View from The Hill

Abbott’s feminist message: don’t think you can mess with me on PPL

Tony Abbott argues that paid parental leave should be a workplace entitlement. AAP/Dean Lewins

On the matter of his paid parental leave scheme, Tony Abbott has got religion. He’s been using every occasion in the run up to Saturday’s International Women’s Day to sing hymns to what he’s determined to make a legacy policy.

(Abbott’s functions have even included hosting drinks in the cabinet suite for women from the media, where his chief of staff Peta Credlin also gave a speech.)

The Prime Minister’s PPL message has not just been for women at large. He is, in effect, saying once again: party colleagues, of either gender, who have doubts, listen up. There might be many critics out there - including the Audit Commission, the Business Council of Australia, the Australian Industry Group - but this is my baby and I’m protecting it like any devoted father would.

Abbott emphasised the plan’s origins and his ownership. “This is a proposal which I first put forward quite some time ago, well before I became opposition leader,” he said on Friday. “It’s a proposal that the Coalition took to the 2010 election, we took to the 2013 election and we well and truly have a mandate to introduce it in the form that we took it to the election.”

It’s notable that two of Abbott’s signature issues – PPL and his deep commitment to indigenous affairs – are ones he says he’s come to after personal journeys (and in each case, he’s willing to give some credit to Labor predecessors for what they did).

The strength with which he is prosecuting these signature issues reflects the assertiveness he is bringing to the prime ministership, which is being seen also in his stand on industry policy.

On PPL, he acknowledged people saw a certain disconnect between the scheme and its sponsor.

“It’s always a bit disconcerting when something happens that you don’t expect. … when a conservative, when a traditionalist such as myself, comes up with something which is not regarded as a conservative and a traditional position,” he told a breakfast on Tuesday.

He drew a very stretched comparison. “It is a bit like when Nixon went to China. Conservatives thought, ‘my God, has he suddenly abandoned the faith?’ Progressives thought, ‘my God, is China no longer a progressive country?’ The truth is this was a historic breakthrough. This was one of those moments when people from all sides of politics needed to realise that a watershed had been reached.

"So, it is, I like to think, with the Coalition support for a fair dinkum paid parental leave scheme.”

That must have produced some sharp intakes of breath on the Coalition side.

Abbott argued that if “a progressive”, rather than “a conservative” had produced the scheme, “the usual suspects would have been cheering and saying ‘about time’”.

Well, not exactly. What “progressive” critics don’t like is that it is not means tested – that there is too much largesse to the well off.

Abbott’s counter – it is a workplace entitlement, not welfare - doesn’t cut it when we’re talking about a government scheme financed by a tax (on big companies).

The critics on the other side of politics just think it is an unnecessary burden on the budget, and also on the 3000 companies levied.

Legislation for the scheme, due to start mid-next year, is being prepared. But, like much else this government hopes to do, what happens will depend on the Senate.

There the scheme has Green friends. They like the outline, but will want its generosity pared back (thank God for the Greens, Joe Hockey might be thinking). The vote would presumably be in the new Senate but the Greens would still remain the government’s best bet.

Abbott (half jokingly) likes to present himself as the latter-day convert to feminism. This week he repeated wife Margie’s line: “what is it that turns an unreconstructed bloke into a feminist? Three daughters.”

But Michaelia Cash, his Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Women, is stuck in a more rigid groove.

Cash told Fairfax Media this week: “I have never been someone who labels herself.

"In terms of feminism, I’ve never been someone who really associates with that movement. That movement was a set of ideologies from many, many decades ago now,” though she acknowledged it had done “wonderful things for women”.

Given her position, her unwillingness to call herself a feminist was not the best of messages.

But in Victoria the Liberals sent out a far more unfortunate message ahead of International Women’s Day, when Mary Wooldridge, one of their more impressive state ministers, went down in a preselection battle last Sunday. Josh Frydenberg, who is parliamentary secretary to Abbott, was a supporter of the candidate who defeated her.

Coming after the PM last year including only one woman in his cabinet, Wooldridge’s rejection left a sour taste with many Liberal women, amid all the high-flown rhetoric.

Postscript: Abbott’s sister Christine Forster told Sky on Friday night the government’s biggest mistake had been not having more women in cabinet.

Listen to the new Politics with Michelle Grattan podcast with Race Discrimination Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane here.