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political spouses Enter stage left: The political spouse.

Clockwise from top left: Tony and Margie Abbott, Julia Gillard and Tim Matheison, Kevin Rudd and Therese Rein, John and Janette Howard.

 

 

 

 

 

By JAMILA RIZVI

Last week Margie Abbott – wife of the man most-likely to be our next Prime Minister – entered the political fray.

Australia woke up to happy Abbott family snaps gracing the front pages of our newspapers, over our breakfast bowl of muesli Tony and Margie Abbott were welcomed onto the brightly coloured couches of our morning television shows and next, came a speech that was as overworked and carefully crafted as they come.

The media watched the couple’s every move, crying out that this was an act, a show, a set up, a carefully crafted media blitz. The public followed suit – we’re smarter than that, we won’t be fooled by this, we won’t be sucked in, we know a political stunt when we see one.

This was a stunt writ large. Margie Abbott’s fierce defence of her husband’s ‘softer side’ and ‘approach to women’ would have been intricately planned out by political staff, weeks if not months in advance.

But all the cynicism in the world doesn’t mean the stunt won’t work. Because this stunt has something going for it that trumps its own contrived nature: an authentic, believable and honest central character.

Margie Abbott stepped into the character of kind hearted, hard working, warm wife and mother; a little media shy, slightly nervous and passionately defensive of her husband’s good character and ability to lead.

She was believable because none of it was an act. The character was her own. Just like my mum would give you a pretty glowing referee report if you called her to ask if I should be given a gig… Unsurprisingly the people who love us, think highly of us and our abilities.

Barack and Michelle 290x385 Enter stage left: The political spouse.

Barack and Michelle Obama

Yet in this, Margie can play a role that no member of Abbott’s shadow cabinet can – the role of genuinely thinking Tony is the best person for the job. Because unlike most members of the shadow cabinet, she doesn’t want the job herself.

All the things that make the public wary of those vying for high public office – the overly rehearsed speeches, the masked ambition, the practiced ability to dodge a question, the media training designed to mold the person into exactly what the public supposedly wants to see – Margie doesn’t have that.

She’s new at this. She’s just being a spouse like any other, who is doing what she can to support her partner to get ahead in his career. And political stunt or not – why shouldn’t she?

If you were given the opportunity to do something a little outside your comfort zone to help your partner get ahead in their career – would you do it? If you could do something that cost you nothing to help someone you love make a lifelong dream come true – would you do it? Of course you would.

It’s important to remember that is it not unusual for the spouse of a politician vying for the Prime Ministership to become a public figure. Even in Australia.

In the lead up to the 1972 election. Margaret Whitlam wrote a column for Woman’s Day, she appeared on a panel show called Beauty and the Beast and once Gough was elected she was a regular on television and radio news. Therese Rein and her family featured heavily in Kevin Rudd’s 2007 campaign for the Lodge, as Labor attempted to contrast this modern and energetic young couple with the older John and Janette Howard.

Once elected the Prime Minister’s partner plays a significant role in public life. They are expected to speak at major functions, to serve as a figurehead for a variety of organisations, to be a spokesperson for charities and to welcome and entertain an endless run of guests in their home.

Ann and Mitt 290x385 Enter stage left: The political spouse.

Ann and Mitt Romney

Elsewhere in the world, and most particularly in the United States, the role of the political spouse has catapulted from the smiling-and-waving-hand-holding routine to essentially offering voters a new product: the two-for-one deal.

Michelle Obama’s and Ann Romney’s speeches to their respective party’s National Conventions were watched by more Americans than there are Australian citizens. Michelle Obama basically broke social media with her perfectly enunciated, beautifully phrased address – with 28 000 tweets being churned out for every minute she spoke. The First Lady not only has her own political advisers, she gets a whole section of prime real estate office space in the White House.

We speak of ‘the Obamas’ and not just Barrack alone. We know how the family celebrate Christmas, we know where the couple go on dates, we know the names and ages of their children, we know what sports they play. Hell, the world even follows the fate of the First Family’s dog. (Seriously cute, and incidentally the same breed as Julia Gillard’s but I digress…)

The partners of Australian Prime Ministers – while no doubt highly influential behind the scenes (Janette Howard is credited with playing a critical role in shaping key policies and decisions of the Howard Government) – has largely been one of obligation. Spouses have played their part, done as was expected of them, been paraded out at times of victory and ushered in to provide consolation following a loss.

So, what’s different this time? The Margie Abbott card is being played squarely to attain a political advantage.

The women of the Abbott family – sisters, daughters, mother and wife – are being rallied as those best placed to challenge the  anti-woman stigma that has attached itself to Abbott. Moreover, the family portrait of the loving husband and dad stands in stark visual contrast to the hard-headed, politically focused single woman who is currently in the Lodge.

879950 3x2 940x627 380x253 Enter stage left: The political spouse.

John and Janette, Kevin and Therese

I say this as a huge supporter of Julia Gillard and someone who doesn’t give a political poo about whether she is married or unmarried, has kids or not: Abbott’s family will have an impact on this campaign and it will be an overwhelmingly positive one.

One of his daughter’s once described him as a ‘gay churchy loser’. That teenage affection coated in sarcasm makes Abbott infinitely more likeable than the endless marathons he runs.

You can’t help but like Margie Abbott. She’s not the high flying, multimillionaire business powerhouse that Therese Rein was, she doesn’t appear aloof or standoffish like Anita Keating and she doesn’t have the out-of-touch, Private Girls’ School snobbery that surrounded Janette Howard. She’s relatable. She’s just like the rest of us.

Margie is the fellow mum volunteering at the school canteen. She’s the woman you can ask for an opinion about whether your 10-year-daughter should be allowed to pierce her ears. She’s the working parent who is also just managing to keep every ball in the air.

We all like to think that voters make their decisions based on policy and not personality. But the perceived ‘values’, experiences and lifestyle of a political leader do have an impact and it is not a marginal one.

Margie Abbott gives Australian women the chance to think and to say ‘oh they’re just like me’.

And that is politically invaluable.

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