Re-inventing Tony: why Abbott’s attempt to woo women doesn’t bear scrutiny

The election is Tony Abbott’s to lose. But will weakness with many female voters cost him and will his record come to haunt him on issues like abortion? AAP/Lukas Coch

Tony Abbott is trying to improve his image with many women. But as I found out when I met him recently, no makeover can erase his track record of public statements and actions, especially on issues of clear gender sensitivity like abortion.

So will the Abbott re-invention as friend of all women be successful? My experience suggests no, at least not with those familiar with history.

Mixed messages

The defining political event of 2012 was Julia Gillard’s now world-famous “misogyny speech” to opposition leader Tony Abbott

It might not be enough to save her politically but it did enormous amounts of damage to her opponent. He knows it and is furiously working to repair his public image in the eyes of women.

If a recent episode of 60 Minutes is anything to go by, we’re set to see a lot more of the Tony Abbott “nice bloke” makeover in the lead up to the election in an attempt to undo the harm.

In the interview with Liz Hayes, Abbott’s lesbian sister Chris, his wife and daughters gathered to spruik his metrosexual qualities.

But the women of Team Abbott are selling a mixed message. On one hand, he’s definitely a changed man. On the other, he’s been misunderstood all along. And OK, Abbott’s said some nasty things in the past. But who in politics hasn’t?

Rewriting history doesn’t work with those who remember

Abbott is a champion of the mixed message too. He told Hayes he has “changed” and he’d like to think that he has “grown”. But as for the accusations of misogyny and sexism made by Gillard in parliament? They were not “fair” and not “true” of him. Not ever.

Confused? I certainly am, and I recently had the opportunity to discuss the issues with him in person, something the vast majority of voters will never do.

I witnessed the attempted impromptu makeover by Abbott in the flesh. Last month Madison Magazine invited me, along with Miranda Devine and Sarah Murdoch, to meet with Abbott and discuss political issues relevant to women. How could I decline? Of particular interest to me is abortion and reproductive health, and this is likely to be why I was invited.

Abbott was polite and keen to talk and gave every impression of being interested in what I had to say. But when I noted he was the first politician from a major party since the 1970s to break bipartisan consensus and politicise abortion, he denied he had intended to do any such thing.

From that point in the conversation I witnessed a fascinating, determined retelling of history by Abbott, along with a perfectly executed case of selective political amnesia.

The past is a foreign country, Tony Abbott does things differently there

It is worth recalling what Tony Abbott has undeniably said and done when it comes abortion as a political issue.

In March 2004, as Health Minister Abbott told students at the University of Adelaide that abortion was the “easy way out” and an “objectively grave matter” that has been “reduced to a question of the mother’s convenience”.

Tony Abbott as health minister in 2003. His comments from that era have not been forgotten by many women. AAP/Dean Lewins

He then pursued an anti-abortion debate in the media, referring to Australia’s abortion “epidemic”, encouraging other anti-abortion MPs such as Christopher Pyne, before being silenced by the pro-RU486 outcome in the parliament in 2006. In that parliamentary debate, Abbott described the abortion rate as “this generation’s legacy of unutterable shame”.

After being overlooked for the Liberal leadership in 2007, Abbott began the slow process of reworking his image, especially on abortion.

In his 2009 book Battlelines and elsewhere Abbott claimed he gave the Adelaide University speech after a constituent at an Australian Christian Lobby conference asked him how he felt about funding 75,000 abortions a year on Medicare.

At the recent Madison forum I criticised Abbott for politicising abortion. One glance at US political life demonstrates to how toxic life becomes for women once abortion becomes a vote-grabber. He responded by stating he would never have broached the issue in public, were it not for the question posed to him about Medicare that he felt he had to answer.

Who does Abbott think he is kidding?

No denying the record

Abbott has a long history of agitating on abortion in unnecessarily inflammatory language. In 2002, well before he was responsible for Medicare, Abbott addressed the Centre for Independent Studies describing abortion on demand as “part of a tendency to treat human beings as disposable throw-away-when-they’re-not-convenient-commodities.”

In that speech Abbott suggested that abortion might be relevant to a “serious debate” about the low birth rate. When I mentioned this 2002 speech to Abbott as evidence of his ongoing personal interest in abortion, above and beyond his role as health minister, he suggested I must have been confused about the year he delivered it. I wasn’t.

The debate over “abortion drug” RU486 saw politicians from all sides enagge in passionate and heated debate. AAP/MickTsikas

Abbott is desperately trying to present himself as an “ordinary bloke”, including by having his mates line up on the beach (fully clothed) and describe him as one to Liz Hayes on national television. But really, how many ordinary blokes spent their undergraduate student days campaigning vociferously against abortion and speaking at public forums with English Morals Campaigner Mary Whitehouse, and the Reverend Fred Nile, as Abbott did in 1978?

I have also documented attempts by Abbott and Pyne to meddle with the Medical Benefits Schedule in 2005, a move interpreted by women in parliament as a potential attack on abortion.

In person, Abbott assured me he could not remember this incident, but if it did occur, it was a simple administrative measure that “would have” originated from the health department bureacracy, not Abbott, and it had nothing to do with abortion anyway.

Another mixed message: Abbott can’t remember, but he knows he didn’t do it.

Some memories don’t fade

Abbott now declares that just like the Clintons he wants abortion to be “safe, legal and rare”, even though the Democrats have long moved on from this trite slogan .

Conveniently for Abbott, this sentiment puts him at odds with political outliers like John Madigan who can pick up the slack and continue the outraged rhetoric about abortion, while Team Abbott works on rewriting history.

But the reality is that Abbott has spent too much of his career - and life - making very political statements about abortion for any reasonable person to believe he could change his views at this relatively late stage.

I have no doubt Abbott wants abortions to be as rare as possible.

Another thing he wants to be rare are memories such as mine.