The attack dog that licked its owner’s hand

Desperate situations demand desperate actions. The feedback from private Liberal Party polls and from focus groups must have been grim for Tony Abbott. They must have shown that his rating with women was lamentable. Otherwise, why would his minders and his family embark on such a brazen ‘Tony is nice guy’ campaign on TV and in the Murdoch tabloids? Presumably, saturation coverage was deemed necessary to pull him back from the abyss on which he must be teetering. It is rumoured that Newspoll exposed such bad news for Abbott and the Coalition that, although overdue, it has been postponed.

Desperation could be the only explanation for such an obvious crusade, one that all but Abbott’s sycophants would see through in an instant as a series of puff pieces on TV and in the press. Those responsible either gave no thought to how bizarre this series of stunts would look to the ordinary voter, how unconvincing they would be, or the situation was so bad and deteriorating that such a ridiculous strategy was considered worth a shot on the questionable grounds that even if it failed, it couldn’t make the situation worse for Abbott man.

Of course, it started a couple of weeks ago when Tony’s misogynist behaviour dating back to university days was exposed for all to see in David Marr’s Quarterly Essay: Political Animal: The Making of Tony Abbott, where he recalled the Barbara Ramjan story.

Soon after, we had the Punch and Judy show, where Christopher Pyne and Julie Bishop came out at doorstops echoing identical lines, fed to them by their minders. NormanK listed these amusingly:

J. Bishop: The Tony I know …..

C. Pyne: The Tony I know …..
J. Bishop: … helped a blind man …..
C. Pyne: … helped a blind man …..
J. Bishop: … worked on a burn-off with …..
C. Pyne: … worked on a burn-off with …..
J. Bishop: That's the Tony I know. 

C. Pyne: That's the Tony I know.

Andrew Bolt joined the chorus but added that Tony also helps Aboriginals, validated by a nice photo of Abbott sitting with them.

Storm clouds were obviously gathering. Here are some edited quotes from the Fourth and Fifth Estates, supplied by Lyn and others, that show how serious the storm threat is:

Michelle Grattan, longtime Abbott acolyte, worried about the trend, offered some gratuitous advice: “Why doesn't he go out, just once in a while, without a staffer, perhaps taking his wife Margie – whom the public would really like, if they saw more of her – and look natural and normal? This is not the time to appear with her in some confected interview that the minders negotiate with terms and conditions. Just to do a bit of ''stuff'' together, despite her dislike of the public forum. Possibly – no guarantees – it would help with the ‘woman problem’.”

We shall probably never know who initiated the recent media onslaught – minders, media advisers, or simply Margie Abbott herself, fed up with having her ‘nice Tony’ demonized. It’s OK for her Tony to demonize our PM every day with his ‘liar’ and ‘untrustworthy’ mantras, but not OK for her man to cop it sweet in return. No doubt, there will be learned analyses by the few journalists who have the courage to dissect the matter at all.

Tony Wright gave it a satirical shot in The Brisbane Times. Before you read what he wrote though, take a look at the video at the top of his article where Lisa Wilkinson conducts a soft interview with Margie and Tony. Observe the supercilious smile on his face as Margie insistently extols his virtues. Does he remind you of a Pit Bull sitting gently by its mistress with that enigmatic look on its face that belies the anger and aggression beneath, waiting to explode in an instant into a violent attack on a stranger? To me it was sickening in its hypocrisy.

Wright begins: “Good lord! Where does this leave Malcolm Turnbull? Will he be required to reveal he spends his evenings tenderly tending to the homeless among the Paddington lanes of his eastern suburbs Sydney electorate? And when are we going to hear from Tim Mathieson about Julia's prowess at baking and decorating cupcakes, and how they occasionally weep together at an old episode of Lassie? The revelation by Tony Abbott's inner circle of women that his personal inner goddess is alive and well tosses up dreadful challenges for the Australian political class.

“It would...if it were a story. You'd hardly think it was transfixing news that his wife and daughters loved him. If they'd formed a chorus line to declare that he was a rotter and a cad who secretly pulled the wings off butterflies; now that would be a story.

“Still, the immense amount of newsprint devoted by News Ltd to the story of kind, gentle and loving Abbott, who sent a beautiful bunch of flowers to his wife for their last anniversary even though she'd said she didn't want anything!, exerted a sort of ghastly allurement.

“How could you avert your eyes from the revelation that when Abbott's wife Margie wants to watch the footie on the tellie, Tony protests (sensitively, you'd imagine) that he'd rather watch the costume drama soapie Downton Abbey? Surely this could be the source of a fairly serious marital dispute, but apparently not…Margie had to reach back a fair way for the bit about Tony choking up at a movie. The said film, The Year My Voice Broke, was made 25 years ago…”

Another Fairfax columnist, Lenore Taylor, also has a go in Hold on to your bonnets for the new Downton Abbott.

“It was a blitzkrieg of love, an admiration avalanche. Margie Abbott, flanked by Tony, sitting close on the couch on the Today show, pictured walking the cute dog and lazing on the grass, alongside lengthy testimonials in the Daily Telegraph and the Herald Sun. Her message: that her husband has loving relationships with a whole bunch of strong and capable women.

“We have no reason to disbelieve her. Margie and Tony have been married for 24 years and they have three daughters who seem to have become the kind of happy, well-adjusted adults all parents hope they can nurture…

“But Abbott's ''women problem'' was never really about whether he had good relationships with the strong women in his own life. In fact, it wasn't really about whether or not he liked and respected women in general. His real ''women problem'' is that some women voters don't seem to like him…Labor has, without doubt, tried to exacerbate this problem by suggesting to women that he doesn't like them either…

“Combined with the kerfuffle over whether Abbott, as a university student, did or did not punch the wall beside the face of a political rival, there was a real fear within the Coalition that the Labor attack was working.

“The blitzkrieg of love is in fact another very determined, calculated, carefully timed, (just before the next polling cycle) political counter-attack. It is a classic strategy of defence by proxy - grasping at the accusation that Abbott is a misogynist and using it to try to deal with the broader problem that his personal popularity, particularly with female voters, is almost certainly eroded by his very real political aggression. Yes, there have been many acid-tongued politicians over the years, including Labor leaders like Paul Keating and Mark Latham. But this Coalition leader does use political language more aggressive and hyperbolic than Australian voters are used to.

''The voters of Queensland, they won't miss … this Prime Minister and this Leader of the House have got targets on their foreheads,'' he said in the March.

The ''no carbon tax'' pre-election pledge, he repeatedly says, is a "promise that will haunt this government and this Prime Minister to her political grave''.

And on some occasions it is language that wouldn't be used against a man, like last year when he said that ''if the Prime Minister wants to make a - politically speaking - honest woman of herself, she needs to seek a mandate for herself and she should do that at the next election''

…suddenly, Labor was using his aggression against him just as the Coalition leader was trying to turn it down a notch.

And hence we discover, yet again, ''The Real Tony'', who is a ''softie'', who makes his daughters cubby houses and who disagrees with his wife about television viewing because she wants to watch the footy and he insists on Downton Abbey, ''a great program about things that are best in our nature''…

Hmmm, maybe it is possible to take this spin thing too far.

Another Fairfax journalist, Phil Coorey, joined the fray:

“Margie Abbott has launched an extraordinary rebuttal of claims that her husband, Tony Abbott, has a problem with women after a concerted government attack portraying the Opposition Leader as a misogynist began to hurt the Coalition in the polls.

“In an unprecedented intervention by a political spouse, the normally private Mrs Abbott used a newspaper interview, breakfast television and radio interviews, and a speech in western Sydney yesterday in which she said the experience of having three daughters had made Mr Abbott a feminist. (A video of the speech is at the beginning of the article.)

''I'm not a politician and I'm not political - but just don't ever try to tell me that my husband of 24 years and the father of three daughters is on some anti-women crusade. It's simply not true,'' Mrs Abbott told the lunch, which was also attended by Mr Abbott's mother, sisters and one of his daughters.

''You get this - Tony Abbott is surrounded by strong women, in fact not only strong but capable women.''…

“Published and internal polling shows Mr Abbott less popular with female voters. In part, this was helped by recent allegations he physically intimidated a rival female politician at university 35 years ago.

“Then, in the wake of Alan Jones's offensive comments about Julia Gillard's late father, Labor again sought to implicate Mr Abbott by blaming him for creating the culture of personal denigration that encouraged the likes of Jones.

“In her speech, Mrs Abbott indirectly drew a stark contrast with the Prime Minister, who has never married or had children, saying the Abbotts were an ordinary family that had lived an ordinary life…

“The government declined to engage Mrs Abbott but urged voters not to be fooled. ''No amount of fuzzy photo-opportunities can airbrush away Mr Abbott's record of aggressive negativity or the huge risk he poses to the economy,'' the Treasurer, Wayne Swan, said.”

Laurie Oakes, the only News Limited journalist to do so, also had a go at critically analyzing the Margie Abbott push in The Punch:

“Tony Abbott’s wife, …in reply to what she called “personal and groundless attacks”- was blunt. “I won’t stand by and let others claim the man I love and the father my children adore has an agenda against women,” Margie Abbott said. The couple’s three daughters and various other female members of the extended family were also involved in bolstering Abbott’s defences.

“The first conclusion to be drawn from all this is that Abbott’s so-called “women problem” is real. It would not provoke such a response unless it was showing up as a serious issue in Liberal Party polling.

“One reason Abbott needs help from his wife and family here is that, at times, he does little to help himself. His initial failure to roundly condemn Sydney shock jock Alan Jones for foul, disgusting and unbelievably nasty comments about Julia Gillard’s dead father was a case in point…

“A second conclusion from the intervention of the Abbott women is that Liberal strategists are concerned about more than the opposition leader’s alleged misogyny. 
Women started to turn against Mark Latham before blokes did because of his aggressive manner. Paul Keating, too, suffered dismal ratings among female voters because of his bare-knuckle style. Abbott’s aggression, his unrelenting attack dog image, is a turn-off for women, and it alienates many male voters as well.

“So the Margie message is not only that “Tony gets women” and operates happily surrounded by strong females. It is also that he is not really the rough, tough, abusive and negative person that people see in parliament and on television. He is, in fact, “a soft touch”, has “a gentle manner”, prefers watching Downton Abbey to the footy, gets teary in sad movies, and is “the most optimistic person you could meet”.

“The Liberal leader has been building his politically pugilistic persona since well before he entered parliament 18 years ago. It is hard to see that such an entrenched image can be altered quickly – but Margie Abbott is obviously going to give it a red hot go…

“The third conclusion from Margie Abbott’s sudden front-line political role is that this must be starting to bite.”

The Fifth Estate is even more condemnatory.

Greg Jericho agrees that the polling must have been poor for Tony Abbott, and graphs the trends to support that contention. He concludes:

“Clearly, Abbott has been rattled by Julia Gillard’s numbers going up (and as Possum pointing up, increasing the ALP’s 2PP with it). The bad news for Tony Abbott is that Possum also notes that the standing of the Opposition Leader has absolutely nothing to do with the party’s 2 party preferred polling number. That means to keep the 2PP numbers high, the Liberal Party has to keep focus on Julia Gillard, which essentially means Tony Abbott attacking her, which obviously the Liberals have found doesn’t go down well in the electorate, and leads to Abbott looking like a bully.

“Which brings us back to where Mr Abbott finds himself today.

“The other aspect is this “Women don’t like Tony” narrative is old hat. Why on earth he feels the need to go big on it now is beyond me. Gillard’s numbers have improved a bit, and Abbott’s have gone down a bit. But is this really panic stations?...

“But instead of treating women as intelligent beings and developing more policies over the next 12 months that will actually affect them, he wants women to know he really is a nice guy.

“Geez, he must think women are stupid.”

NormanK drew our attention to Andrew Elder’s assessment in The Situation with Women.

“The Liberals clearly recognise that women are reluctant to vote for an Abbott government, and that having Margie Abbott talk about her husband in glowing terms might help turn that around.

“It is a standard tactic in American politics to have a candidate bring out their spouse as a way of generating positive impressions without the hard work of policy development and persuasion. Even the most appalling candidate can appeal to voters with a spouse or a family member who can tell endearing, humanising anecdotes about them.

“Margie Abbott should be believed when she says that it was her idea to go on television to support her husband and deny that he has a problem with strong, capable women. It would be a misunderstanding to refer to her as someone who is "wheeled out" to spruik in the way one might refer to a backbencher, or to Chris Pyne, when they are required to prop up their increasingly inadequate leader.

“The fact that Tony Abbott married a woman of substance requires not only a more nuanced understanding of her, but him too. Even people who loathe Tony Abbott should have more sympathy for his wife than they demonstrate when she makes a public stand in his favour.

At the same time, she has chosen to play the sort of blatantly partisan role that attracts negative attention from commentators, amateur and professional. ...If any criticism is due to her media appearances it is due to those who think they are clever in crafting media events of this type: to what extent will that appearance lift Tony Abbott's poll ratings? The judgment of and about those people, and not Mrs Abbott, lives or dies on those questions…

“So what if Tony Abbott's sisters, wife and daughters are all strong and capable and love him dearly?... The voters of Australia are not being invited to join his family. The political premise behind Margie Abbott's remarks is absurd.

“She should not have gone on television with Abbott next to her. It wasn't quite like a hostage haltingly reading out a badly-written statement with a Kalashnikov-wielding, balaclava-clad thug standing over - but she should have been free to tell the sort of anecdote that made him look like a bit of a doofus. Even better, she should have given an example of where she and/or the other women in his life have actually changed his seemingly inflexible mind. That might have made a difference.

“He should also have recognised publicly that Barbara Ramjan, Cheryl Kernot and every other woman who has gotten in his way over the years are no less deserving of basic respect than the women closest to him.

“That Tony Abbott's wife thinks he's nice is neither here nor there. An interview like this might have made a difference in early 2010, but it's too late. Again, the target here is Abbott's strategists, not his wife.

“The question that should have been asked of her was: can you understand why some women don't like Tony? A good answer would have reinforced her as a basically sensible person whose opinions should be listened to, and given both of them the credibility that her husband clearly lacks…

“The fight has gone out of Abbott.”

Nasking drew our attention to a pungent piece by Denise Allen on her ‘dennieallen’ website: Margie Abbott’s dummy spit.

It begins: “So Mrs Abbott – “Margie” – you seem to be a tad upset at the so-called “personal” attacks on your husband?

“Well boo bloody boo hoo. Bring out the teeny weeny violins.

“For the past two years, Labor and swinging voters (and no doubt many soft “L” Liberals) both women and men, have had to put up with the relentless, nasty, vicious and very ugly attacks on our Prime Minister that your husband has ignited and angrily fanned because of his petulant, spoilt brat, right to rule dummy spit he has raged ferociously with since 2010 because the Independents didn’t give him the nod to be PM.

“Ever since your husband failed to convince the Independents he would be a man of his word, a decent Prime Minister and that he would be prepared to do everything they wanted (except of course ‘selling his arse”), he has set about wrecking the place, with his constant negativity, talking down the economy, his “No” “No” “No” to every forward thinking policy Labor has implemented – and have been passed regardless of your husbands tantrums.

“You, like us, must have seen him proudly stand in front of the ugliest, most brutal placards ever displayed about any Prime Minister. As a fellow woman surely you must have been disgusted. Then again, Browyn Bishop and Sophie Mirabella weren’t so maybe it’s a Liberal thing that you weren’t either? Anyway, I digress. Regardless, did we hear you publicly decry his stance in support of those placards? No, “Margie”, we didn’t. If you privately berated him – we’d like to know – as until such times as you tell us whether you did or not – we can only assume the obvious – that you must have wholeheartedly agreed with and supported his actions just as Bishop and Mirabella did…

“Your husband, along with his bunch of feral shadow ministers and many on his backbench, have turned the political discourse in this country into the obnoxious, wretched, ugliness it is today. Are you proud of him? I’m sure you are. You must be, because you have now come out and said what a wonderful, loving, decent man he is! To say that – you must agree with everything he says and does! Otherwise you would have the courage to say there are some things you don’t agree with him on.

“But no. You just heap praise on him as if he can do no wrong.

“Quite frankly it disgusts me.

“So get over yourself Margie Abbott… Your husband is one of the most vicious Opposition leaders in this countries history, and as he would say “Its just politics!”

“It’s about time the decent women and men of this nation fought back against your husbands’ ugly persona.”

Take that!

I could fill several pieces with similar quotes, but these will suffice. There are several conclusions:

- Tony Abbott’s ratings in polls and focus groups must be poor, and the Coalition’s ratings sinking with him.

- Margie Abbott’s intervention is a sign of desperation, no matter who initiated it.

- The concerted campaign by News Limited through its tabloids, and the TV puff pieces designed to reinforce the Margie push, points to a fearsome turn in the polls from the dead-certainty of an Abbott government after the next election to one of considerable doubt.

- The extended Margie campaign seems unlikely to impress swinging voters, and may induce those who have left Labor in the polls to return. It may turn out to be a significant negative.

The attack dog has lived within Tony Abbott for many years. The fact that this Pit Bull has licked the hand of its owner: his wife, his family, his minders, his colleagues, does not make him a Shih tzu. He is still a Pit Bull.

Away from his owners, he strains at the leash – barking, snapping, and snarling, ready to tear his opponent to pieces. Just watch him in Question Time and moving Motions to Suspend Standing Orders. Just watch him in doorstops where he bares his teeth and salivates at every chance to demean our PM or her ministers, snapping: ‘liar’, or ‘untrustworthy’, or ‘bad government getting worse’, or ‘No, No, No’, or referring to our female leader as ‘she’ or ‘her’ or ‘this Prime Minister’.

That he licks his owner's hands, like all Pit Bulls, is unsurprising; that he savages those he does not like is what has brought him to the perilous situation he now faces.

It seems likely that no matter what he now does, nothing will halt his decline.

What do you think?