So, is Tony Abbot, the leader of the Australian opposition, a sexist? PM Julia Gillard thinks so

On 9 October, a speech by Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard went viral. Gillard accused the Liberal Party leader Tony Abbott of hypocrisy, and said she hoped ‘the Leader of the Opposition has got a piece of paper and he is writing out his resignation’. These were strong words. Across the globe, Gillard was praised for tackling an issue which has become a recurrent theme in Australian politics and took on a new dimension when Abbott became leader of the Liberal party in 2009.

This came after Abbott had tabled a motion to remove Peter Slipper, the Speaker of the House of Representatives who is currently involved in various fraud and sexual harassment scandals. While the content of the motion may have been reasonable, the fact that it came from the ‘Mad Monk’ was the final straw for Gillard, whose time in office has been marked by reccuring gender-based attacks. Abbott knew the path was a dangerous one for him; in 2010, he declared he had ‘always been very wary of debates involving women’.

While the Liberal Party’s lead in the polls has long suggested that their leader would be the Australia’s next prime minister, Abbott’s reputation and relationship with women and gender has been a very serious concern to many on his side of the political divide. Despite various attempts at modernising his image, Abbott has so far failed to shake off his past comments and often fallen back on familiar sexist tropes. His motion tabled against Slipper gave Gillard a fantastic opportunity to damage his credentials further and remind the Australian electorate – and the wider world – of this past.

Having lost the election to a woman must have been a tremendous blow to a man who mused in 1998 on whether “men are by philosophy or temperament more adapted to exercise authority or to issue command”. Abbott’s aversion to women in positions of power was nothing new. Recently, in another much publicised case, he was accused of physically intimidating his female opponent during a student election. Of course, such behaviour could be dismissed as the folly of youth and it might be argued that Abbott has matured in the past 15 years. Yet Abbott has been consistent in his career, and his views do not seem to have changed despite his best efforts, to appear a modern man. By his own acknowledgement, he “certainly get(s) women,” but “obviously, [he’s] got some marketing to do.”

As Gillard forcefully noted in her speech, Abbott remains most famous for his comments on abortion (most can be found on his own website). When asked whether abortion should be decriminalised in New South Wales and Queensland, Abbott declared that he believed the law to be a “moral teacher”, and that “if you want fewer abortions it is best not to send any signals that more is OK”. In the most reactionary and insensitive manner, Abbott also declared that “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” and that “abortion is the easy way out”. Although he did concede that “it’s hardly surprising that people should choose the most convenient exit from awkward situations”.

In case his point was still unclear, Abbott had also equated abortion to murder, and in 2006, accused the House of Representatives of a “bizarre double-standard…where someone who kills a pregnant woman’s baby is guilty of murder, but a woman who aborts an unborn baby is simply exercising choice.” Can’t we go back to the good old times, asked Abbott, it a statement that some took to be an apologia for rape: “…there does need to be give and take on both sides, and this idea that sex is kind of a woman’s right to absolutely withhold, just as the idea that sex is a man’s right to demand I think they are both they both need to be moderated, so to speak.”

While Gillard might get some respite now that attention is increasingly focused on Abbott, the situation remains highly volatile in Australian politics and the 2013 elections loom ever closer. The various blunders, cheap political plots and reactionary measures employed by both sides have triggered a vast wave of distrust and discontent which could dramatically impact on voters. In June, an Essential Report survey showed that, only 22 per cent of respondents had some or a lot of trust in parliament, down from 55 per cent in 2011. More than 60 per cent in another survey declared they trusted neither Abbott nor Gillard to act in the community’s interest. Another recent poll by the Lowy Institute showed that only 39 per cent of respondents aged 18 to 29 chose the statement ‘Democracy is preferable to any other kind of government’, others either not caring or preferring a non-democratic government ‘in some circumstances’ (15 per cent). While such polls must be taken with caution, it is certain that the deep distrust of the Prime Minister and the reactionary and negative image of the Leader of the Opposition are bound to increase political uneasiness in the country.

First published in the Independent on 12/10/12

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