Fiona Scott had a sinking feeling the moment then Liberal leader Tony Abbott opened his mouth and described her as having “a little sex appeal” during the 2013 federal election campaign.
“I was in a bit of shock and I went home and I thought ‘this is going to really hurt tomorrow’,” Scott recalled. And it did. The “sex appeal” label made her life a misery on the campaign trail. “It served to frame me in a way that gave people open slather to talk about my looks,” she told Crikey. Punters threw the word back at her. But that was just the beginning.
After winning her western Sydney seat in the 2013 Abbott-slide and heading to Canberra, Scott found the label had stuck within the party and the parliament. “I was starting a long way back because of predisposed views,” she reflected.
She recalls in particular the time Queensland LNP member Scott Buchholz ruled her out of having a spot on the powerful House of Representatives economics committee because she wasn’t one of “the big boys” who had PhDs and masters in economics, she says.
Scott recall Buchholz seemed unaware that she held an MBA and had a love of economic policy.
Scott lasted one term and was out in the Turnbull election of 2016.
Within a year, still raw from the ordeal, the departed MP spoke candidly of the “sex appeal” episode on Sky News, where she became a commentator. She told the Buchholz story but she cautioned then and now that the Liberal man problem was not the only factor.
The “elite left”, as she calls them, had magnified her problems by creating an altered version of a widely published photo of Abbott standing next to Scott. The makers of the image had given Scott enlarged breasts — “a boob job that would have cost $20,000 if it was real”, she recalls — and had photoshopped Abbott’s head such that he no longer looked at her face but peered deep into her (false) cleavage. The image went crazy. And it hurt Scott deeply.
“What I find objectionable is that this was a photo where a woman was objectified. I didn’t ask to be objectified. My family had to see it. And it was retweeted by people who consider themselves progressives and feminists just to get Tony Abbott,” she told Crikey. Later, she would also have to hear former Labor leader Mark Latham on radio deride her by saying you needed “the beer goggles on” to think Scott had “sex appeal”. The episode has echoes of the campaign trail abuse suffered by South Australia Liberal MP Nicolle Flint, who has decided to quit politics altogether.
The issues confronting the Morrison government, Scott believes, are not confined to the Liberal party. “It’s far broader than that, and the opportunity for parliament is to take the leadership position to guide Australia to the culture and society that we want.”
Fiona Scott’s story represents, at the very least, a clear calling out of sexist behaviour by some sections of the Liberal party in 2017. It is also significant that Scott is prepared to speak about it publicly despite holding a board appointment at the National Film and Sound Archive, courtesy of then Arts Minister Mitch Fifield.
The role comes with a $22,000 annual fee — a relatively low amount compared to some other appointments. Scott acknowledges the perception that the appointment might hold her back from being critical of the government. But she told Crikey that she felt free to speak on the treatment of women and would do so.
Her final verdict? “I don’t want to see a talented generation of women not go into politics because of what they see happen to people like me and Nicolle Flint.”