I am a woman and a feminist and I have a problem with Tony Abbott.
Much of the commentary around Abbott’s recent and somewhat astonishing ascension to the leadership of the Liberal Party has been his hypothesised problem with women. In fact it is not at all certain to what extent Abbott really does have a problem getting women’s support. But Tony Abbott is definitely a big problem for this woman.
The issues I have with Big Tony have nothing to do with his virile masculinity, nor are they related to his decisive, take-charge attitude. They are nothing to do with those things, because I am a woman, and (like all other women) I think. (Crazy, hey.)
Recently (and even though they’re all familiar with my dislike of many things right-wing and most things Tony Abbott) I have had more than one woman friend confess, blushingly, to finding the new leader of the Opposition a little attractive. It has, they say, something to do with charm, physical fitness and yes, the sense he is a man of action. Generally speaking women dig competence — so much that we will, at a pinch, accept merely the appearance of competence (which is what serves as the slightly shaky foundation of many a heterosexual relationship). But when I ask these friends if they’d actually cast a vote for Big Tony they look at me like I’m insane and promptly throw up a little in their mouths.
Explaining this extraordinary phenomenon requires sharing a secret long known to voting women everywhere.
Contrary to popular opinion, women are no more likely to vote for a dude based on what he’s packing in his budgie smugglers than a man is. I know the received opinion is that, as a demographic, women voters are all skittish, hysterical creatures, but it is reasonable to assume the issue of women’s competence to participate in democracy were fully canvassed when the men of the inaugural federal parliament ostensibly extended the franchise to all women in 1902.
Feel free to take a moment to let these revelations sink in.
So leaving aside Big Tony’s fearsome physique and intimidating blokey-ness why should Tony Abbott have a problem securing the women’s vote?
Miranda Devine doesn’t think that Tony Abbott has a problem with women. But her arguments don’t really amount to anything, as usual. Devine’s piece in defence of Big Tony was, typically, a thinly veiled attack on one of her pet bêtes noires — the feminists (not the cyclists this time, a group which might just benefit from Abbott’s ascension, considering his love of lycra sports). And not just any feminists: Devine has in her sights "paleo-feminists", whoever they are. (With a single compound noun Devine has managed to scale to dizzying heights of obtuseness — I understand I am probably one of these feminists and am therefore supposed to be offended, but I’m not sure exactly how.)
Nevertheless, from what I can gather, Devine’s paleo-feminist is a woman who supports women’s right to control their bodies. According to her, paleo-feminists don’t like Tony Abbott because he is explicitly opposed to women having that right. (Item: For all of Big Tony’s cries that he never tried to recriminalise abortion, the country is left wondering if that is only because he has not yet had the chance.)
If that’s what Devine’s "argument" boils down to, then she has once again merely stated the obvious: that among the enormous number of women (and men too, actually) who believe it is women’s right to control their own bodies, and who also believe we do not have the right to control the bodies of others, Tony Abbott does have an obvious and rather large problem.
Why might they get that idea? Let us for a moment think back to those heady days of the Howard government in 2006 when Claire Moore, Lyn Allison, Fiona Nash and Judith Troeth were able to work together to remove Abbott’s extraordinary and unprecedented power of veto over the importation of the abortion drug RU486. Abbott was unashamed about wanting to retain control over the drug’s approval because he wanted to restrict women’s access to abortion. He went so far as to request advice from his department and the Chief Medical Officer, Dr John Horvath, and then proceeded to publicly misrepresent the circumstances of the review and misuse the findings — so significantly that Horvath was forced to distance himself from Abbott’s interpretation. Not only did Tony Abbott as the minister for health not trust women to make choices about their lives and bodies, he didn’t trust doctors and he didn’t trust the Therapeutic Goods Administration.
The truth is — no matter what Devine might say — Abbott doesn’t like women, he doesn’t trust women and frankly many of them find that a pretty good reason not to like or trust him either. Furthermore, as one of them, I find it endlessly astonishing that the Liberal party, supposedly the bastion of smaller government and less intervention, is full of people who are ardently in favour of regulating who we sleep with, who we marry, what we do to our bodies, who can have children and how.
Actually this is not just an issue for women. We should all find this troubling. Of course, we should be unhappy that in a country where state and church are separate a man would let himself be led in his role as minister for health by his responsibility to his church first and to his constituents second. But more than Abbott’s position on abortion, which is not unique to him (many politicians including Stephen Conroy voted against removing ministerial veto of RU486), we should be concerned that he would behave in a manner that means that the integrity of his role is compromised by his religious position.
So why else might women find Big Tony alarming? Well, for the same reasons anyone else might, funnily enough. Upon his leadership win, Abbott asked us all to judge him on what he did from then on, not on what he has done. He cannot be serious. There is no such thing as a do-over — but even if we were to naively grant him his request, let’s have a look at what he’s done just in the last week. Tony Abbott has committed his party to a return of WorkChoices, changes to the ALP’s unfair dismissal laws, a non-market emissions reduction scheme of some description that may include nuclear power, and to taking stimulus money from schools. Of course he has also been forced to remind everyone that these aren’t actually Liberal Party policies at all, since he has no shadow cabinet and they won’t meet to make these decisions formal until the new year.
Apparently Tony is just tossing around ideas.
Certainly it is concerning that many of Big Tony’s policies are bad for women — his recently professed desire to bring back WorkChoices is bad for women as is his recently professed desire to undo the ALP’s unfair dismissal legislation — but I have a problem with the rest of his "policy" platform too.
As women voters it is important that we don’t get sidelined by commenting solely on so-called women’s issues — issues, it should be noted, that are often defined for us rather than by us. Increasingly it is frustratingly easy for women to find our opinions on anything other than those related to reproductive health or children (whether we have them or not) sidelined and not given much credence. Actually women have opinions about a lot of stuff, like sport and music, or the ETS and asylum seeker policy and the economy, stupid. No doubt our opinions are coloured by our gender but our opinions are not confined to topics generally seen as women’s issues, since — astonishingly — we live in the world too.
To be honest with you, the problems I have with Tony Abbott are numerous — buy me a gin and I’ll spend hours enumerating them. But in the end Big Tony’s biggest problem is that he seems to represent one hell of a backward step. Not only do his personal convictions evoke a time when divorce was uncommon, abortion was illegal and men knew a woman’s place. Having apparently missed the last few decades, it also feels like Tony wasn’t at the last election either, his policies are so reminiscent of those comprehensively rejected by voters in 2007.
But perhaps I am being unfair to Big Tony. Perhaps — as Chris Uhlmann suggested on the 7.30 Report last week — there is greater depth and flexibility to the leader of the Opposition, although these depths are so far unknown and unplumbed.
In the end women voters, if such a group can be imagined, will make their own calls about Tony Abbott and the Liberal Party.
So Big Tony, feel free to flaunt what your mamma gave you (and opinionerati, feel free to comment on it). I can assure you that it will not make a jot of difference to me or to any other woman when we go to the ballot box. We will, however, be watching your policies closely, when you get around to making some.
Donate To New Matilda
New Matilda is a small, independent media outlet. We survive through reader contributions, and never losing a lawsuit. If you got something from this article, giving something back helps us to continue speaking truth to power. Every little bit counts.