Tony Abbott botches photo opp with female delegates in Asia

Abbott visits South Korea.

Abbott visits South Korea. Photo: Getty Images

Have you seen the most awkward, cringe worthy and telling video of the week? 

The little movie stars our Prime Minister on his trade trip to Asia. Tony Abbott wants to share the limelight with some of his high profile business delegation – so he gathers them for a photo opportunity. Suddenly Mr Abbott realises there’s something missing in the photo.

Something that’s often missing from politics altogether.

Abbott flanked by daughters.

Abbott flanked by daughters.

The Prime Minister calls for "the ladies".  He asks the men who all seem to be on an intimate first name or nickname basis (‘Andrew, Sam, Nev’) to help him find the missing and nameless women.


Tony Abbott knows a picture says a thousand words.  But this video tells us more. It tells us that photos often lie. It tells us that to this government "ladies" are important for adornment, for image, for Public Relations and to pay lip service to representation (I wouldn’t even bother saying to equality).  

It tells us that they are too often token females.

I’m not suggesting the women on the delegation to Asia did not deserve to be there. One of the women travelling with the delegation was after all Westpac CEO Gail Kelly, (seen here in the photo Tony Abbott would have highly approved). 

I’m not sure how many other women were in the delegation as the  Trade Minister’s office declined to give me the list.  But I think we can assume they were greatly outnumbered by the men.  Perhaps the missing women weren’t available for the happy snap was because they were doing business.  Or perhaps they were hiding from the humiliation of being used for a photo opportunity to boost the image of a blokey government.

Our newly declared feminist Prime Minister knows he’s got a problem in terms of the representation of women.  He heard the outcry when he announced his 19 strong Cabinet would only have one female minister.  Since then Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop has been strategically placed front and centre of cabinet photos.  As have been the four women in the outer ministry.  But the simple fact is you’d need a massive airbrush to make the ministry look anything less than the wall of blue ties that Julia Gillard was so mocked for warning us about. 

Again, the women in the Abbott ministry are not token.  All deserve their position at the table. As do the women in the business delegation.  But by insisting that women are in the photo shoot Tony Abbott suggests they are token. He belittles their role for PR purposes.

Tony Abbott’s been aware of strategically posing women around himself since the election campaign.  After being told he had an image problem with women his team went full steam ahead on "operation female".  Most prominently used were the daughters he so affectionately described as "not bad looking". 

We got used to seeing them every night, all dressed in white, gripping onto their "daggy dad" or flanking him so beautifully they reminded me of the Robert Palmer Addicted to Love video.  My particular favourite snap of the campaign was one where the girls were licking ice creams daddy had bought them at a showground.  Also, pushed to the foreground was the candidate he referred to as "having sex appeal" Fiona Scott.  And who can forget the netballers with whom he discussed body contact.  

Opposition Leader Tony Abbott visits Sydney's Olympic Park to announce funding for a netball complex.

Then there’s his winning parliament.  When Tony Abbott stands to speak at the dispatch box have you noticed who is positioned perfectly behind him?  His one female cabinet colleague Julie Bishop. And behind them? In the Green seats are Natasha Griggs, Sarah Henderson, Karen McNamara and Fiona Scott.  You may argue that marginal seat holders always sit behind the leader.

That’s true; funny how marginal seats are women, isn’t it?  The upshot is that if you just watch the news and the grabs of the leaders, you see female MPS, represented much more than they actually are in reality.

To be fair, Labor did this too, even when had several women on front bench and as Prime Minister.  The ALP still does it now.  Tanya Plibersek sits beside Bill Shorten, Julie Owens behind him.  Female and marginal.  In more ways than one.  But more highly represented than in the government.

UK Prime Minister David Cameron also got busted big time. After being mocked in question time for his all male front bench (nothing but blue ties) he changed the seating plan so radically it looked ridiculous.

Putting women up the front of photos or directly behind the leader is clever PR.  But it’s also a clumsy attempt to look like you are doing something about the female representation rather than actually doing it. 

The Coalition says it doesn’t believe in tokenism and that’s why it doesn’t have affirmative action and quotas for putting women into parliament.  But I would argue actively selecting female candidates and promoting able women into power is not tokenism.  Using them for photo opportunities is tokenism. Using them as part of an obligation to look better is not providing opportunity it’s being opportunist.  It doesn’t promote women it undermines them and their role. 

Women shouldn’t be there to make a party look better or a leader look less boofy.  They should be there to have an impact.

I know a lot of women who joke about being "the token women" on TV or at events.  ABC's Q and A has recently lifted its game and even had a majority female panel the day after All about Women festival.  But all too often, one woman is seen as good enough. 

But having a woman to make a panel, or delegation look good can be worse than having none.  It can set women up to fail.  If a woman in a delegation or a panel flies solo she is placed under significantly more performance pressure. She is judged not just as an individual but as the category "woman". 

The single woman in cabinet, on a radio station, on a TV show, or on a delegation is automatically under immense pressure to be a representative for her entire gender. That’s impossible and ridiculous. Her role is limited, constrained and carries  different expectations.

Women shouldn’t be used to make men look better, to make a photo opportunity look prettier, to merely represent their gender or to pay lip service to opportunity that is not there.

Put women front and centre because they are front and centre.  To serve a role, to exercise their power and influence. 

Not just so you look like you care.

Then "the ladies" may come flocking for the photos.