December 5, 2009
The Canberra Times & The National Times

The new face of politics

Picture this. And it’s worth it, because it says something about what’s happening to Australian politics.

Thursday night, Kristina Keneally and Carmel Tebbutt front an excited media pack. New South Wale’s newest Premier and Deputy face a barrage of questions and lob back short, sharp answers. Keneally has just ousted her bigger, boofy colleague Nathan Rees. Unfazed by the scrum, she takes charge. Ever the pro, the long serving Tebbutt stands strong and sturdy by her side. She’s done this before. First question to Keneally suggests she’s not the real goods, but just a stand-in with strings attached: “Are you Eddie Obeid’s puppet?” a journalist asks. “No,” is the constrained reply.

Flick back a day to Wednesday late afternoon, and another attractive duo face the cameras. This time it’s acting Prime Minister Julia Gillard with Climate Change Minister Penny Wong at her side. Both field questions from the press gallery, without the verbal flourish we’ve come to expect from the foppish PM and his predecessors. They’re clear and concise, with just a hint of angry refrain. The Government’s ETS legislation has failed in the Senate, yet again, and both women are choosing their words carefully. You get the sense they’re gearing up for a major showdown, but not right now.

Flick back now to Tuesday, and it’s another leadership duo in front of the cameras. This time it’s the perennial Liberal bridesmaid Julie Bishop, standing next to her newest partner Tony Abbott. The impeccably dressed Bishop smiles awkwardly as Abbott throws an arm around her shoulders, squeezes a few times, and tells the media mob before them, “She’s a loyal girl”. His grin is wide and goofy. And just in case we haven’t all caught the message about who is boss, he squeezes Bishop one more time. She didn’t show it on the outside, but surely Bishop flinched on the inside, knowing she wasn’t a “loyal” girl at all. She hadn’t voted for Abbott in the leadership ballot, and only the night before she’d been mocking him. She’d been laughing about his budgie smugglers and – according to a jilted Malcolm Turnbull – saying a whole lot more.

So what’s wrong with Tuesday’s leadership picture? And what does it tell us about where political power is heading?

The selection of Tony Abbott as Opposition Leader and prime ministerial aspirant took everyone by surprise, including him. “It’s the last thing I would have expected a week ago,” he told the media, still panting from the rush. But in choosing him, his Liberal colleagues have taken a giant leap backwards. It’s as if the deep, conservative core of a befuddled and wounded party is making a desperate, last ditch attempt to return to the “good old days”. The days when a soft lens image of mummy, dad, two kids and a white picket fence was considered an appropriate way to sell Liberal party policy. It flopped backed then. And it’s eons out of date now.

Tony Abbott might be an affable kind of bloke: good-looking, energetic and certainly not boring. At a social gathering, over a drink, some might even find him charming. The way he wears his heart on his sleeve, says what he thinks, and reaches out to people he’s concerned about can be quite endearing. But Abbot’s era has passed us by. Thankfully.

Australia no longer has room at the top for men who hug their female colleagues like baby sisters and call them loyal girls. Or mutter “that’s bullshit” to their female opponents, while smiling for the cameras and refusing to look them in the eye. We’ve long passed the time when women will tolerate having their reproductive choices taken away from them: when they will accept a male health minister blocking their access to safe termination options. Women are well beyond being lectured to by men about unwanted pregnancies and told they must be “ashamed”. And as economic and careers pressures continue to force women to delay childbearing, women are angry to hear the likes of Tony Abbot tell them that a woman at 43 is too old to deserve Medicare support for IVF. It may well be a difficult age at which to have a baby, but it’s a woman’s choice, not Abbott’s. We all know that.

Such public patronising of women doesn’t wash with the general public anymore. They vote it down.This is not a “red-fanged rage” against Tony Abbott, by “aggressively secular, paelo-feminists” as columnist Miranda Devine shouted. In fact, no one is shouting but her. This is simply a broad rejection by Australian women of old-fashioned patronising and a daddy-takes-charge style of politics. Daddy is no longer in charge. Nor is mummy, for that matter.

What we have in political leadership circles now is an emergent understanding that a diverse range of women have taken a place at the top table. And they’re not all “working mothers”. They can be single, childless, lesbian, Asian and atheist. The world has moved on since the conservative chorus — with Abbott’s mindset — was in charge. Women know that. Pity the federal Liberal caucus hasn’t worked it out.

Virginia Haussegger is a Canberra journalist and director of the 50/50 by 2030 Foundation at the University of Canberra.

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