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Macho Tony Abbott and the women who ruled him

By Peter West - posted Thursday, 10 December 2015


The discussion about Tony Abbott's Prime Ministership run in the Fairfax press raises interesting questions about tough men and their relationships with women. By all accounts, Abbott had only one woman in his Cabinet, was not outstandingly sympathetic to women's causes, and gave every appearance of being one of Australia's most macho men. The bike-riding, the red speedos that he wore so carelessly, the whole tough guy image was part of the man, far more than any other recent Prime Minister.

So why, then, did domineering women bring him undone? And who were they?

The first was Bronwyn Bishop. Appointed to the Speaker's chair, she took to the job with enormous zeal. Misbehaving MPs were reprimanded and scolded. Labor Party MPs were sent out far more often than coalition MPs: some 98 percent expelled were Labor MPs. The whole performance was akin to a cross teacher taking over an unruly class and showing it that she would make it behave.

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This unusual and partisan zeal went largely unremarked until a helicopter that she hired to run her from Melbourne to Geelong seized the public imagination. People created clever memes and the whole saga became known as "Choppergate". The Speaker became a major issue, and the issue dragged on and on for some weeks. Yet Abbott refused to ask her to resign. A feeble warning was given, but nothing effective was done.

The saga continued while coalition supporters fretted. Comedians and Labor supporters rejoiced. At long last, Abbott asked for her resignation. But the damage had been done. Abbott had seemed beholden to Madame Speaker and the Abbott Government lost a great deal of support.

The second woman was Peta Credlin. Credlin was Abbott's chief of staff. As Janet Albrechtsen argued in a thoughtful piece after her demise, Credlin pushed herself much too much into the foreground. Instead of being someone who helped the Prime Minister listen to his backbenchers, she seems to have often shut them out. Instead of being a helper and facilitator, she became a bossy micro-manager. The fact that the director of the Liberal Party was her husband did not help. Party leaders might be expected to have explosive clashes with Prime Ministers of the same party. It's their duty to spit out harsh, bitter truths for the sake of good government.

Albrechtsen says Credlin had been heard to finish Abbott's sentences. And to correct his statements in front of foreign and Australian officials. Instead of helping to spread the story about the Government, she became the story. As we have often heard before, there was some nonsense of "it's because she's a woman". It was not about this at all.

There seems to have been no way of getting rid of her without getting rid of Abbott from the Prime Ministership. And that is what the Liberal Party chose to do.

To sum up: here was a man given the job he wanted. He was Prime Minister. So why did he seem afraid to put these two women in their place?

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The story about Abbott continues, with various people taking various positions. But there seems no answer which will settle the matter. Let me make a few attempts before letting our readers have their say.

Men of a certain age - born in the 1940s , 50s and 60s - grew up in a time when women were respected. I will have to go back to my own time. Women wore dresses and had to be modest. They rarely were seen in a pub (unless they were barmaids). The idea of women saying rude words, being drunk, or God forbid, wearing tattoos, was unthinkable. Women were listened to politely and given respect. Mothers had a status in society. They ruled the house : "you can't say that in this house" was a familiar phrase.

I once used the word 'bloody' after being at cadet camp and was roundly scolded. For us Catholics there were nuns - supernatural creatures who ruled over huge classes with a rod of iron. Or a feather duster, or whatever was handy. There's something about attitudes to women in this era that seems to ring true of Abbott, although he's younger than I.

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About the Author

Dr Peter West is a well-known social commentator and an expert on men's and boys' issues. He is the author of Fathers, Sons and Lovers: Men Talk about Their Lives from the 1930s to Today (Finch,1996). He works part-time in the Faculty of Education, Australian Catholic University, Sydney.

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