Abbott campaign takes spousal support to a new level

Tony Abbott is by no means the first politician to wheel out the spouse when damage control is needed.

Therese Rein has become a staple of Kevin Rudd's rollercoaster career; Janette Howard was a permanent and important part of John Howard's success.

And as every election nears, we are treated to ubiquitous Women's Weekly and 60 Minutes profiles of the politician at home.

But today's carpet bombing of the public about what a gentle and sensitive soul the Opposition Leader really is takes things to a new level, at least in contemporary Australian politics.

The couple were featured prominently in News Ltd tabloids and appeared together on Channel Nine this morning before Mrs Abbott gave an afternoon speech to a Liberal Party women's group in Penrith that was televised live on Sky.

It is a clear admission, albeit indirect, that the perception that female voters have a problem with Mr Abbott is a stark reality.

There is no other reason why the tightly controlled media management that surrounds the Abbott camp would permit such an exercise.

Margie Abbott, a dignified and intensely private woman, has not been entirely in the background since her husband became leader in December 2009.

She has appeared with him at official occasions and even took questions from journalists at a press conference earlier this year when Mr Abbott was announcing childcare policy, an area of special interest for her.

In an interview with the Herald in the days after the coup against Malcolm Turnbull, Mrs Abbott said she would try as best she could to stay behind the scenes and continue her career, operating a childcare centre in St Ives.

"I'm very committed to the work that I am doing," she said.

"For me, one of the important aspects of a successful political marriage is to keep a balance with one's own life and the political life. I am very keen to maintain a balance of my life as opposed to the political life.

Mrs Abbott told the Herald there had been a long-standing edict in the Abbott household that would continue to apply: "There is only one politician in the house."

"I'm not the political spouse who combs the papers and is listening to talkback radio and is conscious of daily political issues," she said.

Clearly, things have changed.

Until now, Mr Abbott has subtly fought the perception that he has a problem with women by using the imagery of his wife and three daughters to remind people he is surrounded by strong and capable women.

But the problem has continued to grow, leading to today's nuclear option.

The recent revelation of allegations he physically intimidated a female political rival at university 35 years ago was grabbed by Labor with both hands to try and reinforce among voters the belief that the Opposition Leader was a misogynist bully.

There were again overtones of this when Labor tried to fit up Mr Abbott over Alan Jones's offensive comments about Julia Gillard's late father.

The public opinion polls – Fairfax/Nielsen and Newspoll – show female voters do not like Mr Abbott as much as their male counterparts.

In the most recent Fairfax/Nielsen poll, Mr Abbott's approval rating among females was 34 per cent compared with 39 per cent among men.

These figures are clearly reflected in the internal polling. Of broader concern for the Coalition, the polls have generally shown modest gains for Labor in recent weeks.

The timing of today’s onslaught also conveniently feeds into the next Newspoll, which is being researched this weekend, ahead of publication on Tuesday.

Coalition sources say Mrs Abbott suggested about two weeks ago that she wanted to hit back.

Clearly chagrined at the effectiveness of the campaign against her husband by Labor's so-called "handbag hit squad" of female ministers, Mrs Abbott emerged today all guns blazing, revealing her husband to be a closet fan of Downton Abbey and divulging intensely personal information about a miscarriage many years ago.

"I won't stand by and let others claim that the man I love, and the father my children adore, has some agenda against women," Mrs Abbott told News Limited.

"Tony gets women. He is surrounded by strong women. He grew up with three sisters, has three daughters, is supported by a female deputy in Julie Bishop and has always had a female chief of staff."

It is hard to quantify whether these types of exercises ever work.

Often they can provoke the opposite reaction because they hang a lantern over the problem.

- Read more opinion at The National Times

Smartphone
Tablet - Narrow
Tablet - Wide
Desktop