Tony Abbott as PM: a return to old Australian stereotypes?

tony abbottIt seems that barring a political calamity of some sort (or perhaps the return of Kevin Rudd), Tony Abbott will become our next and 28th prime minister in September.

Two article in the February issue of  The Monthly magazine, (which I picked up belatedly in the library), made me think more deeply about what sort of country we may become under a Coalition government with Abbott at the reins.

Journalist and broadcaster Mungo MacCallum writes that even though there have been desperate attempts to cast Abbott in a less misogynistic light, he remains “irredeemably macho”:

“He spent much of last year dressing up in hard hats and other tough-guy equipment and taking part in long-distance quad and pushbike rides.

“He has competed in an iron man contest. And he has started this year by inviting the media to photograph him in the guise of a fearless firefighter.

“However little it excites women, Abbott has remained determined to be seen in fluoro and lycra.”

The second article has nothing much to do about the current political climate in Australia, but does provide some insights into overseas perceptions of the country.

New Zealand-born writer and artist Nic Low, describes a trip he took with other Australian artists and writers to attend ‘Bookwallah’ in India – an international writing festival – where he travelled the vast country by train with Indian writers.

In Goa Low writes that the question is asked about attacks on Indian students in Melbourne while in Chennai racism rears its head with “a suggestion that Australia resembles apartheid-era South Africa”.

“Beyond polemics, the questions reveal a lingering stereotype of Australia. As [Australian writer Kirsty] Murray puts it ‘It’s an idea of Australia from a generation ago’.

Whatever the deep divisions in the current government, divisions that will likely see it ousted from power in September, the Labor government of the Gillard-Rudd era ushered in a new vision of Australia to the world.

With Rudd there was the historic apology to Aborigines and the ‘Stolen Generations’, acknowledgement of climate change, implementing a fairer industrial relations system and development of the National Broadband Network, that despite its criticism will serve Australia well in the years ahead.

Gillard, for her part, put the idea of Australia as an inherently male-dominated society in its place with her rise to be the country’ first female leader while also introducing policies like the National Disability Insurance Scheme and pushing through the contentious, but ultimately necessary carbon tax.

In short Rudd and Gillard, whatever their shortcomings (of which there are many), have ushered in a new, more progressive image of Australia to the world.

Sadly, what lies ahead is regression led by a macho, uber-male prime minister and his inner sanctum of mostly male ultra-conservatives.

As pointed out by Melbourne academic Leslie Cannold, Coalition hardliners Julie Bishop and Sophie Mirabella are the only two females out of 20 in Tony Abbott’s shadow cabinet compared with four (including Gillard) in the current Labor government.

Make no mistake, sexist views will be less harshly criticised and less harshly judged under a government led by a man, whose most famous piece of clothing is a speedo.

Even beyond the Coalition – just look for a moment at some of the other political candidates – conservative Queensland senator Bob Katter, whose trademark is a cowboy hat and mining magnate Clive Palmer, who is turning the Coolum Resort he owns on the Sunshine Coast into a monument to himself complete with a wall of framed portraits in the lobby and a new museum featuring a collection of his classic cars.

This evolving male chauvinistic attitude is most evident in the denigration of Julia Gillard as the election draws nearer.

Since the day she took office, most criticisms about Gillard have been about her sex: from the relentless derogatory comments from Alan Jones’s to the latest disgraces involving Perth shock-jock Howard Sattler incomprehensible questioning of Gillard’s partner Tim Mathiesen’s sexuality (would anyone dared or cared to have asked John Howard any questions relating to the health of his marriage?) and ‘menu-gate’ where Brisbane restaurateur Joe Richard, seemingly at the behest of Liberal National party candidate Mal Brough, drew up menu for a political fundraiser featuring among other things a dish called “Julia Gillard Kentucky Fried Quail – Small Breasts, Huge Thighs & A Big Red Box.”

Add to these the recent revelations (though not in any way ‘news’) of “demeaning, explicit and profane” emails sent by senior male army personnel denigrating women and I wonder if we are indeed quietly setting ourselves up in the word’s of The Age’s columnist Greg Baum: “…as a land of sexist, racist, bullying troglodytes”.

This mood was also picked up by Fairfax journalist Annabel Crabb when she wrote that ” in Australia, there are people who still think that ”jokes” about women’s lady-bits are funny, whether they are composed with reference to the Prime Minister, or circulated by army perves  and “journalists who think it’s OK to ask the Prime Minister, live on air, if she is in fact a gay man’s beard?”

This fetid atmosphere is only going to get worse when Abbott takes charge, a man who in his university days was apparently not averse to throwing a punch to make his point and intimidating student rivals, even if they be women.

Yes, the next government will undoubtedly speak as one united voice with Abbott at the helm, but what does that matter if the message it sends out is:

“Welcome to Australia. Please turn your watches back 10 years.”

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