The moment seems perfect: noted smuggler of budgies Tony Abbott parading the latest swimwear designs endorsed by a prominent member of a community he has just insulted. So will the Opposition leader accept the invitation?

Melbourne-based swimwear designer Funky Trunks will parade its latest designs at a launch on March 30, with special guest Olympic diving gold medallist Matthew Mitcham. Event organisers sent an invitation to Abbott on Monday night but are yet to receive a response.

Mitcham — who has become a popular and positive role model for young gays after spectacularly winning gold in Beijing — didn’t invite Abbott personally but PR rep David Lyle told Crikey he’s “expressed a desire to meet Tony”.

Abbott has some fence-mending to do. Questioned by 60 Minutes reporter Liz Hayes on his thoughts around homosexuality, the devout Catholic provided a moment of Sunday night television typically awkward when it comes to him dealing with minorities and social inclusion. In transcript:

LIZ HAYES: Homosexuality? How do you feel about that?
TONY ABBOTT: I’d probably I feel a bit threatened …
LIZ HAYES: I’m not asking if it’s a personal choice of yours.
TONY ABBOTT: …as so many people.
LIZ HAYES: When you say ‘threatened’…?
TONY ABBOTT: Again, Liz, look, it’s a fact of life and I try to treat people as people and not put them in pigeonholes.

By Monday night Abbott was back-pedalling on the ABC’s Lateline, but in speaking to Leigh Sales seemed to make matters even worse:

LEIGH SALES: Were you making a joke that you feel threatened that men hit onto you, or that you feel that traditional families are threatened? What was ‘threatened’ referring to?
TONY ABBOTT: Well, there is no doubt that it challenges, if you like, orthodox notions of the right order of things, but as I also said on the program, it happens, it’s a fact of life and we have to treat people as we find them.

Mitcham’s agent says the star athlete doesn’t want to get into the controversy around Abbott’s latest comments. But he’s been roundly criticised by gay groups and other commentators — even usual ally Andrew Bolt — for revealing he suffers from the very definition of homophobia.

The message from gays was simple: there’s nothing to be afraid of. The PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians And Gays) group spoke for most: “As a hopeful leader of this country he should be promoting understanding and accepting, not feeding the fear-mongers who oppress this minority group by continuing the belief that our sons and daughters are second-rate and to be feared,” spokeswoman Shelley Argent told the Sydney Star Observer.

It’s worth noting Abbott has said the right things in the past. In 2008 he admitted “the love and commitment between two people of the same s-x can be as strong as that between husband and wife” — even though they should be denied marriage. “Regardless of whom it’s between, a sexual relationship should be characterised by trust, honesty, maturity and commitment,” he said.

Funky Trucks — officially endorsed by Mitcham, with fabrics that “undergo weeks of testing in harsh chemicals to ensure maximum durability…” — certainly sound like they’re up to the task for the life-saving Opposition leader. Abbott’s spokespeople, however, didn’t respond to questions on whether Abbott will join Mitcham at the launch later this month. What do you think?

10-03-2010 11-27-50 AM