“What is it with Tony Abbott and brick walls,” quipped (if that’s not overstating it) Wayne Swan yesterday to caucus, alluding to the claims that 35 years ago Abbott punched a wall next to a young woman in the aftermath of losing a student election.

We know Swan made the comment because it was pointedly reported to the press gallery by the caucus spokesperson in the post-caucus briefing.

Several times in question time Swan accused Abbott of “going the biff” and called him a “thug”, which didn’t pass Parliamentary standards and had to be withdrawn. Another new offering was “aggressive negativity”.

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Seeing a pattern here? There’ll be more of this language from Labor — a lot more, emphasising Abbott’s aggression.

People within the government genuinely think Tony Abbott and many in the Coalition have a problem with women. They leap on every single piece of evidence that might support it, however tangential, even complaining when Christopher Pyne refers to the Prime Minister as “she” in question time, demanding he use her title. It has frustrated them that the media has, they believe, failed to focus on s-xism from the Coalition.

And Abbott does have an electoral problem with women. His already-low voter approval is consistently lower among women than men.

That’s why Labor is keen to play up his aggression. It reinforces negative perceptions that female voters already have about Abbott based on his stint as health minister, his language (particularly to Nicola Roxon during the 2007 election, which was a shocker for Abbott), his Catholicism, his physicality (the now-abandoned Speedos).

That’s why the stuff from 35 years ago is manna from heaven for them — it reinforces the Abbott stereotype. And Labor is going to pile the pressure on Abbott. They can sense a break in the electoral weather, a respite from the ordeal they entered in February 2011 when they signed up for a carbon price. And they know doubts about Abbott’s political gifts beyond the negative slogans are spreading, even in Coalition minds. A few points’ slippage in the polls, and the mutterings about Malcolm, or perhaps Joe, will start. Hockey is a more substantial figure (no pun intended) now than he was in November 2009.

The Coalition’s handling of the vicious smears of Julia Gillard over the Slater and Gordon business from The Australian leave Abbott vulnerable on the student-era stuff. They never pursued it in Parliament — probably couldn’t under standing orders anyway — but initially said the PM had “questions to answer”. Indeed, one of the (many) questions on which Abbott got into difficulty in that fateful 7.30 interview was what exactly those questions were.

Thus Anthony Albanese was quick to claim that Abbott had to explain himself on Monday. It was a fair cop.

But Gillard shouldn’t have had to explain herself about non-allegations about non-political matters from before her time in Parliament, and Abbott doubly shouldn’t have to explain himself for events in his distant past. What kind of people are we going to attract into public life if something you did at uni can be held against you permanently, to be dredged up as though relevant to the sort of person you are in your 50s?

The excuse for dredging up Abbott’s distant past is that it’s supposed to be relevant to his current views on women. In fact there’s considerable evidence that Abbott, who does seem to have once harboured views on women straight from the 12th century, has undergone a significant change, best exemplified by his dramatically-changed position on paid parental leave, on which he now advocates a vastly more generous scheme than the government. And he’s likely also to have learnt from the example of John Howard, that a leader has to leave behind some personal views if they’re going to lead effectively, and doubly so if they’re prime minister.

Politicians with long careers are allowed to change their views. In fact, it is good that they do. It reflects maturation, life experience and the gaining of wisdom. On this score, Abbott isn’t getting the benefit of the doubt from voters, and particularly female voters. But from the government’s perspective, given he gets away with so much else, it’s hardly unfair that he struggles on this.

And they intend to make sure he does.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief
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