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MIA: Why the "Mamamia crowd" are suspicious of Abbott.

Once upon a time, Mia had breakfast with Tony Abbott…

By MIA FREEDMAN

The day Tony Abbott was elected leader of the opposition, I was quite irate. Seared in my mind was his interference in the issue of the introduction of abortion drug RU486 into Australia when he was health minister. Back then, women from all sides of politics – including the coalition – banded together to overturn any personal power he was able to wield in his role as health minister and ensure it remained a medical issue.

Rightfully. As it always should have been.

But it was an alarming episode that alerted voters to the potential for personal views to impede public policy.

How could we not be alarmed? Tony Abbott made some concerning remarks about abortion at that time, plainly influenced by his religious beliefs. These included “The problem with the Australian practice of abortion is that an objectively grave matter has been reduced to a question of the mother’s convenience” and describing the annual abortion rate of 100,000 as “a legacy of unutterable shame”.

So when he became the leader of the opposition back in 2009, like many women I was a little freaked out. I wrote an impassioned post about what a dark day it was for women and stated my disbelief that the Liberal party could have elected as its alternative Prime Minister, a man who was opposed to abortion, contraception, stem cell research and IVF.

I may also have said he pulled the wings off butterflies. I was fairly overwrought.

Quickly, I amended the post and corrected some factual errors. While the abortion point remained, his positions on contraception and IVF were unclear so I gave him the benefit of the doubt and withdrew those accusations.

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So where had they come from? Why did I – and so many others – believe Abbott was opposed to contraception and IVF?

Did Kevin Rudd let his religion influence his policies?

Religion. I can’t recall a time when a political leader wore their religious beliefs so overtly as was the case before TA rose to the top of the coalition (since then, he has played down his religion massively – or perhaps he has genuinely stepped away from the hardline views of his church). Kevin Rudd is known to be quite deeply religious and has given far more press interviews on the steps of church than Abbott ever has and yet those same suspicions never clouded the public view of his judgement.

Apart from his stance on gay marriage (anti), I cannot recall an instance where Rudd’s religious views were thought to affect his political positions. It’s also worth noting that Kevin Rudd is not Catholic.

Because the area where the Catholic church is most out-spoken, most retrograde and most jarringly out of step with modern life are issues around women. Their hardline opposition to abortion, contraception and IVF are the three big ones.

Without the ability to control our fertility, women are basically stuffed. Without safe, legal, affordable access to contraception and abortion, women’s lives are completely out of our control. And the same could be said of IVF for those women desperate -and unable – to become mothers.

Is it any wonder that Tony Abbott – as an outspokenly committed Catholic who was once planning to become a priest – carries a huge amount of associated suspicion?

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Soon after I wrote my piece about him on Mamamia, I was contacted by Abbott’s office and a meet-and-greet breakfast was brokered by our mutual friend and colleague, Helen McCabe – editor of the Women’s Weekly. It was delightful. We got on well.

But since then, Tony has refused to be interviewed by me on the record. Not during the last election – when I was set to interview both him and Julia Gillard for Fairfax newspapers – and not since.

We have kept in contact and he has made many assertions that he will one day sit down for an on-the-record chat but it’s never happened and the reasons have been crystal clear to me.

He knows I will ask about subjects like his views on contraception, abortion, IVF and his role in the RU486 matter. And the approach he and his office have taken since he became opposition leader is a small target one. Don’t scare the horses. Don’t draw attention to the ‘women’s issue’. Don’t remind people of the problem – real or percieved – Tony Abbott has with women. Or rather, the problem women have with Tony Abbott.

Except it hasn’t gone away – as evidenced by his low popularity rate and the fact that “I don’t trust him” is the answer so many women give when his name comes up – among both coalition and ALP voters.

Tony Abbott with his wife Margie and their daughters.

Do I believe Tony Abbott has a real problem with women? No. I do believe he is a man quite typical of his generation – with some entrenched retro attitudes. But I also believe he is genuinely influenced by his daughters. I’m a daughter. I know how influential I am with my own father. Most men are hugely affected by the experience of watching their daughters grow up and face issues around equality that stop becoming theoretical to these men and start becoming the stuff of life.

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With three young women living in his house, Tony Abbott could not help but be influenced by them. For the better one would assume.

So why the reluctance – the complete refusal – to go on the record and address these issues? Get them out of the way. Lance the boil.

Which brings us to the fairly extraordinary political campaigning – and let’s not pretend it’s anything other than that – with the women closest to Tony Abbott, coming out (I will resist the use of the term ‘wheeled out’ because these are strong, smart women regardless of their political currency) to testify on his behalf.

Peta Credlin, Tony Abbott’s Chief of Staff, who recently spoke of Tony Abbott’s support of her IVF struggles.

First Margie Abbott. Now Peta Credlin, his chief-of-staff who has spoken about how supportive he has been of her IVF journey. Yesterday, Christopher Pyne came out and said the same thing, stating how supportive Abbott had been of HIS IVF experience.

Which is terrific – and, yes, reassuring I guess – but also quite surreal.

‘He let me keep my needles in the work fridge’ said Peta Credlin as if that was somehow an act of supreme consideration. What was he GOING to do? Say: “No needles. No way. Buy an esky.”

Are we really at the point where basic human decency and compassion for someone’s struggle with infertility is reason for a round of applause?

Christopher Pyne has also spoken of Tony Abbott’s support for HIS IVF battles.
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I fear that we are this close to the older female members of the opposition speaking out to say how supportive Tony was when they were going through menopause. “He fanned me when I was having hot flushes in cabinet meetings” they will boast to murmurs of approval.

Yesterday on Mamamia, we published Tony Abbott’s column where he finally addressed the myth that he is opposed to IVF, which can only be a good thing. We did so, while other media outlets predicted how the ‘Mamamia crowd’ might react to the Opposition Leader’s new ‘woo the women’ political tactics.

By ‘Mamamia crowd’ I take it they were referring to switched on, politically engaged and interested Australian women who read this site (because by no means do our readers have a homogenous view on any issue!) Well those women, and in fact the whole electorate is now demanding a greater level of transparency and candidness from Abbott on these issues. Because by refusing to address it in the years since he was elected leader, he has allowed suspicion to grow and fester.

Bad tactic, Tony.

There are a few more things he needs to address on the record to exorcise more of those myths. Because whether he likes it or not, suspicions remain and will continue to damage him until he deals with them.

Maybe – hopefully – his views have changed since he made some of the comments above. But how can we possibly know if he continues to duck and weave and send others out to speak on his behalf?

Tony? You know where to find me. Mamamia readers would adore to talk to you.

Comments on this post have been closed – 9am 11/1/13

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