Bridget, Frances and Louise Abbott must be very proud of their father. He has just been sworn in as the new Prime Minister of Australia, which is a pretty awesome thing to be. Even better, the three girls can take a bit of credit for his triumph at the ballot box. With their lovely long hair, slim ankles and bright smiles, these well turned-out little ladies – we can call them that, right? – pulled in a good few votes for Daddy. And, to be fair to him, Tony Abbott was never coy about their help. “If you want to know who to vote for, I’m the guy with the not bad-looking daughters,” he told the nation earlier this month.
Indeed, Bridget, Frances and Louise – a trainee radiologist, a student and a diplomat, respectively – became one of Abbott’s favourite electoral weapons. When he told a school netball team that “a bit of full body contact never hurt anyone”, they stood by his side and laughed, only a bit awkwardly. And when he endorsed his fellow MP Fiona Scott for having “a bit of sex appeal”, they rolled their eyes and indulgently described it as “a daggy dad moment”. Most of us daughters are lucky that our dad’s daggy moments are confined to dancefloors at weddings and Christmas lunches, I suppose, but then most of us do not have dads who are world leaders.
Now, as the confetti is swept up and their fresh, white victory dresses are hung up, the Abbott gals have yet another reason to be proud of their father. He has appointed himself women’s minister. On paper, this is a progressive move. A male Prime Minister who is so keen to put women’s issues at the heart of his government that he is personally taking charge of them – what could be more modern and feminist than that?
Sure, there are some alarm bells clanging in the background. The fact that Abbott appointed just one woman – Julie Bishop – to his 19-strong cabinet this week is an appalling state of affairs. Australia now has less female representation at cabinet level than Afghanistan. Abbott has said that he is “disappointed” that there aren’t more women in power. “Nevertheless there are some very good and talented women knocking on the door of the cabinet,” he added, keeping his foot firmly wedged against that door and checking the woman-proof locks on it twice.
Indeed, if one takes an unedifying trip back through Abbott’s pronouncements on women in the past, he makes for an unlikely minister. As appointments go, it’s as apt as Nick Griffin being made Minister for Immigration, say, or Nigel Farage Minister for Europe. This is a man who once framed a debate about rising electricity prices in terms of the “housewives of Australia” doing the ironing. A man who has described abortion as “convenient” and an “easy way out” for women. A man who once said, and it deserves to be quoted in full: “It would be folly to expect that women would ever approach equal representation in a large number of areas simply because their aptitudes, their abilities and interests are different for physiological reasons.”
Not for nothing did the former Prime Minister Julia Gillard denounce Abbott as the face of misogyny in modern Australia in a blistering speech last year. But then she would say that; she and Abbott never really got on. He notoriously ordered the unmarried PM to “make an honest woman of herself”, posed in front of placards describing her as a “man’s bitch” and a “witch” and refused to denounce a party fundraiser dinner which included the grossly demeaning dish, “Julia Gillard Kentucky Fried Chicken Quail – Small Breasts, Huge Thighs & A Big Red Box” on its menu.
In June, before she too was marginalised, Gillard warned that a victory for Abbott would mean women’s voices would be stifled. She painted a picture of one man in a blue tie talking to another man in a blue tie about the budget, of a future in which “women once again [are] banished from the centre of Australia’s political life”.
Now her prediction has come to pass. It may turn out to be a very good thing to have a prime minister handling women’s issues himself, but one man’s voice, however powerful, is no substitution for many women’s voices. And when that man has a tendency towards chauvinist outbursts and saying things like “no one is the suppository of all wisdom”, the nation’s females could be forgiven for wishing that they had no spokesperson at all. Abbott has got rid of the science portfolio after all, so why not the women’s? (Because women are half of the population, half of the electorate and deserve to be represented as such).
There is much that is alarming about Abbott’s new regime – his promise to abolish the carbon tax and stop the boatloads of asylum seekers, his belief that climate change is “absolute crap”, his pledges to cut public service jobs and the foreign aid budget by billions. How tedious that sexism should have to be added to an already long list.
How much better if female voters like Bridget, Louise and Frances Abbott could just assume that their voices will be heard. They have voices, by the way, recently speaking out in support of same-sex marriage. Perhaps now their father can repay them for all those embarrassing photo opportunities by listening to what they have to say. Otherwise, the future for Australia’s women looks bleak indeed.