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 House in Canberra on Monday 16 September 2013. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

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.