Today the wife of Australia’s alternative Prime Minister, Margie Abbott gave her first political speech at a business function in Penrith. Her speech came after a full day of media appearances, where she defended her husband as a feminist and supporter of women.
By MARGIE ABBOTT
If I appear somewhat nervous it is because I am. I am very at home addressing an unruly bunch of under 5s – so perhaps I will see you all as just that – an unruly bunch of under 5s.
I don’t pretend to be a public speaker, or indeed a public policy expert. There are no formal letters after my name and I have never been elected to public office. So I can only speak to you today about my experiences – as a mother, a small business operator, a child care worker, a volunteer and as Tony’s wife and life partner. Like so many women, I’ve had to juggle the joys and struggles of raising children, managing a career, lending a hand to causes I believe in and giving back to others.
I like to think that I keep getting better at it – and that we all make the choices that are best for our own lives – at times for me, it has been to go out to work, and other times it was to be at home for the girls.
There have been times in my family life, where I’ve worked to supplement the household incomes, and there have been other times, particularly when the girls were younger when I chose to say at home. I recall when Tony first entered politics he was painted as a ‘traditionalist’ – white picket fence; long suffering wife at home raising the kids. I recall laughing to myself as I read this particular article having just brushed the remains of Bridget’s weetbix off my shirt; dropped the girls off to school and daycare before I raced off to work!
It was also during this time that Tony and I would do the sums at the end of the week – where we took out the child care fees, took out the tax, took out the petrol and transport costs and realised I’d netted the princely sum of $20 a day. For all the effort and stress, it wasn’t worth it.
I know that parents are still doing those sums and still working out the same equations for their own families. Unfortunately for many families, even if a parent wants to stay at home, they don’t have that choice, because that $20 a day, or maybe more in today’s money, is the difference between treading water and going seriously backwards.
I don’t pretend that the Abbotts are doing it tough, especially now. But when Tony was the only breadwinner and we were paying school fees and health insurance premiums, I often had to put off paying some bills till the following month especially when they just seemed to be going up and up and up. That experience has helped to keep Tony grounded when it’s so easy, mixing with people who have succeeded, to imagine that new taxes and charges don’t really hurt.
I run a community based not for profit childcare centre in Sydney, which employs 10 staff, and provides a service to about 100 families. I am effectively a small business operator – from changing the light bulbs; purchasing supplies; managing the maintenance; ensuring that we are financially self sufficient and able to pay the wages; to keeping on top of regulatory and industry changes. For many of you who work in small business either as the owner or as an employee I know the pressures that you are working under – every day presents a new challenge.
In my work – I don’t just have the enriching experience of caring for and educating children, I also see great parents who love their children and are doing their best to provide them with every opportunity.
Raising children, paying a mortgage, balancing work and family, caring for older relatives, dealing with life’s stresses and satisfactions is often said to be an average, typical or ordinary life – and I understand the uses of those words, but raising children, encouraging your spouse, caring for loved ones, enjoying your work and contributing to your community, is never just ordinary – it’s central to who we are as individuals and as members of our community.
I call it the joy of an ordinary life.
It is an ordinary life that experiences the exhilaration and sometimes the frustration, of being married to a man who is just so optimistic – who sees any of life’s challenges as great opportunities while I tend to see the potential downside.
It is the joy of an ordinary life that allows me to go to work every day and to see the wonder, innocence and creativity of children – and the love of their parents.
And it’s the joy of being part of a neighbourhood and community groups which all want to do good and support each other.
That’s not to say that our lives are somewhat like the idyllic Brady bunch – our house is just like many of yours – there’s no Alice the housekeeper at our house! There’s always something needing to be fixed, washing to be done, a dog to be walked, a garden to tend, worries about whether our daughters will ever be able to afford to buy a home in Sydney; scheduling family dinners around the lives of not two, but five, busy adults. We are an ordinary family – with all the stress, noise, tears and laughter and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
In fact if I was to be really honest there is one problem that I have with my husband – because what marriage doesn’t have its issues? He likes to make a competition of everything. Two years ago we decided that we would give each other a joint Christmas present that we could use to spend more time together. I hit upon the idea of kayaks – a paddle around middle harbour would be a great catch up after a hectic week. But I very quickly decided that two kayaks would not be the go – two kayaks meant that it would always end up in a race rather than a time to talk and dare I say it a touch of romance. So a single kayak was purchased and, when we can, we paddle together without the hint of competition!
I am an ordinary person, who experiences life’s satisfactions and tribulations, no more and no less than the next person, however, I do find myself in an extraordinary situation.
Our lives are not extraordinary, they are very ordinary, it’s just that we now happen to be in an extraordinary situation.
I often marvel at the twists and turns that have brought Tony and I to this point – it has taught me that nothing is inevitable and equally, nothing is impossible.
I grew up in New Zealand attending the local state school. My father started his career with the NZ Post Office as a telegraph boy retiring as a deputy Chief postmaster and my mother worked part time for most of my school years.
My family are Labour voters and, in fact, if I can out myself at this point, I was briefly a Labour Party member in New Zealand. However, experience soon taught me the error of my ways. I should add, this was well before I had met Tony.
I worked out there was more to a better life than bigger government and more people joining unions. In fact if I can use the words of my sister in law Christine when she recently described why she was standing as a Liberal Councillor – Chris talks about respect for the individual, free enterprise and government that gives people the freedom to make their own choices about what’s best for them and their families.
In 1983, I left New Zealand to work in Sydney. While I was working at Rothschild Australia, I met Tony Abbott. Maybe to some we were an unlikely match, the Kiwi teacher’s college graduate and the Oxford educated, rugby playing Rhodes Scholar. Tony doesn’t have ‘airs and graces’ and has a broad, open approach to life that is so hopeful and optimistic.
Sometimes that optimism has seen him undertake some home renovations and projects that I wish he had left to others – like the cubby house that he built for the girls – it certainly wouldn’t meet any playground safety standards today – 6 feet off the ground – including the fireman’s pole which I think was largely for his own benefit. We joked with our neighbours, that perhaps we should have got a DA – but it is this optimism that has been a steadfast quality in my life and in the lives of our girls.
It has been steadfast during almost two decades in Parliament.
I don’t pretend that public life is easy for my family – it’s not just the absences and the scrutiny which of course comes with the territory – but in our home, its just been another ball in the air to juggle and it has made easier by the type of person Tony is – and the steadfast support he has been to me and the girls.
I must admit, I’m not an active follower of politics. In part it’s easier and less stressful simply to leave the politics to the politician in the family, and to make our home a refuge from the battle rather than a place where there is no respite.
Having said that, I do want to respond to this idea that somehow Tony doesn’t get women and that he is some how immune to the influences of the women in his life.
I believe a disservice is being done to women when the gender card is played to shut down debate about policy.
I say to the people who claim that Tony Abbott doesn’t “get” women: You get this – Tony Abbott is surrounded by strong women – in fact not only strong but capable women!
He grew up in a household with three sisters.
He has encouraged me and supported me in whatever I have chosen to do.
And he has three daughters who are young women living the life that feminists aspire for every young woman. They are educated, confident, grounded and happy young women making their own way in the world.
Do you want to know how God turns a man into a feminist? He gives him three daughters.
Let’s not forget, that it was under Tony’s leadership that the Coalition became the first major party to propose a paid parental leave scheme in Australia. And not a paid parental leave scheme based on a minimum wage, but a paid parental leave scheme based on a replacement wage.
He has stuck with that policy, despite the flak, because he understands it’s crucial to giving families more choice when they have to juggle work, family, mortgage, budget and all the other commitments that crowd into family life.
And while we are talking about this claim – next time you meet someone who says that Tony doesn’t get women, ask them when was the last time they cycled 1,000kms raising $148,000 for their local women’s shelter? Which is what Tony did this year for Manly Women’s Shelter.
And in 2006 he ran 24 hours non stop up and down the stairs of Centrepoint tower with Pat Farmer to raise much needed funds and to help lift the profile of Ovarian cancer.
As I said a little earlier, I see myself living an ordinary life, but one that now is in the most extraordinary situation. For me, that extraordinary situation is very much an opportunity to do good.
I will leave the political debates for others. However the opportunity to add my voice in support of learning for under-fives is my greatest interest. Acknowledging the significant brain development that occurs in the first 3 years of a child’s life and how the lifelong impact of a child’s early experiences have in shaping the brain.
When we talk of experiences they can be as simple as holding a child, talking with a child, reading to a child sharing your time with a child. Recognising the importance and acknowledging the commitment of all who work in early childhood education is an area that we have made some gains in over the last 10 years but there is so much more that can be done.
Given the opportunity, I do want to be a champion for children at risk in our country and to support the fine work of so many groups involved in watching out for and helping our children.
I have recently had the opportunity to visit the Child Protection Society of Victoria to see the wonderful work that they re doing with children at risk of abuse or neglect. To view first hand their work with families and particularly children who are living on the margins of our society I found both personally and professionally inspiring. Whilst abuse of children in whatever form occurs – no community, no society can ever rest on their laurels.
Many years ago, I was an official visitor in our prisons. I visited some of our toughest prisoners in maximum security jails like Long Bay and Goulburn. In some cases I met the perpetrators of crimes against children, and despite the disturbing crimes they had committed I became acutely aware that these people regardless of their crime, have families – particularly children who find themselves isolated, alone and shamed because of the actions of their mum or dad.
Those children have never committed a crime – but they pay a heavy price for the actions of their father or mother. In our desire to punish those who have done wrong, we have inadvertently punished those who have done nothing wrong.
It has been said that we all are the product of those who loved us or those who have failed to love us – and I often wonder what has become of those children who, through no fault of their own, have been deprived of the love of a father or mother? I worry that history will repeat itself for these families.
Tony and I in our different ways have a shared passion for indigenous communities. Tony, as you know, has pledged to get our CEOs, bureaucrats and community leaders more personally involved in our indigenous communities. Not because we know better, but because we all share this land, and there is much we can learn from each other.
As a high school student in New Zealand, I studied the Maori language. I had many Maori friends, and as a teacher I taught Maori students. Learning the Maori language was my modest attempt to help break down barriers and to hopefully build bridges, and I know we still have so far to go in this country, for greater understanding of our differences, whilst recognising those things that bind us all as Australians.
This isn’t just a passion of Tony’s political life. It’s something that I also share. The charity bike rides, the volunteer work in indigenous communities, will keep happening long after political life and the 24 hour news-cycle has stopped. We both want to play a role as citizens in making so many indigenous communities better places to live ordinary, joyous lives.
But before all of that, there’s an election. Elections these days are different for our family than they were a few years ago. For most of the girls’ lives, Tony and I made a conscious decision to keep them away from politics and political campaigns. As they were growing up, they never appeared in a brochure and we kept them very much away from any of the campaigning at election time.
But the last election was different, the girls had grown up and they wanted to support their father.
So we all got involved, rolled up our sleeves. It was a real family effort and we want to do it again this time – we want to do so because we know that Tony is a good man, with a great heart – and we want all Australians to know that. As he has helped to shape my life and the lives of his daughters so to have we helped to shape his over the past 20 odd years. I am sure you can see this indeed within your own families.
He hasn’t let us down and he won’t let you down.
I am grateful for this opportunity to speak today. Thank you for all your hard work, not just in promoting the Liberal Party, but in promoting the very talented women of the Liberal Party.
It’s been a pleasure to be with you today.
Margie Abbott is a mother, community child care operator and wife of the Leader of the Opposition, the Hon Tony Abbott MP. This article was first published by News Limited here and has been republished with full permission.