The Labor party’s relentless assault on Tony Abbott’s character, particularly his Neanderthal treatment of women, is evidently bearing fruit. The latest opinion polls indicate that voter support for his leadership has dropped to its lowest level since he became leader. In the era of the 24-hour media cycle, it is rare in Australian politics for an opposition leader to last more than three years. Next month, Abbott will reach that milestone.
If negative polls continue in the New Year, he is likely to face more speculation about his leadership. Moreover, in the age of The Thick of It, in which the masters of spin go ad hominem as a matter of course (just look at what they did to Mitt Romney) there’s no point in protesting the crudity of the tactics or the superficiality of the times. As a former Clinton adviser, the Ragin’ Cajun James Carville, observed: ‘It’s hard for your opponent to hit you when you have got your fist in his face.’ As an amateur boxer, Abbott should know this. Instead, he and his team seem content to go along with another Carville adage: ‘When your opponent is drowning, throw him an anvil.’
In other words, if he wants to lead the Libs at the next election, Tony needs to get his act together, pick up his game and get a makeover. The core issue he needs to address is the perception of his attitude to women. Julia’s misogyny monologue, however unfair, had an impact. As various academic gynocrats like Judith Brett in the Monthly argue, the real Julia is the victim of ‘the misogynist fantasies of so many men … projected onto [her] on a daily basis’.
Now, to the average punter this might seem absurd. However, on the same day as Newspoll announces the alternative prime minister’s declining ratings, we find Abbott hanging out in Balmain with an ageing footballer, Matt Adamson, attempting to persuade him to stand for preselection in a safe Liberal seat. These are not the tactics of a man who wants to court the female vote.
Women are feelers. They want to feel their leader is in charge, because that’s how they know it, and hanging out with boofhead league players doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. When Gillard says she is ‘very offended personally’, everyone knows that, well, she’s very offended personally, and can feel her pain. When Abbott brushes feelings away like dandruff around the collar of ‘real’ policy issues such as the carbon tax, he’s not engaging with the critical importance of ‘hearing’ the underlying message, and confidence goes to the wall. This makes Julia a force to be reckoned with. Not only does she ‘hear’ feelings and show it, but she packs a punch to back it up. This means that women can be sure of two things. They know she’ll hear the political equivalent of the crying baby, and they can feel secure she won’t drop it when she changes its nappy.
Whether this is true or not isn’t the point. It’s ‘feel-speak’, and women understand it.
Other feel-speakers include Barack Obama, David Cameron and, before him, Tony Blair. In fact, you could say Blair invented it. Abbott, however, is not a feel-speaker. Being in the surf at Dee Why in Speedos and grunting in Lycra on a racing bike in a man-pack screams male identity crisis as well as incompetence with nappies.
Backed by his wife, he did go on the offensive earlier in the year, telling the Sydney Telegraph what a decent guy he is. We learned for the first time in these very pages that he supported a battered women’s shelter. Why didn’t his advice team pick up on this? Similarly, we know that Abbott is cool with homosexuality. However, it’s not what you do but the way that you do it, and he just doesn’t look like a nappy-changing kind of guy.
There’s an alternative strategy, though, that Tony might employ: cunning. The exemplar of cunning-speak is Mayor of London Boris Johnson. His ploy is buffoonery that doesn’t even pretend to disguise an underlying self-confidence. This also tells a woman two things. He knows how to lay a trap or two, and he can be relied on to catch his buffalo. Buffalo Abbott needs to drop the Brut aftershave and start getting some snappy suits. Given that he is toned, he ought to be going Daniel Craig rather than Dan the Man. An Armani suit, the odd black crew-neck sweater and a decent haircut would do wonders. Shane Warne’s image among women, despite his peccadillos, has improved immensely after he followed the Liz Hurley makeover regime. It showed he took a woman’s advice seriously. He also needs to be seen going to the odd play or film, and reading a novel.
In other words, Tony needs to demonstrate not just killing capability but emotional intelligence, too. This means that when he makes comments about male and female competencies, for example, he remembers that women need to hear what he assumes is taken as read.
Obviously, Abbott has lost the doctors’ wives, but they will vote Green anyway. There is still time, however, to address the floating female voter.
In the age of 24/7 media, image and perception are everything. John McTernan knows this and has brilliantly put Abbott on the canvas on this one. Abbott needs to rebrand his presentation rather than his policies. If he does not, he will be counted out before the electorate has time to vote on the inconsequential but feelings-friendly Gillard government.
Jo Henderson is a communications consultant based in Brisbane and West London.