If he is to be faulted, it is that he is too much of a gentleman. To some, courtesy and restraint are weakennesses to be exploited, as a former aide observed firsthand.
Political enemies of Liberal leader Tony Abbott have long claimed that he has a problem with women. The dramatic drop in his personal standing in recent opinion polls, the hoo-ha over former Fairfax journalist David Marr’s Quarterly Essay job on Abbott, and what’s been happening since, suggests they are getting away with it.
The incendiary elevation of Abbott to official misogynist status by prime minister Julia Gillard in her venomous diatribe in Parliament this week (13 October) has generated vitriol against the opposition leader of an intensity not seen in Australian politics in recent memory, reflecting a determined drive by Gillard and Labor to destroy their chief political tormentor by blackguarding his character with false and malevolent accusations.
I know they are false because I know Tony Abbott the man. I worked with Abbott very closely for four years as a senior ministerial adviser, and have stayed in fairly regular contact with him since. He is not Marr’s misogynistic wall-basher. If Abbott does have a problem with women, it’s that he respects them too much rather than too little.
Abbott is a product of his family upbringing and Jesuit education, his deeply ingrained notions of social courtesies, and the mellowing influence of a loving and patient wife and talented daughters, his adored “princesses” in whose evolution as confident and accomplished young women he takes enormous pride. How dearly he is regarded by the Abbott women is demonstrated by the intensely private Margie Abbott’s standing passionately by her man on TV, in a public speech and in News Ltd newspapers. As Mrs Abbott rightly said, being a rugby player, volunteer fire-fighter and lifesaver shouldn’t define Tony as a boofy misogynist.
A previously unrelated incident from when he was health minister illuminates Abbott’s true attitude to women. As defeat loomed in 2007, then prime minister John Howard and Abbott announced a federal takeover of the struggling Mersey Hospital in northern Tasmania. Unsurprisingly the state Labor government went ballistic, and shortly afterwards I accompanied Abbott to Launceston to meet the Tasmanian health minister (now premier) Lara Giddings.
It was exceedingly unpleasant. For the best part of an hour the diminutive Giddings berated and harangued Abbott in an aggressive one-sided tirade. At one point she even reached aggressively across the table as if to throttle him. Abbott was utterly taken aback by Giddings’s ferocity – he seemed uncertain about how to respond and where to look as her verbal assault continued.
It was the same defensive body language – of bemused astonishment, not fear – that Abbott wore as Gillard launched her blistering attack on Abbott in the parliament cheered by the feminist sisterhood, the ABC and the Twitterati.
Had Giddings been a man there’s no way that Abbott would have passively absorbed such aggression. As we came away I asked why he didn’t respond to Giddings’s provocation. “Mate”, he said, “I just wasn’t brought up that way.”
The Giddings episode, and his keeping his dignity under Gillard’s self-serving spray, illustrate that despite his hard-man reputation, Abbott has an old-fashioned code of personal conduct that treats women with consideration and respect. This sometimes gets him into trouble when knowing female opponents like Giddings, Gillard and, notoriously, then shadow health minister (now Attorney-Genera)l Nicola Roxon in the 2007 election campaign, goad him to the limit: his scruples inhibit the full-on responses that their provocations deserve.
Far from being misogynist (a word that all Australians suddenly now can spell), Abbott happily surrounds himself with charismatic and intelligent women well beyond his family circle. He is intellectually nourished by them, enjoys their company and finds them stimulating.
Abbott works very closely with deputy Julie Bishop, whose recent passionate defences of his character reflect her own personal regard for him. His office is headed by the take-no-prisoners political Amazon and “de facto Deputy Leader of the Opposition”, Peta Credlin. As a minister, Abbott’s chief-of-staff was another woman, the much-loved quiet achiever Maxine Sells. His health department head was the extroverted and headstrong Jane Halton (tipped to head the PM’s department if Abbott wins), and under Halton many of his top health bureaucrats were women.
What’s more, Sells and Credlin are just two of the many talented female staffers whom Abbott has employed and mentored in government and Opposition, earning him their passionate loyalty and affection in return.
Outside politics, a notable strong woman in Abbott’s circle is the Melbourne University Press publisher Louise Adler, for whom he wrote Battlelines. Adler’s integrity as chairwoman of Melbourne’s Methodist Ladies College board in sacking the college’s headmistress Abbott defended instinctively and loyally, even though he and Adler come from different points of the political spectrum.
If Abbott has a weakness with women, it’s not that he’s threatened by them. It’s that he is often so drawn to them that he suppresses doubts about the ulterior motives of strong women who impress him and, like Delilah with Samson, some take full advantage. A good example is the female leadership of his department, who could do no wrong in Abbott’s eyes, even though some of them ridiculed his social conservatism and undermined his policy agenda behind his back. It’s worth noting that Abbott personally intervened to save Jane Halton’s job after the 2004 election against her critics in the PM’s office.
As his opposite number in health and now the leadership, the prime minister has long sussed out his difficulty with confronting personal attacks by women. Julia Gillard’s letting her “handbag hit squad” loose, allowing Roxon and other female ministers to try and tie Abbott into the ugly personal attack on the prime minister’s recent bereavement by broadcaster Alan Jones, and now going in so viciously herself, takes full but cowardly political advantage of Abbott’s old-fashioned but very honourable courtesy towards women.
Not expecting retaliation in kind from him, Labor has declared open season on Tony Abbott the man while that very man is gracious about Gillard the woman (a private being separate from the PM and politician) – witness the generosity of his words on the death of the PM’s father, or his obvious ambivalence about engaging on the questions over Gillard’s past.
On Gillard’s attack on him over the Jones issue, Abbott need only have pointed to the Hansard of the condolence debate and say "you can believe what I say because I say what I believe". Gillard’s now notorious parliamentary speech diminished her in sweeping his sincere comforting words aside for tawdry political points.
While Gillard’s feminist and media fan club insists that any criticism of her as a politician and policymaker is, as one female academic wrote in The Sunday Age, a “gendered attack” by the great conspiracy of nutjobs and misogynists. While insisting that asking legitimate questions of her past and present conduct therefore is tainted and out-of-bounds, these same aggrieved and angry ants are happily traducing Abbott for political advantage. Courtesies demanded for Ms Gillard aren’t being extended to him, and Abbott’s forbearance against these onslaughts is typical of him. Labor’s political goals from this assault are to bring Abbott down, and to quarantine Gillard from criticism on the ludicrous grounds that to question her performance as a politician is picking on her as a woman.
Now even the private and politics-shy Mrs Abbott has recognised that Labor’s handbag hit squad mustn’t get away with trashing a fundamental but unfashionable truth about Tony Abbott – that instead of denigrating women, their hopes and aspirations, our alternative prime minister deeply respects them, sometimes to a fault. But in the face of Labor’s vicious personal attacks, Abbott and those who know him can say with pride that any such fault is a most honourable one.
Terry Barnes is principal of consultancy Cormorant Policy Advice. He worked closely with Tony Abbott from 2003 to 2007 as Abbott’s senior health policy adviser. This article is a based on a blog first posted on Terry Barnes’s website, cormorant.net.au