So the Honourable PM Tony Abbott, the man who was responsible for pearlers like the one below, has something to say about sexism:
‘What the housewives of Australia need to understand as they do the ironing is that if they get it done commercially it’s going to go up in price and their own power bills when they switch the iron on are going to go up, every year…’
He is internationally renowned for his stellar record of saying ridiculously misogynistic one-liners that would make Johnny Bravo blush. He was also on the receiving end of probably the most scathing, if not the most famous, anti-sexist rant ever. He also stated that the greatest thing he had done as Minister for Women was to get rid of the ‘Carbon Tax’, leading to one of the funniest things to trend on social media since Justin Bieber was punched by Orlando Bloom in a nightclub. So you would probably raise an eyebrow if he started accusing others of being sexist twats. What would make it all the more bizarre would be if he accused his own party of being the ones with the sexist banter. But in typical Abbott fashion, he has stumped me, and the electorate, once again – by doing just that. Abbott came out in defence of his chief-of-staff Peta Credlin recently, asking his colleagues to ‘have a long hard look at themselves’. I feel terrible for Bronwyn Bishop and George Brandis in all of this, because with mugs like theirs you’d think they’d prefer to do as little reflection in the mirror as possible. Ohh snap!!
But on a serious note, is it not a bit ridiculous that Abbott is calling out people (hilariously within his own party) for sexism? Really, I should cut him some slack though, as overall I agree with Peatling from the Sydney Morning Herald, who summed it up best by saying:
Perhaps Mr Abbott has now discovered there is such a thing as everyday sexism that women routinely face.
I, for one, applaud this change of heart.
Politicians can change, and what better politician to have an epiphany than the self-anointed Minister for Women? However, with most things Abbott does, I think he’s missing the point. Granted, sexism does exist within Australian politics, and admittedly within his own party (a result of having only
one two women in your Cabinet perhaps? We’re making Afghanistan look oh-so modern and progressive in comparison); but is this the real cause of the Credlin backlash? Many, including those within the Liberal party, doubt it’s really that simplistic.
The most defining characteristic of Credlin’s position as chief-of-staff is just how much raw power she supposedly wields within the party. To illustrate the shift that has taken place in government, let us compare her to Kevin Rudd or Gillard’s chief-of-staff.
‘Well that was a year ago’, I hear you say, ‘I can’t remember who it was!’. His name was David Epstein (ohh, and Alistar Jordan was another) … still don’t remember them? Exactly. Nobody remembers who the chief-of-staff is… they are supposed to stick to that line your grandmother always growled to you at the dinner table: ‘Be seen and not heard’. So herein lies the crux of the issue – if politics is a zero-sum game, and if Peta is the ‘boss’, then who’s lost out? The fact of the matter is, after 6 long years in opposition few within the Liberal party would feel comfortable being ordered around by an un-elected representative. Especially with Credlin dictating the terms and conditions of policy coincidentally coinciding with a precipitous drop in the polls. But to what extent can Credlin be blamed for the Coalitions’ woes, considering she is not responsible for a single gaffe or squabble in the Senate? This is where I think her relationship with Brian Loughnane, her husband, must come into focus. Despite the spotlight shone on Peta Credlin in the last few weeks, especially after her very-public spat with Julie Bishop, little has been said about the power couple that is Credlin/Loughnane. A lone article by The Australian (from 2011) with quotes from unidentified Liberal ‘insiders’ is the only mention of the influence that this wedded union of two conservatives possess.
Matthew Knot from Crickey noted way back in 2011 that this was not just about Credlin, but about Loghnane too. It seems an important aspect of the narrative that most political commentators seem to be missing in this saga. Knot wrote in Crickey’s ‘Power Index’ that:
Some in the Liberal Party grumble about a husband and wife holding such power, arguing it is limiting Abbott’s strategic options. How can a pollie go to Loghnane during an election campaign, for example, and complain about Credlin’s performance?
You see, Longhnane isn’t just some typical Liberal Party hack – he is currently the Federal Director of the Liberal Party. That means that if you have an issue with someone in the party (i.e. a la Peta Credlin) you have to go to her husband… who is also technically your boss. Awkward much? So with Credlin coddling the ear of Emperor Abbott and Loughnane stifling any criticism of ‘the boss’/his wife, the two essentially become untouchable. He can easily throttle the standard avenue of feedback that is there to address inner party grievances. Credlin and Loughnane’s marriage is not just one of adoration (if it ever was) – it is a marriage of power and influence.
Once you look at Abbott’s first year in office through the lens of the unyielding influence permeating from Loughnane and Credlin, Abbott’s seemingly odd and counter-productive style of politics suddenly starts making some sense. The whole fiasco over the PPL scheme (where he announced it to his mate Rupert Murdoch before his own party) and the mess that has come from his attempted deregulation of universities portray a man who is not just out of touch – but a man who is out of his depth. Let us not forget that this was also the man who turned simplistic 3-word slogans into an art-form whilst in opposition. He is also the statesman who simplified the deeply complex and tragic Syrian Civil War as a battle between ‘goodies and baddies’ and dismissed the man responsible for the Sydney Siege simply as a ‘mad-man’. Many commentators, and even his detractors, portray Abbott as a man who has cunningly and deliberately simplified complex issues like people seeking asylum, climate change and structural deficit issues into sound bytes for political gain and maximum air-time. But are we giving the man too much credit? Is it too improbable to suggest that this is actually the best that Abbott can muster, considering what we’ve witnessed from him in the last year as prime minister? My theory is that Credlin and Longhnane are really the ones pulling the strings in this government – Abbott is nothing but a mere puppet. This power relationship worked wonders in opposition – with Credlin and Longhnane demanding absolute control and keeping Abbott to a short, succinct, simplistic and ultimately successful message while in opposition they just had to sit back and wait. However, once in power the game changes – you have to articulate policy, not just oppose it. To be fair, politics is not any easy game and a lot of politicians are honestly not given enough credit for their ability to speak on a multitude of varied matters. But Abbott’s near-fatalistic compilation of mini-implosions and gaffes since coming to office illustrate that he doesn’t truly comprehend he’s not indispensable just because he’s the PM. The signs are there, for anyone who wants to see it, to suggest that although Abbott holds the highest office in the land (if we just leave aside the Governor General for the sake of argument) he certainly isn’t the most powerful person walking the hallways of Canberra. That accolade belongs to Longhnane and Credlin – for the moment at least.
What these two will find out though, is that Australian politics doesn’t work like that. Let’s look back to One Nation – a party with a meteoric rise through the ranks with 22% of the vote in the 1998 QLD state election, just a couple of years after forming. A concentration of power at the top, a undemocratic structure and internal divisions led to the eventual demise of the party just a short while later. Leach, Stokes and Ward (2000; p.17) summed it up best in their book The Rise and Fall of One Nation when they wrote:
Essentially, the ONP [One Nation Party] was laregely antagonistic toward rational debate and uninterested in reasoned demonstrations of the shortcomings of their leader’s pronouncements. Overall, therefore, and especially in regard to its policies, the ONP was largely immune to criticism.
All this should sound familiar to Abbott. He was after all, the man who sought to destroy One Nation because he perceived that they were the biggest threat electorally to the Coalition. The real lesson he should have learnt, and that (Longhnane/Credlin could learn) is this – concentration of power, secrecy and undemocratic behaviour eventually luck out in a system based on democratic principles. So although Credlin and Longhnane may currently control the marionette of puppet-Abbott, the strings are perilously close to snapping.