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He’s anti-abortion and his career owes a debt to Alan Jones. Does Tony Abbott have a problem with women?

There’s an unsettling recent tradition of the political subjects of Quarterly Essays meeting with ill fortune. Think of Annabel Crabb’s profile of then-Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull (subsequently deposed by Tony Abbott), and Marr’s own profile of then-Prime Minister Kevin Rudd (subsequently deposed by Julia Gillard). Can Tony Abbott escape the Quarterly Essay hoodoo?

David Marr is an elegant and pungent writer and the copious footnotes to this essay attest to his thorough research. Abbott is an important figure in Australian politics and this essay is a significant and readable contribution to what the public knows of him.

At the moment much attention is being focussed on Abbott’s attitudes to women. Is there evidence in Marr’s essay to support the claims that he is misogynist?

The overall scope of Political Animal is quite broad – it doesn’t just focus on ‘the women issue’ – and ranges from Abbott’s early religious mentors and his admiration for Cold War warrior BA Santamaria, to John Howard’s mentorship and Peter Costello’s comments on his attitude to economics.

In making any assessment of him, Abbott has muddied the waters in terms of how he would like to be judged. He seems to want us both to take him on his record and to absolve him of it. Marr quotes his words to the Federal Council of the Liberal Party on 30 June 2012:

‘I am not asking the Australian people to take me on trust but on the record of a lifetime … as a student president, trainee priest, Rhodes Scholar, surf life-saver and volunteer fire-fighter, as well as a member of parliament and as a minister in a government.’

So, we are to judge him on his record. But – his words to the media immediately after accepting the leadership of the Liberal party in December 2009, suggest otherwise:

‘I accept at times I have stuffed up … I suppose I should apologise now for all my errors of the past and make a clean breast of them … I believe that when you become leader, you make a fresh start.’ 

As the words to the Federal Council are the more recent, perhaps we should take Abbott at his word and look at his record on women – even back to student politics and being acquitted of ‘indecent and common assault’ against a female student, calling the SRC welfare officers ‘sluts’, and the Barbara Ramjan incident.

The Barbara Ramjan story is the one that has received the most media attention following the publication of Political Animal. In brief, it is the story of how, when Barbara Ramjan defeated Tony Abbott in a student election over 35 years ago, he:

‘… came up to within an inch of my nose and punched the wall on either side of my head … It was done to intimidate.’

Abbott told Marr that he couldn’t remember this incident, but that it would have been ‘profoundly out of character had it occurred’. Since publication, another witness, barrister David Patch, and a further witness, who preferred to remain anonymous, have come forward to corroborate Ramjan’s account.

Nevertheless, it is Abbott’s record in John Howard’s government that is a more useful indicator of the man he is now. It was in 2004, during his term as Health Minister, that he sought to reignite the abortion debate, suggesting that abortions are an ‘easy way out’ for women:

‘The problem with the Australian practice of abortion is that an objectively grave matter has been reduced to a question of the mother’s convenience.’

Abbott does not believe that it is a woman’s right to decide for herself, from all the options available, including abortion, what is the best course in the event of an unplanned pregnancy. As a result of these comments, Marr reminds us:

The women of parliament organised to end his ministerial veto on the importation of the morning-after pill RU486.

Marr believes Abbott realises that the abortion issue is too politically unpopular for him to pursue, but note his all-important caveat:

Abbott the politician knows he can’t roll back the law on abortion, but Abbott the rock-solid Catholic is not going to abandon the possibility. He cannot reassure the women of Australia that he will never try.

Of course there would also be a much higher rate of unplanned pregnancies if Abbott were to adopt the Catholic Church’s policy on contraception, which it bans. Marr does not give us Abbott’s views on contraception, only on the importance of Catholic doctrine:

… Catholic teaching on birth, life and death, which he sees as ‘fundamental to the ethical underpinnings of Western civilisation’.

Also in line with Catholic teaching, Abbott is anti gay marriage and anti gay parenting:

He strongly disapproves of them [gay couples] being allowed to adopt and of lesbians having access to IVF. He is rigidly hard-line Catholic on all this. 

What about the way he treats women in office?

His conduct towards Nicola Roxon, then Shadow Minister for Health, during the 2007 election campaign, did him no credit. When Roxon chided him for arriving 35 minutes late to a National Press Club debate with her, he swore at her. The exchange was recorded and Marr quotes it:

Roxon: ‘You can’t even get here on time, it must be a battle.’

Abbott: ‘It certainly wasn’t intentional.’

Roxon: ‘You can control these things, mate. I’m sure had you wanted to, you could.’

Abbott: ‘That’s bullshit. You’re being deliberately unpleasant. I suppose you can’t help yourself, can you?’

Then there is Abbott’s appearance at the anti-Gillard rally outside Parliament House in March 2011, where he spoke warmly to the crowd while standing in front of the now notorious backdrop of sexist banners and chants of ‘Ditch the bitch’.

The one big idea Abbott has championed to directly appeal to women is his ‘$3.3 billion-a-year paid parental leave scheme funded by business’.  Under the scheme:

Women who earn more will be paid more while on leave. Eventually, the payments will be taken over by the Commonwealth.

The scheme has caused some dissention within the Liberal party and is unpopular with business. These responses raise the question whether, if elected, Abbott would be able to implement it, or implement it in the form he is presently advocating.

Marr reminds us of the interview with Kerry O’Brien in May 2010 when O’Brien asked Abbot how his pledge to raise no new taxes, made in an interview with 3AW:

… squared with the plan to charge business billions to pay for parental leave. ‘I know politicians are going to be judged on everything they say but sometimes in the heat of discussion you go a little bit further than you would if it was an absolutely calm, considered, prepared, scripted remark … The statements that need to be taken absolutely as gospel truth are those carefully prepared scripted remarks.’ 

The difference between ‘scripted’ and ‘unscripted’ may not always be readily apparent to observers, and Abbott’s answer has only made it more difficult to know how or indeed whether the parental leave scheme will go ahead.

Events since the essay was published have brought Abbott’s relationship with Alan Jones into the spotlight. Marr recounts how Jones – whose misogynist remarks have now become infamous – played an important role in Abbott’s preselection campaign for his seat of Warringah in 1993:

Crucial support came from Radio 2UE’s Alan Jones, who was commending the contender on air as a fine young fellow and the very best sort of Australian … Jones had written a personal letter to each of the 200 selectors. 

Years later, as Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership was crumbling under the pressures of the Godwin Grech scandal and divisions within the Coalition over Kevin Rudd’s Emissions Trading Scheme, Abbott heard Turnbull arguing with Jones on-air. Jones believed global warming was a ‘hoax’ designed to ‘bleed $50 billion from Australia and send it off to South America’. Abbott concluded:

… Turnbull’s leadership was terminal at that moment. What he was hearing was a bar-room brawl between his leader and the guru of a great swathe of the Liberal Party. This was no way to deal with Alan Jones. Turnbull wasn’t showing the necessary respect. It would cause immense damage.

It remains to be seen whether Jones will continue to receive ‘the necessary respect’ from the Liberal Party.

In his concluding chapter, Marr says:

Ever since he stepped into parliament nearly twenty years ago he has been invoking God and the Catholic values that drive him. They are his political persona.  … How much would they drive Tony Abbott, PM? … My sense is we’ll get the Abbott he decides to give us at any particular time.

None of this is reassuring. Beyond the photo opportunities with his wife and daughters and the blandishment of an expensive parental leave scheme, Tony Abbott is a man who has received the blessing of Alan Jones and who would, if he could, prevent women from controlling their own bodies through outlawing abortion.

Political Animal does not claim to be a complete account of Tony Abbott’s life, or of his views of women, and there is much more that could be said – and indeed has been, including in ex-Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s speech in parliament.

Nevertheless, Marr has given us a valuable insight into the man and his history, and there are plenty of warning bells here for Australian women.

David Marr Political Animal; the Making of Tony Abbott, Quarterly Essay 47  Black Inc 2012 PB 140pp $19.95

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