Election diary

Election diary

Bullets fly as Labor steps up gender war

Mal Brough was singed by crass restaurant joke. AAP Image/Julian Smith

This started as a tale of how Julia Gillard overplayed the gender card, suffered a backlash, and then was saved by the appearance of a sexist menu from a Liberal fundraiser, that referred to her body parts in offensive terms.

Late today the saga took a new twist. Brisbane restauranteur Joe Richards wrote to Mal Brough, the Liberal candidate whose function it was, saying he, Joe, had produced the menu, as a “light-hearted joke”. It hadn’t been distributed on the tables or in the restaurant, but it had got out through a staff member, he said.

“It is so unfortunate that an in-house joke between myself and my son has caused you great problems and embarrassment”.

The menu had dominated a day’s campaigning in this crazy election atmosphere. Gillard called for Brough’s dis-endorsement. She lined the menu up with Tony Abbott standing near placards calling her a witch and Alan Jones mocking her dead father at a Liberal student function. “Join the dots”, she said.

“This is Tony Abbott’s Liberals. This is what they’re like”.

Brough couldn’t remember seeing the menu at the event. Cabinet minister Craig Emerson said nothing Brough said could ever be believed.

Abbott looked serious and described the menu as “tacky'” and “scatological”. Of course he stuck by Brough. Joe Hockey, who’d been at the function, said people should concentrate on the big issues, but had a bit of a whine about Gillard once calling him a “fat man”.

The offending “menu” said “Julia Gllard Kentucky Fried Quail – Small Breasts, Huge Thighs”, and worse. (It also included “Rudd’s A Goose Foie Gras”. One frustrated Liberal quipped this should have been the giveaway. “I’ve never been to a Liberal fundraiser with Foie Gras”.)

The government last night treated the restauranteur’s statement with some suspicion – anyway, it had got its message out about Liberal sexism - and no doubt, as they say, inquiries will continue.

But for the moment, we’re back to Gillard’s Tuesday speech.

Labor strategists have believed, especially since her “misogyny” onslaught against Abbott, that the gender issue plays to her advantage among women and have urged her to push it.

So it wasn’t surprising that, in desperate straits and speaking to a female audience, she threw abortion into the political ring.

The ALP is trying not just to scare women about Abbott’s attitude on that, but to paint him as a 1950s social conservative who – three daughters and that expensive parental leave proposal notwithstanding – is out of touch with modern younger women’s views.

Launching a new “Women for Gillard” support group, modelled along Obama campaign lines, she declared that “we don’t want to live in an Australia where abortion again becomes the political plaything of men who think they know better”.

Despite Abbott’s vulnerability, it was a risky play for a leader on a knife edge within her own party. MPs are afraid of this divisive issue – it’s hard to handle locally.

Backbenchers Stephen Jones and Ed Husic indicated publicly they were uncomfortable with it being on the campaign battlefield. One Labor MP said privately that Gillard would already have the support of the “progressive” women on this matter and would just alienate more conservative women.

Gender was always destined for a role in this election.

It’s being fought by the country’s first woman PM, who has been subjected to nasty sexist attacks especially on the internet fringe. And she’s up against an opposition leader whose past - from his bovver boy, sexist university days to his attempt as health minister to keep control of the importation of RU486 - can still haunt him.

On abortion, he’s pledged he wouldn’t change any federal provisions.

No doubt he hasn’t altered his deeply held personal view about abortion’s evils, but he now sticks to the Bill Clinton formula that it should be safe, legal and rare.

As feminist Anne Summers noted in her article today abortion (mainly a state issue) is not quite dead federally. DLP senator John Madigan, who could be part of the balance of power from mid- 2014, has a private member’s bill to prevent Medicare funding for gender-selection abortion. Madigan would exert any pressure he could on an Abbott government.

I think Abbott can be believed, however, when he says he wouldn’t make any changes. He’s been burned, and the Liberal women would not let him.

But his opponents ensure he remains dogged by all that’s gone before on women’s matters, and his general he-man image doesn’t naturally appeal to female voters.

Polling shows up gender difference in the two leaders' support. In the May Nielsen poll, Gillard’s approval was 43% among women and 36% among men while Abbott’s approval was 41% among women and 43% among men.

On preferred PM, Gillard led Abbott 49-43% among women while among men Abbott led Gillard 48-42%

But there is little difference on voting intention - in the May poll female support for Labor was 33% and male support 31% but in two of the four Nielsen polls this year there was no gender gap in the Labor primary vote.

In February women were four points higher than men in the two party Labor vote but by May they were a point behind in the Nielsen poll.

In contrast, Labor’s national tracking polling last weekend had women six points higher than men in the two-party vote; the ALP polling has found a consistent substantial two party gap.

But the problem for Labor is that where there are gender differences they are overwhelmed by the overall unpopularity of Gillard and the government.

Gillard’s abortion remarks have divided feminists with Eva Cox and Jane Caro critical, and Summers (who under Keating headed the Office of the Status of Women) supportive.

Summers in her latest book argues that in Australia “the misogyny factor [which she defines as "the entrenched, institutionalised resistance to women’s equality”] is denying women inclusion, equality and respect.“ Summers writes that earlier hopes for what she calls ‘'The Equality Project’‘ haven’t been realised. (The Misogyny Factor, NewSouth 2013.)

Gillard is seeking to persuade female voters that under an Abbott government things will go backwards for them on a range of fronts, including with fewer women in positions of power.

In some over-blown rhetoric, she told her audience that September 14 would decide whether “once again we will banish women’s voices from our political life. I invite you to imagine it.

“A prime minister - a man in a blue tie – who goes on holidays to be replaced by a man in a blue tie. A treasurer, who delivers a budget wearing a blue tie, is to be supported by a finance minister – another man in a blue tie.” (She didn’t mention that a woman foreign minister, Julie Bishop, would be tripping the world stage in various hues.)

Abbott has explained previously that his blue ties are part of a “uniform”, so that his appearance doesn’t become something people talk about (at least until now).

He’d noticed Obama and David Cameron, “two of the coolest dudes in politics”, tended to wear a dark suit, white shirt and blue tie. “I thought well, look, if it’s good for them it’s probably good for me,” he said a while ago.

Gillard was trying to use the “blue tie” to make a point. But the media found assorted Labor politicians in blue ties (and pictures of Wayne Swan in one on budget night), while no one failed to notice that Kevin Rudd, being mobbed in western Sydney as he laid into Brough, was similarly decked out.

The blue tie line had already become a laughing point well before the confession on the menu “joke”.