Ambushed by Twitter
The Sunday Times, 28 December 2014
MORE than two years after he was famously accused of misogyny by Australia’s first female prime minister, the politics of gender has returned to haunt Tony Abbott, the man who defeated her party in the 2013 general election.
The prime minister was last week berated by the feminist lobby after a mild but politically incorrect response to a question on breakfast television.
Asked by the show’s presenter, Lisa Wilkinson, to name his greatest achievement in his dual role as minister for women and prime minister, Abbott, 57, nominated the abolition of the carbon tax introduced two years ago by Julia Gillard’s Labor government.
“It is very important to do the right thing by families and households,” Abbott said.
“As many of us know, women are particularly focused on the household budget. The repeal of the carbon tax means a $550 [£287] a year benefit for the average family.”
The comment went unremarked by Wilkinson, but was quickly picked up in social media where it was mocked both by feminists and climate change activists. “Ironing done, household budget balanced, oops! cooked the planet!” read one response.
Adele Ferguson, a business commentator, called on the prime minister to demote himself, while the Green party leader Christine Milne said Abbott should focus on “women in society . . . not just women in the household”.
The vitriol revived memories of Gillard’s impassioned parliamentary attack in October 2012 when she accused Abbott of “repulsive double standards when it comes to misogyny and sexism”.
The attack came just months before she was dumped as leader by her party and was widely interpreted as an attempt to distract attention from her political problems.
Yet it became an international internet hit, giving Gillard a global profile and reputedly winning congratulations from other centre-left world leaders, including the US and French presidents Barack Obama and François Hollande.
Meanwhile, Abbott’s pro-women policies, including his dogged support for paid parental leave as a workplace entitlement and increased support for childcare, have been turned against him, despite their popular appeal among voters under 40.
Opponents have criticised his male-dominated cabinet but ignored the predominance of women among his government’s senior advisers.
The reaction demonstrates how difficult the gender debate has become for male politicians on the centre right who walk a tightrope between strident feminists and socially conservative supporters who retain a more traditional view of the role of women and the family.
Surveys of social attitudes in Australia suggest Abbott was right to claim that women are more focused on household budgets than men.
The government’s official advice on workplace diversity says women control or influence 72%of spending in the household budget. Paradoxically, however, the percentage of Australians who think that not enough is being done to extend equal opportunities to women has increased substantially in the past 25 years.
A national survey in 1990 found that barely a quarter of Australians wanted more to be done to promote equal opportunities for women. The same survey last year found that almost half the population was frustrated about the rate of change.
Despite Abbott winning a convincing election victory for the conservative coalition 15 months ago, he remains an unpopular leader.
In the most recent survey for The Australian newspaper, only a third of voters said they were satisfied with Abbott, while the coalition trails Labor by 46% to 54%.
Support for Abbott among women is consistently about five percentage points lower than among men.
The Abbott government can claim a number of successes in its first 15 months, including thwarting people smugglers, who were responsible for more than 1,000 deaths at sea by transporting asylum seekers in unsafe boats.
Internationally, Abbott has proved to be a skilled and confident player, signing free trade agreements with Japan, South Korea and China and moving closer to India.
He has been prepared to confront Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, over Moscow’s complicity in the downing of the Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over Ukraine with the loss of 298 lives, including 27 Australians.
At home, however, Abbott has struggled to introduce unpopular budget savings, including changes to the funding of higher education and the indexation of pensions.
He has also fought to shake off his entrenched reputation as a confrontational politician and champion of unfashionable causes. In 1999, he successfully led a popular campaign to retain the Queen as head of state. Ten years later he became leader of his party after rejecting conventional political wisdom by opposing a carbon emissions trading scheme.
A cabinet reshuffle last week appeared to be tailored in part to redress the criticism that his frontbench team was overwhelmingly male. Three women were promoted, including Sussan Ley who was given the senior portfolio of health minister.
Despite his poor polling, Abbott still remains the bookmakers’ favourite to win the next federal election, due in 2016. While the leadership potential of his senior colleagues, including Julie Bishop, the foreign minister, is regularly assessed in the media, there is little chance of Abbott facing a direct leadership challenge.
The Australian three-year term leaves little room for error, however.
It means that 2015 will be a crucial year in which Abbott must regain control of the fiscal agenda, stamp his authority on the prime ministership and avoid loose comments that allow his opponents to frame him in an unfavourable light.