The lady doth protest

When the young and ambitious Richard Nixon was accused of accepting bribes, he wheeled out a trump card: a dog named Checkers, which he said was just another gift from a constituent. Surely he wasn't expected to return Checkers? Cut to adorable puppy gambolling with family. Problem solved.

Margie Abbott would not appreciate the comparison, but even she must realise her smooch storm over her husband last week runs a real risk of turning equally hammy, but perhaps not quite as effective.

The obvious reaction is the classic one: Methinks the lady doth protest too much. Surely if Tony Abbott really is the perfect son, the nonpareil husband, the peerless father that she makes out, then there is no need to labour the point; it should be obvious.

But even if we accept her view, and dismiss a daughter's characterisation of her daddy as "a lame, gay, churchy loser," as no more than affectionate badinage, it misses the point. The problem in the polls is not about how Tony Abbott is seen by his immediate family. It is based on a well-founded apprehension of just what policies he might bring to the Lodge were he to become Prime Minister, and here the man has form.

Indeed, the form extends to his own domestic life, cosy as it may be. Asked what advice he would give his daughters, Abbott one replied that he would tell them that their virginity was the most precious gift they could give to their husbands. But this advice is not only old-fashioned; it bespeaks a serious double standard.

It is not known whether Margie presented Tony with this precious gift, but we can be damn sure that if she did, Tony did not reciprocate. He has made no secret of his lust-driven youth, and expressed neither shame nor regret for it. Apparently it's quite okay for blokes to shag around, but sheilas need to keep themselves for the bridal bed. And if they don't, they're bad girls - sluts.

Abbott's advice recalls the old division of all women into either wives or whores, and in the case of the latter they deserve what they get. Perhaps this is his private justification for treating the unmarried - indeed, living in sin - Julia Gillard with such ferocity.

Abbott's attitude to women obviously owes a great deal to his Catholic upbringing and he has presumably outgrown the manic chauvinism of his student days - although his obsession with his body and his love of strenuous physical activity would suggest that he still harbours a certain nostalgia for his macho past.

His three great mentors -- Father Emmett Costello, Bartholomew Augustine Santamaria and now Cardinal George Pell - have all held distinctly Pauline views about what they regard as the second sex ("I do not permit a woman to teach or have authority over a man. She must be silent" - 1 Tim 2:12. "Women should remain silent in churches. They are not allowed to speak but must be in submission as the law says" - 1 Cor 13:34. " be self-contained and pure, to be busy at home, to be kind and to be subject to their husbands so that no-one will malign the word of God" - Titus 2:5).

And in spite of his affection for his lesbian sister, Abbott also confesses to feeling "a bit threatened" by homosexuality - except when it manifests itself in the form of his close friend and valuable contact Alan Jones. These are not the typical attitudes of the caring, sharing, sensitive new age guy Margie seeks to portray.

But according to what Liberal backbencher Kelly O'Dwyer has christened Labor's Handbag Hit Squad - specifically Attorney- General Nicola Roxon, Health Minister Tanya Plibersek, backbencher Deb O' Neill, Acting Speaker Anna Burke and of course Gillard herself - Abbott's troubles with women stem at least as much from his actual record as from his attitudes and these can be summed up in his approach to the constantly vexing question of abortion.

Abbott has said that he thinks there are far too many abortions in Australia and he would like to see the numbers drop. And there is no doubt that he feels passionately about the issue. He once told parliament: "Mr Speaker, we have a bizarre double standard in this country when someone who kills a pregnant woman's baby is guilty of murder but a woman who aborts an unborn baby is simply exercising choice."

This was during a debate on the so called "morning after" pill RU486 which Abbott, as Health Minister, had banned in Australia in spite of it having been cleared by all relevant authorities and listed by the World Health Organisation as an essential medicine. There was a political and public outcry against the decision, but Abbott fought a bitter rearguard and retrograde action before being forced to back down.

He still regrets this failure, but according to David Marr in his recent Quarterly Essay "Political Animal: the making of Tony Abbott" he has learned that there are times when he has to finesse his principles.

"I am saying that you have to be conscious of the fact that no matter how right your principles are, if they don't resonate with the general public and you are living in a democratic polity, you've got a problem," he told Marr.

Acting on his conservative Catholic convictions, Abbott could get away with denying his party room a conscience vote on gay marriage, and he will not countenance voluntary euthanasia in any form, but he realises that there is no point in trying to roll back abortion rights - at least, not at the moment.

But that does not mean that he would not like to, and given that his personal confessor Cardinal Pell will not let him forget the issue, if an opportunity comes up he is unlikely to let it slip.

Abbott himself, and now his family, have been desperate to portray themselves as ordinary, knockabout Australians who just want to make us relaxed and comfortable, to free us from the uncertainties of minority government.

But many voters, and particularly many women, sense that behind the speedos, the lycra and the hard hats there is another Abbott, a zealot about whom they know little and worry much. And the fact that his wife feels she has to attempt to reassure them is just as likely to confirm their fears as to assuage them.

The lady doth protest too much.

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