Australian election: Has 'sexist' Tony Abbott sunk 'gender war'?

There was no love lost between Tony Abbott and former prime minister Julia Gillard seen here in parliament in 2010.

Story highlights

  • Australian leadership candidate has been accused of sexism, misogyny
  • Polls show Tony Abbott is on track for an election victory on September 7
  • In 2012, former PM Julia Gillard's attack on him in parliament went viral
  • Australian voters don't seem disturbed by recent sexist gaffes

Tony Abbott is a throwback to older, safer times when a knockabout Aussie bloke could call a sheila "a good sort" and no one among those who understood the slang for a good-looking woman would blink.

And it seems that much of Australia likes him that way -- the latest opinion polls have the 55-year-old Australian conservative opposition leader set to be the country's next prime minister after the federal election on September 7.

Never mind the fact Australia's first female Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, went viral with her damning misogyny speech about Abbott in the Australian Parliament -- "I will not be lectured about sexism and misogyny by this man. I will not."

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Never mind that a suitably solemn Abbott sat across from the Labor PM as she listed statement after statement of his that cemented his sexist credentials. Never mind that women around the world cheered to hear a female leader name it and shame it.

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At home, Gillard's angry performance earlier this year proved to be nothing but a glancing blow. Those women who had long loathed him as a sexist felt vindicated. Some commentators tried to de-fang the attack by going to town on the fact Gillard had conflated sexism and misogyny. But it was all water off the backs of those Australians who thought then, and now, it's time for a change of government and Abbott's attitude to women is not a significant issue.

As veteran feminist Eva Cox says: "He's an 'old-fashioned' sexist, not a woman hater. It's just that he doesn't get that equality means treating women as normal human beings. He can't resist making the odd sexist ha-ha comment."

His deputy Julie Bishop disagrees Abbott is sexist. She told Channel 9's Today program: "He's always been very respectful and supportive of me and my other female colleagues."

A few months after her famous speech, Gillard was ousted at the hands of her real rival, the former Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, whom she had helped to remove from office. As Gillard now sits on the sidelines, possibly enjoying a small twinge of relief that she is no longer subjected to almost daily attacks on her appearance, her body shape and voice, Australians find themselves in the middle of a testosterone-fueled election campaign. Yet strangely, as Rudd exhorts Abbott to "man up" and Abbott demands his opponent "be man enough," the campaign has placed sexism front and center once again.

This week Abbott was forced to dump a male candidate over a web forum which, according to media reports, included jokes about women making love on pool tables and "tit banter."

Abbott, meanwhile, has suffered no harm electorally. He is an unreconstructed male who loves his sport, likes a beer and bravely tries to don the garb of man who cares about women -- in the right way. He now trots out one or several of his female family members, including his gay sister, to prove his credentials as a female-friendly politician. Trouble is, he just keeps having "Dad moments."

On the campaign trail outside Sydney last week he listed "sex appeal" as one of the key attributes of his party's local candidate, Fiona Scott. There was no mention of her MBA or successful business career.

He later described it as "exuberance" and a "dad moment" after his 20-year-old daughter Bridget told reporters: "Dad is running for prime minister so he can't have any sort of daggy [uncool] moments. Everyone's Dad is daggy in their own sort of way at times."

His daughter's comments took the sting out of Abbott's gaffe and may have convinced a few female voters that he is trying hard to curb outbreaks of his old-school attitudes.

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Abbott and his team appear to have decided that his sexist gaffes add to his knockabout "larrikin" charm -- always an asset for a successful male Australian politician -- and that a few lame "dad" comments will appeal to voters who also pull their rough-hewn males up in this way.

It would explain why, a few days after his "sex appeal" moment, Abbott was back in front of the cameras with Scott and, far from apologizing, he was on about her looks again. Commenting on her answer to a question about his economic plan, he quipped: "Obviously from that answer she ain't just a pretty face."

Scott's response was on message. There was no need to apologize for an "absolutely charming compliment between friends."

Now Abbott has upped the ante for female voters, throwing on the table what is the most expensive siren call to them Australia has ever seen. It's a policy which his minders no doubt hope will erase forever the lingering smear of sexism and misogyny. He is offering a generous -- extravagant even, according to economic commentators -- paid parental leave scheme that signals his deeply-held social policy ambitions and old-fashioned family values.

The scheme has put him at odds with business groups and many in his own party who have failed to dissuade him from it. It has also led to claims from unions that the scheme is unfair to low-paid women. The A$5.5 billion (US$5 billion) scheme gives working mothers six months' leave on full pay, capped at a salary of A$150,000 (US$135,000). About half of the cost will be covered by a 1.5% levy on taxable incomes over A$5 million (US$4.5 million) of the 3,000 largest Australian companies. This will be offset by a cut in company tax, but what has not been detailed is where the rest will come from, apart from ''associated reductions in other outlays.''

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The announcement has had a mixed response from female commentators, with Cox declaring that the "shrill" criticism of the scheme by some feminists was personal, not political. "There are a lot feminist groups that are so anti-Abbott that they are objecting to this because it's come from him."

Melbourne University Press publisher Louise Adler, who published his book "Battlelines," agrees that Abbott has been unpopular with women, but of his paid parental leave scheme she stated she was "in favor of anything that assists families to be with their children."

It is another nail in the coffin of the national conversation about women and leadership and sexism that Gillard's show-stopping speech ignited but which died away with her departure from the political stage. A News poll this week confirmed that female Labor voters deserted Gillard and have returned to the fold since Rudd took over.

Yallana Burgess, 29, told The Australian she had not backed Gillard, but would be supporting Rudd. Gillard, she said, had not been a role model for women "and she wasn't charismatic... she could have used her position as a woman more effectively and I never got the sense that she was herself."

Cox believes Gillard's speech failed to ignite a national war on sexism because the former prime minister was not much of a feminist. "She was not a feminist leader. She didn't play the gender card -- although that was a plus. She was also not a promoter of the anti-sexist thing. She didn't make a big appeal to the women of Australia -- she didn't pitch for it.

"A lot of women were passionate about supporting her, but they were in a minority," says Cox.

It remains to be seen at the ballot box if Abbott's multi-billion dollar policy pitch to women trumps any "embarrassing dad" sexist tendencies or female Labor voters' preference for Rudd over Gillard.

But surely it says something about the level of "old fashioned" political debate in Australia when one of the country's more colorful mining magnates, Clive Palmer, feels the need to stress his own candidacy with this tweet: "My hair is not as silky as Rudd's and my body not as toned as Abbott's but I offer common sense and real business experience #ausvotes."

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