When the going gets tough, tough guys get the wife and kids out

The use of Tony Abbott’s wife and daughters is aimed at softening the opposition leader’s public persona. AAP/Alan Porritt

It’s an image as familiar as the mea culpa sympathetic TV interview. Bloke has the affair, gets caught with the sex worker, tweets out poorly lit photos of his dangly bits. He does the deed, delivers the heart-felt apology, and next to him is the dutiful, ever-forbearing and perfectly coiffed wife with the not-entirely-convincing smile. Lending legitimacy to his repentance.

The role of the wife in the I’m-a-jerk-and-I’m-sorry tale mirrors the role that wives – that women – frequently occupy in life, in the media, on the campaign trail. Sure, we can lament it as a second-fiddle, best supporting role. More so however, it’s about their function in humanising, in domesticating men whom the public have gone cool on.

Politics is a rough and tumble game. Developing a hide of a certain fortitude is essential and the process of its development – the public slaying of opponents and bully boy tactics synonymous with the battle - can leave a bloke appearing a bit arrogant, deceitful, power-hungry and a whole lot unrelatable. At best.

Enter the ladies.

Traditionally it’s been wives, but more recently it’s the daughters. Adding that special feminine touch to their suit-and-tie, short-back-and-sides menfolk.

Opposition leader Tony Abbott has long had an image problem amongst female voters. At least, amongst sane ones who think he needs to keep his mitts off our uteruses, thank you very much. Rudd’s years of treasonous plotting against the nation’s first female prime minister has left him with his own set of lady problems.

What better way to flash your credentials in all things feminine than to surround yourself with real life women? Attractive ones, modern ones, friendly-seeming gals each serving as a carefully manicured bait-and-switch. Allowing some of their fair air to waft around the candidate and convince us that we’ve had him oh so wrong.

The method is so tried and true in male image rehab that even sportsfolk - not renowned for their sophistication - use it: witness James Hird toting his teenage daughter around in an attempt to play doting daddy in the Essendon supplements saga PR war.

Has embattled Essendon coach James Hird similarly deployed his wife and children in a public setting to influence media coverage of the supplements saga? AAP/Tony McDonough

For many reasons politics in Australia has become a sorry affair, none more so than the fact that we’re hideously preoccupied with voting in a leader who we could imagine having a drink with. As though to lead our country into greatness we need someone who seems affable. As opposed, God forbid, to someone with, policy acumen.

Women – women in all their soft, virtuous, gentle glory – tell a subtle story that if they can manage to like this man, if they’re willing to share his company, share his bed, share Sunday dinner with him, then surely there’s something good and redeemable about him.

Women are key in padding out this delusion. Men are invariably considered less discerning when it comes to companionship and matters of the heart. Women however, are assumed to only ever couple for sound, strategic and admirable reasons like good-heartedness and that clichéd good-sense-of-humour. Apparently we’re to trust their good judgment even if we doubt his.

Sorry affair aspect two is that we’ve come to pilfer some of the very worst aspects of American politics. Voting in a supposed “first family” is a particularly wretched example. Hence why we see the unrelenting focus on the random musings of brothers and sisters of candidates. As though we’re somehow not just directly electing a president, but a first lady, first daughters and first brothers and sisters too.

Not for a moment am I downplaying the achievements of the women populating the fairer sex entourages. In fact, that they are each bright and successful women in their own right is often why the spin city-ness of their deployment often goes unchallenged.

Women on billboards or in magazine ads – who might equally be bright and successful in their own right – invariably are merely used to draw attention to a product rather than to lend it authority. Ditto, alas, for the wives and daughters of the hustings.

They’re not there because they’re clever or feisty. Nup, it’s just a pink-wash.