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Tony Abbott: a clarification from Mia Freedman

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When this new Tony Abbott biography by Susan Mitchell landed on my desk with a press release recently, I was slightly taken aback to read my name at the top of the back cover and featuring prominently at the top of the press release.

“If he’s elected as our PM in the future I would be very scared for women everywhere.”

– Mia Freedman

I’m often asked to write quotes for books and if I believe in the book and its author, I often agree.

However permission to publish this one was neither sought nor given. Technically, I guess can’t complain, the words were originally mine, indeed they appeared right here on Mamamia  but the context was not.

I have never read the book, never met the author and had no contact with the publisher, Scribe Publications.

So did I write that sentence? Yes, I did. In a post here almost two years ago.

The day Tony Abbott became Opposition leader in December 2009, I wrote this strongly worded post about my concerns for women based on his history of opposing fertility choices such as abortion. This included his past attempts as Health Minister to over-rule medical authorities when the legalisation of the abortion drug RU486 was being introduced into Australia.

A bid that was only overturned when the women of Emily’s List came together from all sides of politics to defeat his proposed legislation.

I knew he was a deeply religious man and I worried that his religious views would inform his political policies.

The quote on the back of the book

Some of what I wrote turned out not to be true. Tony Abbott is not against contraception nor fertility treatment. I ammeded the post and refused all interviews with media who wanted me to ‘speak on behalf of women’ about what his new role meant. I couldn’t possibly be a mouthpiece for ‘women’ and I didn’t want to become a spokesperson for or against any political party or leader.

Soon after that, the editor of the Women’s Weekly, Helen McCabe who knew us both, brokered a breakfast meeting. She’d discussed my comments with him in a wide-ranging interview for AWW (the one where he spoke about his view on virginity as it pertained to his daughters) and he was keen to meet me.

I was initially wary because I had extremely strong views about Tony Abbott and I was disappointed that the Coalition had dumped Malcolm Turnbull for him. But how could I say no?

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So I went and I wrote this column about our off-the-record breakfast meeting (meaning it wasn’t an interview and what we discussed was not directly for publication):

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 board.

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. And obviously that’s gay in the non-homosexual context….

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.

There was a huge response to that column with hundreds of commenters writing very passionately about their views on Abbott (for an against) and also chastising me for being ‘too soft’ on him.

Here was my response to that response:

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.

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 and for sex education to be a mandatory part of the national curriculum. 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. [UPDATE: I believe in a humane, compassionate approach to asylum seekers, onshore processing, the end of mandatory detention and that no child should ever be behind razor wire under any circumstances. I believe in a carbon tax.]

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.

Tony Abbott and I have remained in touch since that morning and we speak from time to time, like he does with many, many journalists. I respect and genuinely like the man, even if I vehmently disagree with many of his political positions – most particularly the carbon tax and refugees.

But a good government requires a good opposition and I think everyone benefits from hearing different points of view. Which is why I contacted him personally a few months ago to ask him to write this piece on the Carbon Tax for Mamamia (which was then mentioned twice by the Prime Minister in question time and once in a press conference).

So let me be clear: I’m not happy that a dated quote from me was used to promote a book I’ve never read by an author I’ve never met.

Without my permission or even my knowledge.

I acknowledge that I did write those words but I will add that my position on the man personally has changed. I don’t believe Tony Abbott is a direct threat to women although there are some minority groups who I do fear for under a coalition governement including refugees and gay people.

But mutual respect and an ongoing dialogue is important and it’s something I fundamentally believe in.

I’ve asked Tony to let me interview him for Mamamia on Sky News. For a chat. So far, he’s dodging me although just before the election, he did promise me an interview afterwards which I intend to hold him to. Somehow.

It seems now it’s his turn to be wary!

I’d be interested – as would Tony Abbott and members of the coalition who will no doubt be reading this – to hear how your views of him as a man and a leader have changed in the past few years since he became leader. Would you vote for him next election?

Do you think he will be Prime Minister after the next election and if so, how do you feel about that?

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