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Mia Freedman: "I gave Tony Abbott the benefit of the doubt on women. I was wrong."

From the start, Tony Abbott had a woman problem. Like so many of his problems, this one was entirely of his own making.

Before he became Prime Minister, before he was even Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott was best known as the health minister who, in 2006, tried to limit women’s access to the abortion drug RU486.

EXCLUSIVE POLL: 86% of Australian women want Tony Abbott to step down as PM

His position on abortion was well known. In 2004, as the Health Minister, in a speech to the Adelaide Democratic Club he said this:

“… even those who think that abortion is a woman’s right should be troubled by the fact that 100,000 Australian women choose to destroy their unborn babies every year. What does it say about the state of our relationships and our values that so many women (and their husbands, lovers and families) feel incapable of coping with a pregnancy or a child?”

“Before he became Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott was best known as the health minister who, in 2006, tried to limit women’s access to the abortion drug RU486.”

This was not a progressive man. Again, as Health Minister, he had this to say about the introduction of cervical cancer vaccine, Gardisil and why it was not yet on the PBS:

“I won’t be rushing out to get my daughters vaccinated, maybe that’s because I’m a cruel, callow, callous, heartless bastard but, look, I won’t be.”

It’s on: Liberals call for a spill of leadership positions. 

Still, while women were hugely wary of him and suspicious of this politician who spoke so openly of his religion (a faith which in its strictest form is opposed to contraception, abortion, stem cell research, homosexuality and divorce) he wasn’t considered a credible threat in any meaningful way. He’d never be leader, we reassured ourselves. He’d never have the chance to influence his party’s policy directly, let alone lead the country.

There were so many more obvious candidates in front of him. Peter Costello, Malcolm Turnbull, Brendan Nelson, Joe Hockey. The Liberal party would never elect someone so distrusted by women.

Until they did.

“He’d never be leader, we reassured ourselves. He’d never have the chance to influence his party’s policy directly, let alone lead the country.”

It was December 1, 2009 when the unthinkable happened and the Liberal party imploded over the Emissions Trading Scheme, voting to replace their then leader Malcolm Turnbull with Tony Abbott. By one vote.

The day of the Liberal Party spill, when Abbott became the new leader, everyone was shocked including, even it seemed, Abbott himself. Many were also horrified. I was one of them.

ENQUIRE WITHIN: Tony Abbott’s job has been advertised.

With this website still in its early days as a growing personal blog, I sat alone at home absorbing the news that an avowed Catholic conservative who openly opposed abortion was one election away from becoming our next Prime Minister. And I lost my shit.

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What followed was a very angry and highly emotional post, the kind I have since learned not to publish. Not immediately anyway. But the adrenaline was flowing and I uploaded it right away before closing my laptop, taking some deep breaths and going to pick up my kids from school.

Here are some highlights:

“I am still trying to wrap my head around the fact that the liberal party have just elected a leader who is anti-abortion, anti-contraception, anti-IVF, anti stem cell research and who wants to ban no-fault divorce. What a great day for women! PS: Are the Liberal party on crack?”

“I sat alone at home absorbing the news that an avowed Catholic conservative who openly opposed abortion was one election away from becoming our next Prime Minister.”

It was not my best work but it came from the heart. I wrote with genuine emotion about my fear for women, my fear for the Liberal Party and my fear for the country if by some unspeakable freakish event he became Prime Minister. His track record on issues affecting women in particular were dire. Ditto climate change which he would go on to describe at ‘bullshit’. The impact of his personal religious beliefs on his policy positions were then unclear. I was alert and alarmed.

The response was swift. I was immediately contacted by media around Australia, wanting me to talk about why Tony Abbott’s rise to Opposition Leader was a terrible thing for women.

Taken aback that my personal rant had somehow become a statement on behalf of all women (which it was never intended to be), I said no to every request.

Except the one that came from Tony Abbott’s office a month or two later. He was keen to meet me, I was told. To show me that I was wrong about him. To sit down face to face and talk about some of my wild accusations (a couple of which I had admittedly had to correct hours after publishing it after I discovered that he wasn’t in fact opposed to contraception and didn’t, you know, kill kittens for fun).

Still, I was wary. Since becoming Opposition leader, Abbott had done little to quell the concerns of women about him being sexist and out of touch.

“This wasn’t just generational, it seemed to be intrinsic to Abbott’s world view.”

While visiting a dry-cleaning store in 2010 he said this about why women should oppose the carbon tax:

“What the housewives of Australia need to understand as they do the ironing is that if they get it done commercially it’s going to go up in price and their own power bills when they switch the iron on are going to go up.”

It was the kind of unthinking, foot-in-mouth comment clearly born of deeply held beliefs about women and their place in society that fuelled women’s fears. Malcolm Turnbull or Kevin Rudd would never say anything like that, despite being men of similar age. This wasn’t just generational, it seemed to be intrinsic to Abbott’s world view.

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We met for breakfast back in March 2010, chaperoned by our mutual colleague Helen McCabe, editor of the Australian Women’s Weekly. Peta Credlin his chief of staff was there at the Manly Surf Club and so was his press secretary, also a woman.

It was slightly awkward and stilted at first, as these things can be but we quickly addressed the elephant in the room and he was keen to set me straight about his views on a number of issues pertaining to women. He was not, he insisted, opposed to abortion. He just wished for fewer of them to be performed. He was not, he laughed, any kind of mouthpiece for the Catholic Church and in fact he disagreed with much of their ideology.

Before Abbott had arrived, I received a text from a friend. “Careful babe. I fear you’re being used as a political pawn.”  I replied immediately: “Duh. Of course I am.”

My breakfast meeting with Tony Abbott back in 2009. He has refused to meet with me since.

But I couldn’t help liking him. My impressions that morning were of a man clearly comfortable in the company of women. Strong, opinionated women. He laughed easily – often at himself – and seemed to enjoy their affectionate teasing. It didn’t seem like an act. With three daughters, you could tell he was used to being the target of much good natured eye rolling.

And then came the reason why I had been summoned. He had an idea, he told us. For a radical paid parental scheme that would see women earn their full wage for up to six months after having a baby.

It was International Womens Day, did I mention that? How convenient. I’m not stupid. I knew I was being played.

Regardless of what you thought of the policy itself however, strategically it was a master-stroke.

By not merely matching the ALP’s proposed PPL scheme but blasting through it into a stratosphere where every new mother would be dramatically better off than they would under any Labor Government, Abbott instantly changed the conversation – about himself.

This was not the policy of a man who did not like or understand women. In fact, as many inside and outside his own party pointed out, it was exceedingly generous and went above and beyond any wishlist that had ever been on the PPL table for either party.

The policy was widely loathed. By his own party, the opposition, the business community, economists, most media commentators and even many women who would personally benefit from it but considered it unfair to pay some women more than others for doing the same thing; looking after a baby.

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“My impressions that morning were of a man clearly comfortable in the company of women.”

With whiplash inducing speed however, Abbott had transformed public perception of himself, from oppressor of women to their liberator and champion. With that one policy he won ringing endorsement from some of Australia’s most high profile feminists such as Eva Cox and Sarrah Le Marquand. For a while, I loved Abbott’s PPL policy too. What’s not to love about a scheme where every woman who has a baby is better off than under the current one?

I will admit my head was turned at first – by the policy. I wrote about whether it was time to give Abbott the benefit of the doubt when he said that he’d listened and he’d changed.  “This is not the policy of a man who has a retro view of a woman’s place in the world., it’s just not. And Abbott has burnt a lot of political capital within his own party by not wavering from it, so strongly does he clearly believe in supporting the choices of women around work and family. This gives me great hope for the future.”

Mia’s backflip: “Why I no longer support Tony Abbott’s PPL.” 

In a 2014 speech at an event on International Women’s Day, he said that his wife and three daughters had turned him from “an unconstructed bloke into a feminist”. And perhaps they had.

But for reasons I detailed here, I gradually changed my mind about Abbott’s signature – and only – policy regarding women. I felt there were better ways to spend that amount of money. Like on cheaper childcare that would do far more to get women back into the workforce after becoming mothers.

Knowing how much opposition there was from within his own party and how overly flashy Abbott’s promised PPL scheme was, I’ve often wondered whether he always knew he would have to junk it. The cynic in me reckons he always knew it wouldn’t fly. But he gambled on the idea that it could be used as a powerful tool to get himself elected, pole vaulting himself over the widespread fear that he was anti-women.

Once that hurdle was cleared and he had a credible go-to response for any accusations of misogyny and sexism, the job was done.

“In PPL…he had a credible go-to response for any accusations of misogyny and sexism, the job was done.”

While campaigning to become the Prime Minister during the last election and on every day since, Abbott has been able to wave this one policy around like a lightsabre, using it to deftly defend himself against any question about women.

Once he was elected, he could abandon it with faux regret. And he did. The budget was in bad shape, he announced in his press club speech last Tuesday. And since his esteemed colleagues weren’t happy with his controversial ‘Captain’s picks” , he would be more consultative and reverse them.

OPINION: “Minister, if that’s your best effort, then you need to resign.”

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Wait, not all of them. Prince Philip still gets to keep his knighthood. There would be no reversal of the re-introduction of Knights and Dames. He would simply reverse his commitment to Australian women that they would benefit from his bigger, better, more generous Paid Parental Scheme. The policy that many women voted for. The policy that persuaded women to overcome their concerns about electing a man who, at best, had worryingly old fashion social views and at worst, appeared to be a sexist, unreconstructed bloke.

No matter that Abbott had repeatedly promised this revolutionary policy would be introduced “in the first term of a coalition government”. Last Tuesday, he dumped it without giving any detail about any replacement policy or budget allocation around childcare. It was just…..gone.

And with that, Tony Abbott burned the last scrap of political capital he had with women.

Not that there were many women left who supported him.

The day after Abbott was elected as PM, I wrote:

“All we can do is judge our new Prime Minister by what he says and how he’s promised to lead the country. In time, we’ll be able to judge him by what he actually does as Prime Minister. It’s not about rhetoric anymore, it’s about action and we’re about to see how that plays out.”

Here’s what happened after that:

  • Abbott appointed just one woman to his cabinet. He dismissed calls for quotas by insisting it was a ‘merit-only’ system by which ministers were appointed, despite this being patently false. There was a state quota, a quota for national party members and a quota for left and right, all of which determined the composition of the cabinet and always has.
  • Abbott claimed to see nothing wrong with Australian women forming 51% of the population and yet less than 8% of the cabinet.
  • Abbott refused to be interviewed by me or any other Mamamia journalist, instead choosing to engage with male journalists like Ray Hadley and Alan Jones to audiences of men. He never engaged in any meaningful way with any form of women’s media.
  • Abbott appointed himself Minister for Women, thus rendering the role meaningless. When asked on Today in 2014 to name his best achievement as Minister for Women, he said this: “As many of us know, women are particularly focused on the household budget and the repeal of the carbon tax means a $550 a year benefit for the average family.”
  • Abbott was unable to find any Australian woman worthy of the top honour of being named a knight or dame in the order of Australia. Instead, he gave it to General Angus Houston and Prince Philip, indicating the Queen’s husband more worthy than any woman in Australia.

Tony Abbott has always been unpopular with women. The latest poll of more than 2000 women conducted by Mamamia shows that support has plumetted to dramatically low and utterly unsustainable levels.

“In a revealing poll of Mamamia Women’s Network readers, 86% want to see a change in the leadership of the Liberal Party, with Malcolm Turnbull and Julie Bishop significantly outstripping Tony Abbott as preferred Prime Minister.

His leadership is clearly unsalvagable. Abbott has proven himself unpopular with women, with men and with his own party. He was a surprisingly effective opposition leader aided skillfully by the most tulmultuous and destabilising periods in ALP history.  But he has been unable to transition his style from the contrary, negative, knock-em-down approach that worked so well in opposition, to the visionary leader his party and the country has been looking for since the day he was elected Prime Minister.

Abbott has proven himself unable to read the mood of the electorate, unable to sell any of his policies to voters, unable to implement them within his own party let alone the parliament and unable to keep the one and only promise he made to women.

In every poll ever conducted, the vast majority of women have consistently signalled their preference for Malcolm Turnbull to lead the Liberal party and the country.

It’s time.

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