Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

Abbott succumbs to the stereotype

When Abbott took over, I argued that he would surprise many for the moderateness of his views. The public, I thought would get a chance to re-examine him, but it seems a combination of clumsy language on Abbott’s behalf, and a bored media are going to ensure he will be back to the caricatured mad monk before the month is out. Take this piece from The Australian:

Tony Abbott warns women against sex before marriage
TONY Abbott urges women to save their virginity for marriage and reveals mixed feelings about contraception in a new interview.

After conducting a charm offensive over the summer break and rejecting suggestions his conservative social views were a turnoff to women, the Liberal leader has been subjected to a grilling in the next edition of the Australian Women’s Weekly about his views on sex, marriage and his own daughters’ virginity.

The new Liberal leader is understood to have suggested men and women should try and adhere to “the rules” when it comes to sex before marriage and when they can’t he has conceded they should use contraception.

Which isn’t that far from what he said in 2005 “they[his daughters] should be very careful about doing things that they might regret and doing things that might in the long run cause them to have less self respect and less respect for others than might be the case”, which is also in line with what he says in his book.

It’s also not far from what every father has said to their kids since time immortal (and a lot more accepting than most would have been).Yet the instant reaction from the ALP, Greens, womens groups and even the conservative press is to tag anyone who even addresses the issue of contraception, or abortion as an invasive reactionary.
I’m in two minds about this, given my own liberal views on the importance of individual freedom, and arbitrariness of what conservatives claim are the “rules”, on the other hand, Abbott like all public figures ought to speak on important issues, and we ought to be able to have an open discussion about it. (Some might call this the burden of political correctness at work, but its a feather weight if that). Radically, he answered a question when asked, and advocated views that few would disagree with, and yet he has suffered two days plus of grief for it. The fault is partly his for clumsy language, but also because people are seeing the stereotype at work instead of what was actually said.

On Immigration, a similar story was visible over the weekend. A poor choice of words and political strategy by Abbott and the nature of the news beast:

Obey the law at least, Abbott tells migrants

Speaking at a dinner hosted by the Australia Day Council in Melbourne, Mr Abbott said Australians were worried about the rise in the number of boat people, the ability of migrants to obey the law and the strain new arrivals put on the nation’s resources….Migrants would be more popular if minority leaders encouraged them to adopt more mainstream values and abide by the law, he said. ”The inescapable minimum that we insist upon is obedience to the law,” Mr Abbott said. ”It would help to bolster public support for immigration and acceptance of social diversity if more minority leaders were as ready to show to mainstream Australian values the respect they demand of their own.”

Abbott’s claims here are no more than any Prime Minister from Post-WW2 has said. Indeed was anyone at any doubt that following the law was a requirement of citizenship? Perhaps the migrants of whom 96% passed the citizenship test were unaware of this basic fact. Abbott’s point is therefore both true but also banal. From the mouth of Rudd such words would have gone entirely un-noticed, but when Abbott stumbles in with such pointless claims, he makes himself out to being a intolerant fool. This is not some devils curl of the tongue to entice the former one-nation voters, Abbott is simply being in artful & bland, whilst re-enforcing a stereotype that is certainly wrong on immigration (none in the Coalition did more to bring down One-Nation than he) and damaging. Amazingly in the same speech Abbott even claims “The last thing that any Australian should want is to make recent immigrants feel unwelcome in their new country,”, yet his speeches and more importantly the media reports of these will if anything add to that impression. It’s an own goal rhetorically.

Abbott is rather progressive for a conservative Christian on issues of contraception, abortion and immigration. Yet though his first month in the job has been solid, he has done little to counter the image once built up on him, which is allowing a bored press and an only half-observant public to see his new actions through the old cut out image they held for him. The picture might not yet fully fit within the lines (esp his speeches on Aboriginal affairs and the Environment), but it still seems close enough. Like “headkicker” Latham who surprised many with his talk of reading to preschool kids, or “nerdbot” Rudd with his emotive talk about growing up poor & in the country, Abbott needs a way to break the stereotype that was in place as a minister, briefly lifted when he took over but is now slowly dropping back down into place over him.

While I take a more liberal line than him on such issues (I’m not sure that ones virginity is that important, and a focus on it not only slightly creepy but a hold over from negotiations for arranged marriages), Tony Abbott should be applauded for his willingness to speak up on such important social issues and being willing to directly answer the question. Yet it’s not just spur of the moment choices that are getting him in trouble, the same lack of political strategy is evident in his prepared speeches such as on immigration. Abbott & coalition strategists need to work quickly on shaking up how the press and public see him, otherwise this election will be an embarrassing rout, with the liberal leader unheard and ignored for the rest of the year (The same fate his mentor Howard suffered during 2007).

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  1. Benny

     /  January 30, 2010

    This is good stuff Andrew. Like you I think the virginity comments hardly were offensive and are simply the type of thing dads say to their kids. On my FB blog on this topic i added a link to a good Pryor article on the topic.

    Where I disagree with you is that I don’t think this was a mistake but a planned move. I think the comments were an attempt to show that his fringe and extreme reputation is unfair. I doubt he has offended many Liberal voters and may well be bringing back a few Howard battlers.