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Thursday, 11 October 2012

The ghosts of Abbott's past come back to haunt him

Cause for concern: Tony Abbott in Parliament.
The first seven minutes of Julia Gillard's peroration in Parliament on Tuesday against the Opposition leader, Tony Abbott, are fiery and inspiring material and are what made it catch the eye of many internationally, including editors at US magazine the New Yorker and those at the Guardian in the UK. But Australians should not be unduly surprised by this turn of events since it was here that women were first given the right to run for political office. That outcome, which took effect in 1901, it appears, is finally bearing the kind of fruit that those who pushed so passionately for women's equal opportunity in the final decades of the 19th century would have wished for. (Australia was not the first country to allow women to vote - that honour belongs to New Zealand, at the time, in 1893, still a British colony - but we were the first soverign nation to do so. The US did not allow women to vote until 1920.) So it's interesting to note that Gillard's assault on her opponent on the grounds of misogyny and sexism took place within the context of the daily business of Parliament. It wasn't a prepared speech at a rally or at a conference, but a bit of pressing, routine House business. It was more successful because the prime minister has kept her powder dry for the past two weeks. She waited for the opportune moment to speak out on the matter of women's rights as the Alan Jones affair played itself out and as the speaker, Peter Slipper, finally imploded, resigning a few hours later.

The address has happened in a very rambunctious Parliament. Last night Labor senator Penny Wong mentioned on the ABC's 7.30 program that this hung Parliament has been more fiery and intense than any Parliament she remembers. Gillard finally showed us that she is up for it if matters require it. (Her passion is what attracted the regard of the US and UK editors.) For his part, Abbott loves a scrap. The day after Gillard's "misogyny" speech, Abbott was already fronting the cameras to demand that the "gender card" be abandoned as a tactic by Labor. Abbott must be rueful that the matter of his attitude toward women appears unwilling to go away despite the apparent success of the News Ltd-backed campaign on the weekend by his wife, Margie.

Abbott's real problem is that he's very much still seen as John Howard's protege. Many of the remarks Gillard pointed to during her peroration in Parliament on Tuesday date back to the years of Liberal supremacy during which the anti-PC brigade of Australia's Right poo-poohed such notions as equal opportunity for women. This was not the only issue they attacked in their efforts to appeal to Australia's conservative voter base, but in the current context it is the one that matters. Women are taking notice (both of the overseas editorial pieces I point to above were written by women) and through vehicles such as social media they are pressing the new advantage, to credible effect. It will be hard for Abbott to outrun the shibboleths that populate his past in the form of documented public utterances. And his policy decisions, particularly when he was health minister under Howard, must count against him. It is interesting to note the tone of editorials written by the Right's culture warriors in the past few days; clearly they are very worried. So I expect the highly-wrought tone of this Parliament to continue as both sides push back against each others' concerted sallies. Since the Alan Jones brouhaha broke Australian politics has been very entertaining, and the issues being discussed have finally aligned themselves neatly around the fact that we have a female prime minister. For political junkies the stars are well and truly aligned. Even Julie Bishop is starting to look interesting.

It's not just in Australia that the Right finds itself in the position of the underdog, from where it can aggressively attack its opponents. In the US, Mitt Romney surprised many during the first presidential debate in Denver by displaying a kind of spirit that Barack Obama seems to have lost somewhere between his healthcare push and the assassination of Osama bin Laden. I think many Americans were disappointed by Obama's performance in Denver, and the polls show that Romney gained a lift from the event. The fervour that a dramatic stoush can give a campaign will no doubt add meaning to Romney's promise to "reclaim America". For his part, Abbott more sedately rang off the media appearance he made yesterday to address the "gender card" issue by promising Australians "prosperity and a better life". The difference between these messages mostly tells you something about the fundamental divergence between the sets of cognates used here and in the US. (They want the believe in themselves, we just want a new 4WD.) But it's interesting to note the messianic tone in both cases, particularly within the context of lingering global financial malaise. The GFC still matters to a lot of voters everywhere. Messianism is a narrative flavour the Right has often applied, notably in Germany in the 30s as the Nazis sought traction in an electorate oppressed by a decade of economic hardship and spiritual fatige following their catastrophic defeat in war.

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