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Tony Abbott's women problem

Nick Bryant | 09:44 UK time, Monday, 2 August 2010

The Australian election is starting to resemble an Australian barbeque, with the men in one corner and the women in the other.

Were it not for Julia Gillard's lead amongst female voters, she would be facing an embarrassing defeat in an election now just three weeks away.

Going into last month's televised debates, she held a 28-point lead as preferred Prime Minister amongst women - she was polling twice as well with women as she was with men.

Tony Abbott is happily married, has three daughters and two sisters, but many females continue to view him with suspicion.

The Economist has called it Abbott's Angst . Many of his problems stem from his opposition to the abortion drug, RU486, during his time as Health Secretary in the Howard government.

A devout Catholic, who once trained to become a priest, his controversial stance meant he was targeted by demonstrators who confronted him with placards reading: "Get Your Rosaries off my Ovaries". He's also been falsely accused of opposing IVF, the fertility treatment. He actually supports it.

Then there's the Iron Man image, that love of gruelling triathlons and long bike rides (earlier this year, Melbourne to Sydney). Other extracurricular pursuits have also struck many women as rather bloke-ish. He's a volunteer rural firefighter, which seems to me a rather commendable thing to do, and a surf life-saver, which, again, is an odd thing for which to be criticised.

Perhaps it's those tight budgie-smugglers, which he ritually threw onto the flames of a barbeque in a pre-election stunt - although, again, he's hardly alone in wearing them. Perhaps it is the Lycra shorts. Perhaps it's the fact that he's a boxing blue, or was an enthusiastic rugby player. You get the idea. He's not only a bloke. He's a bloke's bloke.

Abbott has a strategy to deal with this gender problem: his advocacy of a paid parental leave scheme, which has angered the pro-Liberal business lobby. The strength of his advocacy is a measure of his women problem.

Oddly, he's now benefiting from Julia Gillard's decision to appear on the front cover of Women's Weekly in a glamorous make-over - her most overt appeal yet to female voters. Inevitably, it is now being seen as a metaphor for her entire campaign: all style very little substance; new prime minister same old accident-prone government.

Having lost the first two weeks of the campaign, the new prime minister has promised to throw out the rulebook, as she put it, and show Australia "the real Julia". It begs the obvious and now endlessly analysed question: who have we been watching since she ousted Kevin Rudd?

To undo the damage of one make-over, she intends to do another.

UPDATED 08:46 UK time, Tuesday, 3 August 2010

On the very day that Tony Abbott sought to improve his standing amongst women by focusing on his paid parental scheme which is more generous than the government's - and by campaigning alongside one of his daughters - he ran into further trouble with his reworking of the phrase "no means no". Julia Gillard, having previously indicated she would take part in only one televised debate, challenged him to a second face-off. This was Mr Abbott's response: "Are you suggesting to me that when it comes from Julia, 'No' doesn't mean 'No'." Then he repeated the phrase, showing that it was not just a slip of the tongue. "When she said 'No', I thought she meant 'No' ... I believed her."

"HERE'S a tip for Tony Abbott," wrote Samantha Maiden of The Australian in a blog that's already attracted a big response "It's never a terrific look for a bloke to make jokes about a woman and whether or not 'no means no'".


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