A couple of minutes on Google is enough to disprove the allegations that Tony Abbott is a misogynist. So why haven’t the journalists of the Press Gallery done it?
As the story of Tony Abbott’s ‘problems with women’ continues as a keynote of current political reporting, the Coalition can at least draw a key strategic lesson: that many — not all, but many — of the members of the Canberra Press Gallery cannot be trusted to do their job professionally. Instead, they have chosen the easier path of taking what Labor people say at face value while treating anything a Coalition person says with suspicion and disdain.
This is hardly a new pattern, but the allegations have given it a new tenor and personal dimension. It is by no means clear that the public is buying the story (polls would suggest not), but the idea that Abbott does not like dealing with capable women has taken hold in sections of the Press Gallery, and feeds through to broader interpretation and reporting of political events.
The strangest part of a strange story is that it is so easy to disprove, requiring only the minimum of research. For example, Abbott’s support for the Manly Women’s Shelter (which is in his electorate), a refuge for women who have been victims of domestic violence or have experienced other serious problems, is very easy to ascertain. A simple phone call establishes that the shelter received $148,000 from Abbott, raised through his annual Pollie Pedal fundraising event earlier this year.
‘That amount constitutes about a third of our annual operating budget,’ says Ellie Hunt, president of the shelter. ‘But this was not a matter of him just handing over a cheque. Abbott first started his connection with the shelter when he accepted an invitation to pay us a visit. I was very impressed by his willingness, when he came, to engage with the women here, including those whose problems stemmed from visa issues. He was, as far as I am concerned, genuinely interested and very willing to listen to the people we help.
‘It was certainly welcome news that he had nominated the shelter as a recipient of funds from the Pollie Pedal event. And something else that should be said is that he and his wife delivered a hamper to us last Christmas. It might not seem like a big thing but it was very important to people who often feel forgotten and marginalised.’
Hunt is obviously a highly capable, strong-minded woman, and is quite willing to discuss Abbott’s involvement with the shelter. But she notes that she has not previously been contacted by any representatives of the media, let alone any members of the Press Gallery. The provision of the funds is hardly a secret — there is a picture of a cycling Abbott on the shelter’s website.
The Manly Women’s Shelter is not the only organisation for which Abbott has helped raised money. He recently participated in the Sydney Marathon, acting as a guide for a blind runner, Nathan Johnstone. This was also a fundraiser, with the funds going to the McGrath Foundation — specifically, to breast cancer care nurses.
‘He is a founding member of a group of runners called the Pink Lads, which is part of the foundation,’ says Glenn Gorick, team captain of the group. ‘It was set up four years ago and he has been a very active participant, both in raising funds and promoting awareness. And there has never been any idea of turning any of these events into political shows. I would be very happy to say that, and to talk about his involvement, and the amount of money we have raised, if any Gallery journalist wanted to call me.’
The key issue here is that it is impossible to reconcile Abbott’s involvement with these causes — support for victimised women, breast cancer fundraising — with Labor’s claims that he is, overtly or covertly, some sort of misogynist. It simply does not, to use the current vernacular, ‘scan’. Yet key members of the Press Gallery, when choosing between accepting Labor’s claims and doing some simple research that would disprove those claims, simply swallowed what ALP representatives said. It is, really, remarkable, given that these people are supposed to find things out for a living. Do they not have an internet connection in the Press Gallery? Have they never heard of Google? Do they not have telephones?
Indeed, the whole precept that the Coalition has a broad problem with women in politics, and in positions of authority, is prima facie rather silly. If it was ever an issue, it ceased being so in May 1979 with the election of Margaret Thatcher. After that, for conservative parties in general it was a debate that had been overtaken by reality.
Distasteful as Labor’s allegations of misogyny and the acceptance of them by some Press Gallery members might be, the whole experience provides an object lesson for the Coalition. The central point is that many members of the Gallery cannot be expected to do their own research on refuting claims made by Labor. It is not that they cannot; it is that they choose not to. If Labor allegations are to be refuted, it is up to the Coalition to do so, and to present the material to the Gallery in terms that not even journalists can refuse: pre-chewed and ready-to-use, if you like. For the Coalition, this will require some resources, but the investment is probably a necessary one.
The second point is that no allegation is too silly for some Gallery members to repeat, often ad nauseam. To Coalition eyes, an allegation might seem self-evidently false or entirely trivial, but nevertheless it needs to be countered immediately and comprehensively.
Perhaps the final word on the subject should go to Ellie Hunt. When asked her opinion on the allegations of misogyny on the part of Abbott, she was blunt: ‘You just can’t take them seriously.’
Derek Parker is a Melbourne-based writer and author of The Courtesans: The Press Gallery in the Hawke Era.