Back when the world was young it generally seemed to be the case that women were more conservative than men in their politics. Menzies drew more support from women than he did from men, and in the 1960s, when I was analysing the basis of party loyalties in Australia, women were less like likely than men to see themselves as Labor supporters, in every age-group and whether or not they were native-born.
Ten years later, when I repeated the analysis, women were shifting towards Labor. At the time I could show that this shift was not related simply to the growing numbers of women entering the workforce: it had something to do with what I called then a ‘feminist consciousness’ — and that Labor was seen as more supportive of women as people.
Since then the shift of women away from conservatism has continued, but so has the nature of the Australian party system, because of the weakening of the union movement, the part-time nature of a lot of work, and the emergence of new issues, like environmentalism and gay marriage. On the face of it (going on published polls) women are now more likely to be Labor voters than are men.
And the gap between men and women is even larger in preference for Prime Minister: while the shifts in popularity are much the same for men and women, the difference is quite striking. Women prefer Julia Gillard as Prime Minister and disapprove of Tony Abbott to a marked degree. You might wonder whether there is anything to wonder at. Women must feel empowered by the sight of a woman’s serving as the elected leader of their country. And in terms of what we see on television, she seems to do it as well as any man.
Moreover, she has been subject to a stream of criticism that has had no parallel in the past, simply because she is a woman. She saw it as sexist, and it was. That too will have made women more sympathetic to her. Julia Gillard’s approval rating is lower than fifty per cent among both men and women, but among women the negative rating is around -12, whereas for men it is around -26. Tony Abbott’s approval rating is also low, at around -12 for men and -23 for men.
So if Tony Abbott has a problem with women, then Julia Gillard has one with men. This is the context surrounding the appearance of Mrs Abbott, her daughters and her mother-in-law in the media to ‘set the record straight’ — Tony is a good guy, surrounded by strong and capable women who love him, and think he is a softy. At least, that’s the message I got.
I don’t share the reaction that this is a shoddy set-up, or just a piece of political theatre. Of course, it is theatre, but it has a sensible purpose. The pictures we have of political leaders are always false, because they are created through a highly selective set of images and sound-grabs, edited for presentation. Tony Abbott’s is of a punchy, aggressive street-fighter, always opposing, without a soft side, ignorant and insensitive. The positive side of him, when you see it at all, comes across almost as a stunt. Of course the Abbott picture is unlike the real person, just as Julia Gillard’s is unlike the real person. They are as much caricatures as those that are drawn in the newspapers.
Why did Abbott decide to enlist the women close to him, and bring them into the fray? My guess is twofold: first, the decline in women’s approval of him is increasing. The gap between men and women was barely there, after the 2010 election, but now it is of the order of ten percent. He does not want to see that continue, and he does not want to see his presumed attitude to women become an election issue, which it shows some sign of becoming.
The second is that he does face a threat from Malcolm Turnbull, who is beginning to look a bit like a Rudd at the side of the stage, or a Bob Hawke in 1983. If Tony Abbott’s slide among women were to continue, there would be those within the Liberal Party calling for a change.
I think that Mr Abbott could do something else, too. It is time for him to outline what he is for. We all know now what he is against. But too rich a diet of negatives is not good for the soul, or for the persona of a leader. His picture of the kind of Australia he would like to work towards needs to be put forward, and it could also assist him in improving his standing among women.