Tony Abbott – Not Just a Daggy Dad

18 / 10 / 2013

Tanja Kovac‘s last piece  exploring the narrative of women in leadership (in particular Julia Gillard) generated a lot of interest. In this follow up piece, as a regular Sheilas contributor, Tanja examines the concept of adopting traditional leadership narratives to gain political advantage, this time looking at new Prime Minister Tony Abbott.

By Tanja Kovac

When Tony Abbott sought to explain why he emphasised the sex appeal of the future member for Lindsay, Fiona Scott MP, he put his comments down to a “a daggy, dad moment.”

“Daggy dad” worked to soften the media’s reaction to what had been an unscripted and problematic misstep during the federal election campaign. It liberated Abbott from the condemnation of feminists, providing a harmless escape from responsibility for his sex appeal comment. After all, “daggy dads” did not mean to cause offense, but were forgivably unaware of being out of step with modern Australia.

Daggy dads abound in Australian culture. Actor Ray Meagher has played a daggy dad, Alf Stewart, for 26 years in popular drama Home and Away.  The narrative structure of House Husbands is fixed on a group of daggy dads struggling to unite to their feminine side. But the daggiest dad of them all was Martin Kelly, the father in the long running Australian sitcom, Hey Dad. Overtime, we have come to realise that behind Robert Hughes TV persona lurked something more sinister.

Abbott has confessed to limitations as a father. In his book Battlelines, he admitted that he was mostly absent from the home due to parliamentary duties, leaving Margie to bring up the girls alone. When first confronted with the prospect of fatherhood as a young man, Abbott turned his back on the woman claiming to be bearing his child. Abbott’s use of the father motif is not a genuine alignment with parental responsibility, but a considered political communication device to ensure voters connect to his leadership.

The Strict Father Figure Archetype

For Tony Abbott the importance of representing himself as a father figure, albeit one harmlessly out of touch with modern Australia, is essential to his political narrative. It would be wrong to think that the strategic positioning of Abbott as father to the nation began only in the hours after former Prime Minister’s Misogyny Speech, when Margie and his three daughters were wheeled into the spotlight to counter claims that he had a problem with women.  The position of Abbott as pater familias had begun much earlier.

In making a name for himself as a new MP in the hot bed of competitiveness that is the House of Representatives, Abbott positioned himself as a leader in policy areas connected to patriarchal control over women’s bodies. Regularly, he would use his role as a father to explain his positions.

When Abbott sought to explain his views about abortion, he did so by talking about the abstinence of his daughters, “ [their virginity] is the greatest gift that you can give someone, the ultimate gift of giving and don’t give it to someone lightly, that’s what I would say.” When, as health minister, he described his reasoning for preventing cervical cancer drug Gardasil from being listed on the PBS, he said “I will not be rushing out to get my daughters vaccinated, maybe that’s because I’m a cruel, callow, callous, heartless bastard”

Abbott as policy maker is a strict father protector of the chastity of (his) girls.

From 2010, Abbott expanded the father as policy framework to become a visual and rhetorical counterpoint to Julia Gillard’s marital status and lack of children.

But it was more than this too.

Using the deep cognitive and linguistic frames that surround the understanding of the term “father” in the electorate, Abbott helped the conservatives regroup after the loss of the elections in 2007 and 2010. The “strict father figure” provided a structure in which conservatives could sell their message to voters in a simple, universally understood way.

Professor George Lakoff, in his books Don’t Think of an Elephant and Thinking Points, explains that conservative policy making and political communication is underpinned by a public appeal to governing within the framework of a “strict father”. Hierarchical decision making, tough love and fiscal discipline – each of these conservative political agendas emanate from a framework of traditional, gendered parenting.

Lakoff argues that when policies are packaged in accordance with these deeply held metaphors about parenting, voters who share universal knowledge of the “strict father figure” archetype respond with recognition and approval.

Whenever Abbott portrays himself as a father, he is appealing to the electorate to recognise him as head of the household (the strict, authoritarian policy maker) whose job as breadwinner (economic manager) is to protect the Australian family from evil (insert asylum seekers, unionists and climate change scientists)

Challenging the frame of the father figure is not easy. It will be important for newly elected labor leader, Bill Shorten, also a dad, to present himself as a progressive father, with an evolved sense of shared parenting between men and women. His decision to have Tanya Plibersek – a “yummy mummy” with widespread public appeal – shows that Shorten is live to this issue.

But Abbott doesn’t just rely on the father archetype to gain legitimacy as a leader.

Tony Abbott

Prime Minister Tony Abbott*

The Athlete

It is hard not to think of Tony Abbott without conjuring up the image of a hairy chested man, emerging from a gruelling sea swim, adorned only in budgie smugglers. While former Prime Minister John Howard was a sporting tragic during his time in office, he was only ever a fan. Howard had no sports skills of his own to speak of.

In contrast, Abbott uses sport as a highly active and competitive participant. Abbott is a swimmer, an ironman frequently in need of his speedos. Abbott is a cyclist, the pollie pedaller who has raised millions of dollars for charitable causes (some of which we have recently learnt have been supported by the taxpayer). Abbott is the Rugby League hardman who notoriously beat the daylights out of Joe Hockey on the football pitch. And Abbot is the Rhodes Scholar turned boxer, trouncing Cambridge lightweights to the floor in the name of Oxford.

The athlete is an archetype driven by the pursuit of physical perfection, competition and winning. Abbott’s conscious alignment to this motif serves to remind the community of his fitness for office. The morning after the 2013 election, the first image was of him lacing up his cycling shoes, ready to take on another, gruelling physical challenge. Sport provides Abbott with a narrative about the rewards for disciplined control over performance.

The athlete archetype also serves to remind voters of Abbott’s virility. The member of the Member for Warringah has been a regular part of Abbott idolatry. Skin tight swimming trunks have been out of fashion for many years. Not even a daggy dads would be seen dead in them. But that hasn’t stopped Abbott showing off his physique. The manifestation of the macho-man myth is designed to appeal as much to women as to men.

Abbott is not alone as a leader of the free world in using athleticism as political leverage. Barack Obama is often seen shooting hoops and George Bush Jnr before him was more often on the golf course than the oval office. Ben Pobjie has written a piece about Abbott and Vladimir Putin, in which the comparisons between our new PM and the Russian President are both amusing and alarming.

The athlete archetype has its risks physical prowess, the pursuit of skill and ability and winning at all costs comes often comes at the expense of balance and integrity. Just ask Lance Armstrong.

Integrity is essential to the Australian understanding of the good sport. Like the Good Samaritan, the good sport is a parable of virtue, a person equally gracious in victory and defeat, who respects the rules of fair play for the benefit of the game.

Sport is Australia’s national religion and there is nothing more unpalatable to the Australian faith than a bad sport. Australian’s turn quickly on sports heroes who spit the dummy when they lose, refuse to shake hands with their opponent or argue with the umpire. More sinister versions of the bad sport, such as using performance enhancing drugs or match fixing can cut down a tall poppy forever. Witness James Hird, Trevor Chappell’s notorious underarm bowling incident of 1981 and the petulant behaviour of Lleyton Hewitt.

To challenge Abbott is to expose him when he is unsportsmanlike and to use the framework of fair play to hold him to account. Having positioned himself as an athlete, those wishing to challenge Abbott will need to highlight when he engages in foul play.


The Priest

The other archetype that Abbott aligns himself with is the devout, reflective priest. During his time in parliament, he has produced a prodigious number of writings examining the alignment between the Christian and the conservative tradition. It is clear that he considers himself a moral philosopher. Battlelines, is as much a spiritual as political manifesto.

Abbott delivers speeches like sermons, regularly referencing God or quoting from the Bible. His most heavy handed use of religious metaphor is in the under-reported speech he made to the Institute of Public Affairs 70th Anniversary Dinner earlier this year. Abbott celebrates the moral values that underpin the IPA’s work, the speech is also a deep insight into just how fundamental faith is to Abbott’s politics.

“In the Garden of Eden that Adam and Eve could do almost as they pleased but freedom turned out to have its limits and its abuses, as this foundational story makes only too clear. Yet without freedom we can hardly be human; hardly be worthy of creation in the image of God.”

For anyone trying to come to grips with what the next three years is likely to look like, this speech is an honest insight into the new Prime Minister, the values that drive him and the individuals and organisations whom he serves.

Abbott has endured ridicule from time to time for his faith. But the derogatory use of the term Mad Monk and Captain Catholic has failed to damage the public’s trust in Abbott as the priest archetype. He has been deft at using the metaphor of sacrament (the repeated policy rites of Stop the Boats, Cut the Waste and Remove the Tax), confession (his 60Minutes Interviews with Liz Hayes) and contrition (as on display during his recent trip to Jakarta).

Abbott as priest wins the public’s trust, not with love and humility but with Old Testament fire and brimstone. Challenging the Abbott priest would require meeting him as a spiritual equal, someone schooled in the religious teachings of the Catholic faith, who can convincingly articulate the compassion at the heart of Jesus’ teachings.

Abbott faces a risk of his dogmas and moral superiority being exposed as a lie. The Royal Commission into Church Sexual Abuse will run throughout the Abbott Prime Ministership. How he handles revelations that people connected to him through the Catholic Church turned a blind eye to the abuse of children will be an enormous challenge for him both personally and professionally.

Abbott is a formidable image crafter, creating a complex montage of personas from dad, athlete and priest. These archetypes share something in common – an estrangement from the feminine. The strict father, by definition, rejects the nurturing of the mother, the athlete knows only competitors of the same gender and the priest enjoys loving relationships with a Holy Father.  In the shadow aspect of each archetype – its dark absence of a woman principle – rests Abbott’s greatest weakness.

*Image from David Jackmanson on Flickr  under the creative commons license

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