Why Abbott's new 'woman problem' is no joke

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Tony names his team

PM elect Tony Abbott has announced a Cabinet with few surprises - and just one woman. Labor has seized on the imbalance, suggesting it is worse than Afghanistan.

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There are no shortage of jokes to be made about Tony Abbott’s ‘woman problem’. The Prime Minister-elect has been fielding them since long before he wrestled the Liberal leadership from Malcolm Turnbull in late 2009.

At the time, his promotion inspired guffaws from his opponents. The collective analysis seemed to be that Abbott, a man with an outlook so conservative it could only have been spawned from the Catholicism he held so dear, would simply hasten the inevitable destruction of a party that had so decidedly lost its way.

The idea that a man well known for his regressive views on women and a political voting history to show for it, could possibly establish a foothold in modern Australian politics was laughable.

Prime Minister-elect Tony Abbott wheels his bicycle from his old office to his Prime Ministerial office, at Parliament ...

Prime Minister-elect Tony Abbott wheels his bicycle from his old office to his Prime Ministerial office, at Parliament House in Canberra on Monday 16 September 2013. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

While it still baffles me how a man with Abbott’s views managed to lead the Coalition to a thumping election victory in a post-1950s era, the fact remains that he did.


Despite committing a series of gender based election gaffes, many of which equated his female colleagues and daughters’ worth with their sexual je ne sais quois, the electorate has evidently overlooked in their preferred leader the clear discomfort he has with women-humans.

It therefore comes as little surprise that he appears to have assumed a mandate (amidst so many others) to continue in his disregard for them, announcing a Cabinet yesterday that boasted only one member of the strange species whose foreign ways he finds so challenging.


When Kevin Rudd re-assumed the Prime Ministership in late June, his Cabinet reshuffle resulted in the promotion of three more women to his cabinet. His decision distinguished it as the most gender equitable Cabinet in Australian political history so far, with a balance of 14 men to 6 women. These numbers are by no means perfect, but were perhaps reflective of the gender ratio of Labor’s elected officials.

For a brief time, we had talented women like Tanya Plibersek, who worked with bipartisan groups to quietly have RU486 (the drug Abbott wielded veto power on as Health Minister to prevent its passage into Australia) listed on the PBS so that all women in Australia regardless of geographic or financial difficulty would have access to medical terminations.

And there was Penny Wong, an openly gay Asian Australian whose sexual orientation and ethnicity were a welcome challenge to a political cast of characters whose bland sameness was about as representative of Australia’s diversity as a bag of soggy crisps; and Jenny Macklin, whose instrumental role in delivering an NDIS will enable thousands of Australians living with disability to achieve a higher level of dignity and self-determination.

There were other, talented women elected into Government because the ALP enforces necessary quotas to encourage the participation and elevation of women into Australian political life. There are equally talented women in the Liberal party, whose contribution to government would be significant were there a concerted effort to dismantle the socially legislated structures in place designed to keep them out of leadership roles.

But the Liberal party has no such policies to ensure their promotion, preferring instead to refer to the furphy of ‘merit’ when it comes to their elected officials and their promotions. Indeed, Abbott himself said that he was ‘disappointed’ there weren’t more women in Cabinet - as if he isn’t directly responsible for their absence - but that they were right there ‘knocking on the door’.

We are left to believe that the Liberal Party has no women other than Julie Bishop whom it considers good enough to be trusted with a Ministry portfolio - and as my colleague Karen Pickering pointed out yesterday, even then Bishop was a Howard appointment.

What this means is that Abbott, self styled lover of women, father of three daughters, husband to a woman, brother to women and professed supporter of all women, has yet to actually promote a single one of them to his front bench.

As women, we’re expected to shoulder the burden of blame. If we were only better, we wouldn’t be denied avenues to power. We would have earned them.

Despite knowing that political appointments often have very little to do with merit and everything to do with reward, this is the message Abbott and the party faithful are content to send to the young women and men of Australia. That here, in 2013, women are still simply not good enough to sit on the front line of government decisions and have a voice.



  • I was disenfranchised in the last election by the behaviour and policies of the major parties. It appears, as a woman, in Australia I have more in common with the women in Afghanistan than I ever imagined. I remain disenfranchised.

    Date and time
    September 17, 2013, 8:03AM
    • As a woman, I don't want to see women in any leadership position just because they are women. I agree that I want more women at these levels, but we must address the core reasons why they aren't making it there, including looking at whether they actually want to be there. Why is it that so few women go into parliament? In the last parliament there were only 66 female MPs compared to 160 male MPs. I don't think we can blame it all on Abbott - the issue is a lot deeper than that. I'm not exactly hearing discussion about the dozens of Coalition women who he overlooked for a ministerial role - it seems that women who had the experience/expertise simply weren't there. It should be noted that while there is only one woman in the cabinet, there are 5 others in the outer ministry and the Speaker is likely to be a female. Perhaps those numbers reflect the female:male ratio of parliament anyway?

      Date and time
      September 17, 2013, 9:46AM
    • Afghanistan? Seriously? getting a bit hysterical there.

      Date and time
      September 17, 2013, 10:01AM
    • Abbott has no excuses, he had at least three years to cultivate the available female talent and did nothing of the sort. HIs team dynamic over this time was a chosen few to deliver all party policy and I don't really expect any of this to change.

      Date and time
      September 17, 2013, 10:08AM
    • Jkmt – the fact that you aren’t hearing dissent from disgruntled LNP women (or men for that matter) should raise alarm bells, not quell your fears.

      If you see the world from a ratio perspective, perhaps you should consider that %50 of the planet is female. This doesn’t mean that every single role in society should be equally occupied by both genders, but if you see a gross imbalance you need to ask more questions, not make excuses.

      Tom Calthorpe
      Date and time
      September 17, 2013, 10:13AM
    • "This doesn’t mean that every single role in society should be equally occupied by both genders"
      No, just the good ones apparently.

      Date and time
      September 17, 2013, 10:59AM
    • @Tom: " but if you see a gross imbalance you need to ask more questions, not make excuses"

      Exactly. There MAY well be insufficient women capable of being promoted to the ministry, but WHY are there so few GOOD women choosing to run for the Liberal Party?

      Date and time
      September 17, 2013, 11:35AM
    • If female representation in cabinet is so important, why is it that the people complaining about it are the same people who celebrated Sophie Mirabella's election loss, when she was a ministerial certainty?

      They are also the same people who hate female political party leaders like Margaret Thatcher and Pauline Hanson.

      Clearly, the issue is not about gender and sexism, that's just the excuse used by the usual suspects. But it has worn thin. It didn't work to help Gillard and it didn't help the ALP in the election campaign. It's just an ongoing tantrum over nothing.

      Date and time
      September 17, 2013, 1:46PM
    • @Dirk - I agree with you that it seems a bit hysterical by comparing the position and regard of women in Australian society with women in Afghan society. Unfortunately, the sad reality is that Afghanistan has three times the number of women in their Cabinet than Australia does [see links below - including one from the Abbott supporting Murdoch press].


      Date and time
      September 17, 2013, 2:54PM
    • So what? The average woman in Afghanistan has much graver issues to be concerned with whose conditions have been contributed to by many politicians including female politicians such as Hillary Clinton and Julia Gillard.

      Date and time
      September 17, 2013, 3:38PM

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