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Breakfast with Tony Abbott. A true story.

Just for kicks, I began International Women’s Day by having breakfast with Tony Abbott. This was not unusual because I often begin my mornings by having Vegemite toast with political leaders. It’s how I roll.

It certainly was an interesting meal and one I’d been quietly dreading ever since it was suggested by a mutual colleague, Australian Women’s Weekly editor Helen McCabe who did a fine impersonation of Ban-ki Moon in brokering peace talks between the opposition leader and me.

My biggest fear was this: what if I bloody LIKED him? That would be a complete disaster.

You see, I couldn’t possibly like Tony Abbott because we were fighting. Well, not fighting exactly. More like Tony was busy trying to be an alternative prime minister and keep his feet out of his mouth while I was busy assassinating his character and policies on my website Mamamia.

On the day he was elected opposition leader, I was quick to write a very scathing blog post which declared it a dark day for women, featured the word “Argh???!!!” several times and wondered if the party who elected him were on crack. I wrapped it up by emphasising that I wasn’t anti-Liberal necessarily, just anti-Abbott.

In my spontaneous outrage, I didn’t check all my facts and admittedly, some were incorrect (e.g., that Abbott is opposed to contraception and IVF and that he eats kittens for breakfast). Later, I amended these errors. My bad. But still. Tony Abbott as opposition leader? Really, Libs?

Over the next few hours as the comments from women poured in (most of them equally alarmed), my phone began to ring with journalists wanting commentary on Abbott’s surprise election as Liberal leader from the point of view of Australian women.

No pressure, just speak for an entire gender, will you?  I don’t think so.

It was a pattern which would repeat itself every time Abbott said anything about controversial about women, from ironing to virginity. Inadvertently, I’d become the go-to girl for anti-Abbott quotes. So I didn’t give any.

Instead, I read and watched and listened and then I met him.

Our breakfast happened after Helen McCabe referenced my website rant in her infamous Virginity-gate interview with Tony Abbott for the Womens Weekly and she acted as chaperone on our blind date, along with Abbott’s female press secretary and female chief of staff.

That’s how I came to be sitting at a table in a beachside café ridiculously early one morning with Tony Abbott and three very impressive women. It could have been an awkward nightmare. In fact, it wasn’t.

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This is not a profile on Tony Abbott. Nor is it a column about paid parental leave policies. There’s not nearly enough room here for that. And I’m not declaring my political hand either; like many journalists, I’ve also had off-the-record chats with Kevin Rudd (oh wait, let me bend down and pick up that name I just dropped).

Before Tony arrived, I received a text from a friend. “Careful babe. I fear you’re being used as a political pawn.”  I texted straight back: “Duh. Of course I am.”

I knew it was no accident we were meeting on International Women’s Day. I knew the aim was to win me over or at least neutralise me with a taser. It’s politics. So was I tasered? Did I make like a Golden retriever and roll on my back with my legs in the air (in a non-sexual way)? I was not and I did not.

However. I did like the guy. In person, it’s hard not to. Surprising (to me) was how comfortable he is around forthright women. That’s not to say we walked off into the sunset holding hands, him in his Speedos, me carrying an iron.

Between amusing banter, surfing tips, tea and toast, we had a frank and honest exchange of views. He wanted to know what readers of Mamamia thought and I told him in no uncertain terms. I also listened, asked lots of questions and forced my mind to stay open even when the words ‘lame, gay, churchy loser’ popped into it – his own daughter’s description, not mine.

As I get older, I’ve realised it is possible to like people you disagree with. Hell, sometimes it’s even possible to marry them or give birth to them. I once worked with a woman who held some particularly polarising views, somewhere to the right of fascism. We disagreed so vehemently on so many subjects that I would never have wanted to, say, watch the news with her. But gosh balls, I liked her.

Here’s what else I try to remember: in the short sound-bites, video grabs and column inches available, the media provides pretty broad caricatures of people in the public eye. It’s hard to meet someone and still hate them as a person. Much easier to be a hater without any actual direct contact or experience.

The further away you are, the easier it is. From behind a computer screen or while reading a paper, everything can seem very black and white. But it’s very difficult to look someone in the eye, have a chat and walk away without some appreciation for the shades of grey.

And this doesn’t just apply to politicians smuggling budgies.

UPDATE: OKAAAAAAAAY. I hear you loud and clear Commenters.

There appears to be much disquiet and even some outright pissed-offedness about my lack of details on what Tony and I actually discussed and what my positions are on particular issues. I’m rarely accused of being backwards about coming forwards and I wear my opinions like a t-shirt slogan so that’s a little surprising to me.

Perhaps those unfamiliar with me or this website may not know how I feel in relation to certain things so I’ll spell it out. In a moment.

A couple of things first.

1. This meeting was officially off-the-record which means what we discussed was…. off-the-record (!) Not because our conversation was so shocking as to require a Get-Smart Cone Of Silence (remember that show? Anyone?) but because it wasn’t a formal interview. It was a have-a-chat breakfast. A get-to-know-you.
They happen all the time. Very common. As I said in my column, like many journalists, I’ve done the same thing with Kevin Rudd and other public and political figures. The ethics of such meetings are that the meetings themselves are not secret but exact quotes are not to be publicised.

So I’m sorry if you had a different impression and were disappointed by this not being a Kerry O’Brian style grilling. Frankly, I was stoked because instead of stressing about my dictaphone working and being in full-on journalist mode, I could actually get a sense of what the guy was like. Much more interesting to me and much less daunting given that I am not a political journalist.

This column was never intended to be a profile or an analysis about politics or policies. There are people far more qualified than me to debate those things and places far more appropriate to do it.

What I wanted to do was to take more of a helicopter view. I wanted to confront my own preconceptions and write honestly about what it was like to WANT to hate someone but actually find myself liking him very much. Not liking all of his views (and not pretending to) but liking his vibe. It certainly challenged me to look at how easy it is to demonise someone personally without having met them. It’s not the first time I’ve done that and I should have learnt that lesson by now.

2. It’s a surprise to me that anyone could be in the dark about my opinion on the issues which Tony and I  – predictably – touched on in our conversation. Here, I’ll spell it out for you.

I believe in reproductive choice for women. I’m in favour of easy access to contraception. I believe gay people should have the same rights as straight people, including the right to marry. I believe in paid parental leave for six months at full pay – funded by either government or big business.

There’s a start.

FYI, we also discussed many things not related to politics like our kids and surfing. There was much laughter also. As I said, Tony Abbott and his press secretary and Helen McCabe are excellent company.

He did talk about his frustration at being constantly portrayed as king of the Catholics and the assumption that his personal faith would affect his policies. He spelled out that he is not opposed to contraception or IVF and that his views on abortion were not nearly as black and white as many people thought.

I asked him how and why he thought he had this image if it was inaccurate and he talked me through his views on that which were rooted in the RU486 vote in 2006 when he was health minister.

We agreed that everyone would like to see fewer abortions and I emphasised that those of us who are pro-choice are not pro-abortion (very different things) so we could agree on that. Then I explained that what is so frustrating is that so many people who oppose abortion also oppose the exact things that could help lower the number of abortions performed in Australia every year – things like sex education and cheap and easy access to contraception.

As for the suggestion below by one commenter that by not sharing the details of our conversation or being able to produce some tangible outcome that “we your readers were just used to help Abbott hone his political message”. Well, duh.

When I asked what you wanted me to tell Tony Abbott there were hundreds of comments and I read all of them. Since our meeting was not a press conference or a formal interview, I gave him an overview of these comments and the most common and pressing concerns. I think the fact that he asked and is interested in what Mamamia readers have to say can only be of benefit. And is a huge compliment to you all. You wield influence. Canberra is watching this site and listening to you.

After all, isn’t it the job of politicians to take the temperature of voters and form policies based on their views?

3. Finally, for those wanting me to come out and say who I’m going to vote for? None of your business. I owe nobody the liberty of full disclosure and you will inevitably form your own opinions of my politics regardless of what I write.

Are there people you like but disagree with? Is it possible to hold different views about important things and still maintain respect for someone?