View from Australia: Abbott’s “innocent comments”

Opposition leader Tony Abbott with his two daughers (Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Earlier this year Australia’s prime minister couldn’t catch a break.

From the Australia Day “riot” to the scandal that enveloped the speaker of the House and the nocturnal activities of a backbench MP, Julia Gillard seemed to stumble from one omnishambles to another.

But the tables have turned, and it’s opposition leader Tony Abbott who is under the kosh.

On Tuesday Mr Abbott managed to single-handily undermine his party’s attack on the Labor government’s mid-year budget with some ill-chosen words that reignited Australia’s now infamous misogyny debate.

It all started when Treasurer Wayne Swan attempted to explain the government’s decision to cut the baby bonus from A$5,000 to A$3,000 for the second and each subsequent child.

“We believe that these changes to the baby bonus will bring it more into line with the actual costs of having children. After the first child you’ve already bought the cot, the pram and other items you can use again,” he said.

Enter Mr Abbott, a proud father of three girls. He attacked the move on breakfast TV with the following logic:

“[Often] one child is still in the cot when the other one comes along, one child is still in the pram when the second one comes along, so you actually need to get an extra cot or a double-sized pram.”

Fair enough. But rather than stop there, Mr Abbott continued.

“I think if the government was a bit more experienced in this area, they wouldn’t come out with lines like that.”

The comments were immediately seized upon as a perceived reference to the childless (and unmarried) Gillard. Trade minister Craig Emerson was among the first to react:

“It’s curious, isn’t it? And I think Mr Abbott does need to explain what he meant by that statement… If he’s talking about the Treasurer, well he’s got several children. I’ve got several children. So what’s he really on about, to suggest that this Government isn’t experienced at having children and therefore with the costs of children?”

Gillard followed not long after.

“I think Mr Abbott can explain what he meant by that line.”

The answer, according to Abbott was nothing. But it was too late – the damage had been done. A few hours later, Abbott was back on the airwaves apologising for his comment. You can read the full exchange between Abbott and Radio 3AW presenter Neil Mitchell here. From which:

MITCHELL: Ok, were you in any way referring to the Prime Minister’s lack of children?

ABBOTT: Of course not, of course not.

MITCHELL: So, do you apologise to her if she took it that way?

ABBOTT: Oh, please, Neil. I was alluding to my own experience of a double pram for Louise and Frances. If she wants to take offence, of course I’m sorry about that and if she would like me to say sorry, I’m sorry.

MITCHELL: Yeah, well I accept what you’re saying it wasn’t intended but she’s taken it that way, let’s move on.

ABBOTT: Yeah, that’s exactly right.

MITCHELL: It probably wasn’t worded the best.

ABBOTT: Oh, mate, look, I think that a lot of people are very ready to read far too much into entirely innocent comments and this was as innocent as a comment can be…

Abbott, a Rhodes scholar no less, has some previous when it comes to “innocent comments”.

He created another fuss a couple of weeks ago by saying in parliament that the government “should already have died of shame”. Although it’s a line Abbott has used frequently, Labor MPs took it as an echo of the recent comment by shock jock Alan Jones that Gillard’s late father had died of shame for having a lying daughter. Once again Abbott was forced to defend himself:

“I’d completely forgotten about (the Jones saga) of course, but nevertheless. Look I have said time and time again this is a government that has died of shame, that should’ve died of shame years ago….

“It just goes to show how the political correctness police are on a rampage, for anyone even to think there was a problem.”

Maybe he’s right and it is political correctness gone mad. But these quasi Freudian slips are not helping Abbott’s poll ratings. From Monday’s Australian Financial Review:

Prime Minister Julia Gillard has surged to a 10-point lead over Tony Abbott as preferred prime minister following her aggressive claims of misogyny against the Opposition Leader.

Ms Gillard leads Mr Abbott 50 per cent (up 3 points since mid-September) to 40 per cent (down 4 points) as preferred prime minister, her biggest lead over Mr Abbott since February 2011 when Labor announced it would legislate a carbon price.

Now, to be crystal clear, the opposition Liberal Coalition are still on course to win the next election, which must be held by November 2013.

But Mr Abbott is making things a lot closer than they need to be. Labor appeared dead and buried earlier this year, but thanks to these “innocent comments” and Gillard’s sexism tirade, the government now has some hope.