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September 23rd 2012 print

Peter Smith

Abbottphobia hits the wall

Tony Abbott is a thug, bash artist and misogynist -- charges David Marr's Quarterly Essay exercise in confirmation bias has proven to the satisfaction of those who always believed as much. So, a Gillard comeback? Don't bet on it

According to the political pundits, it has been a bad week for Tony Abbott. What exactly has he done, you might ask? Well, among getting a bad Newspoll result and suffering an attack of harpies (no, not herpes), he was also accused of twice punching a wall 35 years ago, when youthfully piqued, close to the head of a young lady (Barbara Ramjan), who had beaten him in a student election. As there were no witnesses to this alleged event, many question remain unanswered.

Did it happen at all, or in the way described, or as a playful jest? If it was done aggressively, was the young Abbott provoked by an unkind verbal assault unbecoming of a young lady? If she said something, exactly what did she say and when did she say it? Is it alleged that he used two fists or just one, altering the trajectory of the second blow? How hard did Abbott hit the wall, if he hit the wall? What was the wall made of, because it would have hurt a lot if the wall had been made of brick or concrete or some other unforgiving substance? On the other hand, a flimsy wall would have become indented or cracked at the least, given the boxing prowess of young Abbott. Was anything said, and if so what, by either party after the wall was assaulted?

I haven’t read David Marr’s essay, which has perhaps answered these pertinent questions. Failing that, Ms Ramjan might be able to throw light on the matter. Certainly she seems to have convinced Mr Marr of the truth of her allegations so, presumably, her recollection is pretty good and detailed after all these years. Mind you, is it unfair to suggest, without impugning the dispassionate objectivity of Marr as a professional journalist, that it might not have taken very much to convince him of the veracity of tales of youthful indiscretions on the part of the conservative and Catholic Abbott?

Abbott, of course, did himself no favours with the ABC and the mainstream press by responding as anybody of sound character and honesty might: I can’t recollect doing anything like that, he was reported as saying, and it would be profoundly out of character if I had. On reflection, he later denied it had ever occurred, prompting howls of outrage that he had changed his story. Contrast Abbott’s reaction, which is entirely consistent with an honest man making sure that he is telling the truth as best as he can, with the instant denials of Ms Gillard that she’d ever opposed pension increases in Cabinet (because old people don’t vote Labor) or that Bob Carr had been approached to be Foreign Minister. A practised liar doesn’t miss a beat.

Then we had that mysterious Newspoll showing that a two party preferred gap of 10 percentage points had slipped to nought in two weeks. Gillard is competitive again, the headlines told us, as around 650,000 voters were presented as having simply changed their minds. What a fickle bunch! Was it the putative pugilistic punches that did it? Alternatively, is it the cumulative effect of the relentless harpies. Being harped on that you are a misogynistic bully waging a war on women by one woman would be unnerving for any man. With Ms Gillard’s female hit squad — Nicola Roxon, Tanya Plibersek, Penny Wong, and Deborah O’Neill (and maybe I have missed some) — all on the case, I doubt whether Abbott knows which way to turn.

I am not sure what advice can be given to Abbott. To protest that you really like women sounds pretty feeble, and exactly how do you prove it without being arrested? I heard Paul Kelly say that he mustn’t lose his temper lest he proves the case against him. Yes, Abbott must be very nice from now on and be smilingly deferential in the face of shrill provocation. Or perhaps the polls are wrong and Abbott can be Abbott and gently hurl a few non-pugilistic barbs back.

Just maybe the latest Newspoll sampling of only 1100 or so people is screwy. It happens in small sample polling. The Neilson Poll has the two party preferred numbers at 53/47, versus 54/46 in the previous poll — no change really given the margin of error. Essential polling shows, in fact, a reverse trend with the latest position 55/45 versus 54/46 in their previous poll. But again, this can be read as no change. Maybe the harpies and David Marr’s piece are being put into sensible perspective by what John Howard referred to as the common sense of the great mass of Australians outside of the precious elite.

In any event, tighter polling may even work in Abbott’s favour by keeping Gillard in place. It is very hard to imagine, even if Bill Shorten can, that the electorate will give Gillard another go, whatever the puerile efforts to demonise Abbott.

Peter Smith, a frequent Quadrant Online contributor, is the author of Bad Economics

Peter Smith, a frequent Quadrant Online contributor, is the author of Bad Economics