell, who risks being guilty of the crime with which she most passionately tars her subject. In her determination to elevate the men in Abbott’s life as an easy answer, the women who know and like (or even love) him are dismissed.

In her efforts to ‘prove’ Abbott’s misogyny, Mitchell makes some unfortunate errors of judgment, juxtaposing his views with Churchill’s opposition to suffrage (p. 16) (can she really be suggesting that Abbott opposes the vote for women?) and intimating that he shares the views of B.A. Santamaria (1915–98), the inspirational prophet of the DLP who thought that women belong in the home (p. 22). Yet as she notes, Abbott’s wife works and his mother apparently graduated with a science degree before working as a dietician, both unusual accomplishments for women in the 1950s (p. 9). Abbott also appears to greatly admire at least one woman in a leadership position, namely the Queen. However, the most excessive intimation is the one which, astonishingly, appears partly to compare Abbott to Norwegian terrorist and mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik (p. 163) for ‘indulging his killer instinct’ in ‘demonising’ Julia Gillard.

Unfortunately, Mitchell’s commitment to her thesis that Abbott’s parliamentary behavior may be explained by his misogynous reaction to Gillard leads her to undercut some of her more perceptive observations that are worthy of rigorous analysis. The lowering of the tone of political debate, so that it has become ‘aggressive, combative, warlike’ (p. 5) under Abbott, might also be understood as an outcome or symptom of perceived convergence of the major parties on some key issues. This factor is denied in Mitchell’s analysis, that posits Abbott as the lone freak in the circus that is Australian politics. Malcolm Turnbull was deposed as opposition leader partly because he was seen as too similar to Rudd on issues such as climate change, as well as being too small ‘l’ liberal in his social views. The Messiah that Abbott represented when elected to the leadership—by one vote—in 2009 was destined to present a front of aggressive difference. Does Mitchell really believe Abbott’s style would have been significantly different had Rudd somehow survived to form a minority government in 2010? Indeed, it is even possible that Gillard’s elevation to the leadership had the unintended outcome for Labor of causing Abbott to slightly ‘soften’ his style so as not to seem too aggressive towards a female opponent. This might also go some way to explaining his repeated public appearances with his wife and daughters, which also conveniently drew attention to Gillard being unmarried and not having children.

Mitchell’s focus on Abbott’s alleged misogyny sidelines other important factors.

This begs the question of which other important factors at play in today’s political climate have been sidelined in Mitchell’s focus on Abbott’s alleged misogyny. She claims the demolition of the characters and careers of Pauline Hanson and Cheryl Kernot as further evidence of Abbott’s unprincipled and obsessive sexism. But here, as elsewhere, Mitchell overlooks the way in which Abbott mobilises his hyper-masculine ‘action man’ identity against men too, not just women. Abbott’s (2010) dismissal of Kevin Rudd as ‘all talk and no action’ was a particularly effective attack on Rudd’s masculinity. It also reinforced the very concerns about Rudd’s failures in policy delivery that contributed to his eventual removal as prime minister by his Labor colleagues. Nor was it totally new for Liberal leaders to use masculinity against their opponents. After all Bush’s ‘Man of Steel’, John Howard, had mobilised a strong and protective (albeit grandfatherly rather than action man) masculinity against the man Liberals depicted as ‘flip flop’ Beazley (Davies 2009). Further, Abbott’s (2009, p. 19) central belief that ‘government’s role is to give people a hand up, not a handout’ fits well with the Liberals’ longstanding support for a form of neo-liberal citizen identity modelled on self-reliant masculinity, and opposed to the feminised ‘nanny state’ (Abbott 2011a). It was a view exemplified many years ago in John Hewson’s policy manifesto Fightback!, which Abbott played a key role in writing, but which also reflected a broader tendency in neo-liberalism internationally (Abbott 2009, p. 18; see further Johnson 1993). Above all, Abbott’s frequent ‘action man’ appearances in a hard hat and fluoro vest are clearly designed to appeal to male blue collar Labor voters.

Also, let’s not forget the mutual boys-own posturing of Abbott and Mark Latham in parliament. Latham’s election as opposition leader in 2003 was met with an extraordinary personal spray from Abbott, who claimed:

the fact is that the Leader of the Opposition is no alternative Prime Minister, because in the end it is character that counts. There is the scorned former political mentor, there is the abandoned first wife and there is the bashed taxi driver—this trail of human wreckage that the Leader of the Opposition has left behind him—all who testify to the fact that there is a brutal streak to the member for Werriwa. I hope he can overcome this, but he is already 42 and leopards do not change their spots’ (2003, p. 23857).

Arguably, it was Latham who started that round of attacks. It was he who in described conservative Christian MPs in the Lyons Forum, including Abbott, as ‘a group of fundamentalists with a Bible in the top drawer and a Hustler magazine and a box of tissues in their bottom drawer’ (1996, p. 4741). And it was he who used parliamentary privilege to call a female journalist a ‘skanky ho’ (Ooi 2011). Latham commonly used his own masculinity to belittle and emasculate his male political opponents. Howard was depicted as an ‘arse-licker’ (Kelly 2002) with its implication that he was subservient to George W. Bush rather than being a red-blooded heterosexual male. Latham also questioned Tony Abbott’s masculinity: ‘Maybe Doug Cameron was right. The fellow that Abbott beat in the boxing final at Oxford went on to be the director of the Royal Ballet in London’ (2003, p. 133). Elsewhere, Latham (2002a) described Abbott as a ‘precious little petal’. Meanwhile, Peter Costello was denounced by Latham (2002b) as having ‘had more makeovers than Madonna, more image changes than Gary Glitter’. So, Latham’s political style was also deeply gendered (and heteronormative), as can be the broader parliament, in which women all too often find themselves conforming to macho norms. Gillard was congratulated by Abbott in a rare moment of apparently authentic respect, when, in parliament in 2009, she described Liberal MP Christopher Pyne as ‘mincing’ and a ‘poodle’ (Maley 2011). ‘Blokism’ can be the name of the game for those who want to succeed in the Australian parliament. What the voters make of all this might be a different matter. Unfortunately, Abbott’s mobilisation of aggressive masculinity is far from unique in contemporary Australian politics and needs to be situated in that broader political context. Given her over reliance on Michael Duffy’s 2004 book Abbott and Latham, it is very surprising that Mitchell does not present Abbott’s behaviour and temperament in its enduring context.

Latham’s political style was also deeply gendered, as can
be the broader parliament.

Mitchell suggests that Abbott is of most risk to women, with their reproductive rights and access to abortion in clear and present danger should he come to power. Reading Mitchell, one might presume that Abbott represents the only political threat to women in this area. But as history tells us, when it comes to abortion and its associated rights, eternal vigilance is essential. Unfortunately, Mitchell doesn’t always portray Abbott’s interventions on abortion completely accurately. She wrongly labels the abortion pill RU486 the ‘morning after pill’, and claims that the RU486 legislation passed in 2006 arose because Abbott intended to enforce the existing ban on the drug ‘for the first time’ (p. 101). But RU486 had never been available in Australia. In a pre-emptive strike by Brian Harradine, its access was restricted to the authority of the health minister and parliament in 1996 as part of as part of a deal struck by the Howard Government to allow the partial sale of Telstra. Harradine’s anti-abortion legislation was passed with bipartisan support, with ALP members uncharacteristically denied a conscience vote, and Abbott’s fingerprints nowhere to be found on the deal. On Harradine’s retirement, women senators on the cross benches moved to reverse his legislation, which Abbott resisted vociferously until he was trounced in the vote, and RU486 was returned to the authority of the Therapeutic Goods Administration to be treated like every other drug. The most concerning aspect of Mitchell’s analysis is her conclusion, that ‘something is rotten in the current Liberal Party and the stench can be traced back to the current leader’ (p. 155). This overlooks the role of many men (and some women) in parliament in undermining abortion and other rights.

Surprisingly, Mitchell is apparently unfamiliar with Abbott’s most ambitious foray in this area, when in 2005 he attempted to take control of the Medical Benefits Schedule, to determine that Medicare benefits were not payable for items ‘the government does not wish to fund’. It was his most obedient servant Christopher Pyne who introduced the offending legislation, which, again, was immediately torpedoed by women MPs who recognised it as an attack on abortion and IVF (Gleeson 2011). Mitchell’s conclusion detracts attention from those anti-abortion MPs who remain in parliament such as Pyne, Barnaby Joyce, Ron Boswell and others—members who know that an abortion bill, of any flavour, will never emanate from a party leader. Her analysis also overlooks the effect of the work of the women MPs who have now twice beat Abbott at his game. Mitchell suggests Abbott is incapable of change, but his rhetoric about abortion is radically different since he was publicly humiliated over RU486 in 2006, and had to compete with Gillard in the 2010 election.

Mitchell appears to be blindsided by the men in Abbott’s life, to the detriment of recognising the role of women. Commitment to the hypothesis that he is incapable of change leads Mitchell to diminish his conversion to the case of paid parental leave as merely cynical, when Abbott himself gives credit to his fellow women MPs, such as Jackie Kelly, for making the case clear to him, informing his rare ‘Damascus’ policy moment (Abbott 2009, p. 103). The Women’s Electoral Lobby and the Greens both applauded Abbott’s parental leave policy for shaming the alternative, paltry ALP baby-bonus-in-instalments. Admittedly, Abbott can also construct parental leave as supporting families, and it was no doubt partly designed to mitigate his problem with women voters. Nonetheless Abbott’s ability to shift on this key policy indicates that his flexibility and strategic thinking should not be underestimated. After all, Abbott now proclaims it as evidence that ‘the Coalition gets it when it comes to the modern woman’ (cited in Maiden 2012, p. 39). He has also recently declared his intention to ask the Productivity Commission to examine the possibility of extending the Child Care Rebate to cover nannies—a reform he sees as an important ‘economic’ issue because ‘we want as many women as can be to have challenging and demanding careers rather than having to fit in a bit of work around the edges’ (Peatling 2012). These statements imply that Abbott still sees childcare as predominantly a female responsibility, but they are also supportive of women’s workforce participation, and demonstrate his policy flexibility. Abbott is clearly attempting to close in on the voter gender gap and to argue that Liberal ‘women’ s policy’ is more generous than the government’s.

Mitchell suggests Abbott is incapable
of change.

Further, Mitchell’s focus on Abbott as the key source of what is ‘rotten’ (p. 155) in the Liberal Party in regard to women, overlooks the Liberal government’s record under Howard of defunding feminist organisations and dismantling women’s policy advice machinery (see, for example, Sawer 2003). In particular, Abbott’s social conservatism in regard to women needs to be situated in the context of the Howard Government’s attempts to merge a social conservative opposition to new social movements, such as feminism, with a neo-liberal critique of so-called ‘special interest’ groups. Here, as elsewhere, Mitchell’s attempts to discredit Abbott by simply depicting him as a man who is out of his time, with old fashioned values shaped by a range of older male mentors, neglects the fact that contemporary politics is still deeply gendered.

That broader contemporary gender politics also helps to explain some of Abbott’s success in undermining Julia Gillard. This is not to deny that Gillard has made key strategic mistakes, nor that the government has often seemed incapable of selling its policy successes, never mind explaining its policy failures. However, Abbott’s mobilisation of masculinity has had some success precisely because politics is still a highly gendered sphere and that has been used by all of Gillard’s detractors including, we suggest, by forces aligned with Kevin Rudd. After all, it was a Labor insider who originally accused Gillard of having queried the cost of pension increases and paid parental leave in cabinet—a leak that, as was noted at the time, also evoked gender stereotypes by depicting her as uncaring and therefore unwomanly (Kenny 2010).

The specific circumstances of Rudd’s removal as prime minister were certainly unusual. However, it is hardly unusual for male political leaders to make it into office by removing their predecessors. Nonetheless, the Liberals have become masters at implying that Gillard’s ascension to the leadership was done in a way that was inappropriate and unusually bloodthirsty for a woman; that she is a particularly devious and untrustworthy female and the puppet of ruthless ‘faceless men’ (see, for example, Pyne 2012, p. 61). The constant questioning of her legitimacy as Prime Minister can also work as a subtext, implicitly raising the legitimacy of having a woman in that role at all.

Abbott’s opponents have made the mistake of underestimating
him before.

Abbott has also repeatedly implied that Gillard can’t empathise with the concerns of ordinary Australian families because she is unmarried and doesn’t have children. That is why he declared at the beginning of the 2010 leadership debate that ‘my wife, Margie, and I know what it’s like to raise a family, to wrestle with a big mortgage, with grocery bills and school fees’ (Abbott & Gillard 2010). He also alluded to Gillard’s unmarried state when he claimed that ‘Only an election could make an honest politician of this Prime Minister’ (Abbott 2011b). However, once again, neither Abbott nor the Opposition is alone in evoking deeply gendered political subtexts. For example, it is noteworthy that an ABC comedy program on the Prime Minister was entitled ‘At Home With Julia’— a century after the suffragists asserted the right of women to be active in the public sphere, and not to be defined by their role in private, domestic life.

Gillard’s current attempts to assert her legitimacy and authority against her opponents, by being a tough and ‘forceful advocate of the government’s policies’ (2012), will also pose difficulties for her. She faces the normal dilemma of female politicians: trying to walk the tightrope between not appearing too weak on the one hand, or too aggressive on the other, in other words, of neither appearing too feminine or too unfeminine (see further Messner 2007, p. 466; Johnson 2010). It is a dilemma her opponents are only too happy to exploit.

Of course, none of this is to deny that Abbott is vulnerable to accusations that some of his statements on women, in the past in particular, have been exceedingly old fashioned. However, just as John Howard learned to reformulate his message on immigration more subtly than he had in 1988, so has Abbott learned how to evoke socially conservative responses on gender without articulating them so explicitly. Similarly, his particular model of masculinity may make him a target and explain some of his difficulty with sections of women voters. Other conservative leaders, such as David Cameron, have attempted to depict themselves more as new age men, particularly in the lead-up to elections (see further Johnson 2010). (That said, Cameron’s gentler image is harder to sustain now the Conservatives are introducing savage budget austerity measures.) On the Labor side, Latham fell victim to a perception that he was too aggressive. So, Mitchell may be correct: Abbott’s negativity and hyper-masculine aggression may not stand the test of time (p. 168).

However, Abbott’s opponents have made the mistake of underestimating him before. Abbott is a highly intelligent and highly skilled politician, who is also an excellent communicator. Mitchell clearly believes that polemically dismissing Abbott as hopelessly out of date on women’s issues is both true and a good political strategy. Nonetheless, it is important not to underestimate the degree of success Abbott has achieved in mining the rich vein of contemporary gender politics against both his male and female political opponents.


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Dr Kate Gleeson is an Australian Research Council Fellow in Politics at Macquarie University. She is currently writing a history of sexual politics in Australia.

Carol Johnson is a professor in the School of History and Politics at the University of Adelaide. Her main teaching and research interests are in Australian politics, the politics of gender and sexuality, the politics of emotion and analyses of ideology and discourse.

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