I was recently sent a review copy of Tony Abbott: A Man’s Man, by Susan Mitchell. As Abbott both fascinates and terrifies me, I was really quite pleased to have the chance to read it. Sadly, I didn’t enjoy it nearly as much as I hoped.
Firstly though, I wanted to defend Mitchell against Mia Freedman, who is angry because she was quoted, accurately, in the book. Let’s be clear: all of Freedman’s explanations about the subsequent meetings she had with Abbott where she “learned” that she was “mistaken” – all of that is outlined in Mitchell’s book, on pages 123-4. The publishers should not have put the quote on the cover in a way that implies a review of the book. But that is not Mitchell’s fault. If Freedman really believes Abbott’s “charming” explanation that he is not really against all the things he has spent his life opposing, then perhaps she should remind herself of Abbott’s “only if it’s in writing” understanding of truth.
However, that clarification aside, there was a lot to be disappointed in. For instance, seeing Gerard Henderson (ctrl F for “HISTORY CORNER”) correct a feminist writer about the difference between RU486 and the morning after pill, is not fun. Mitchell confuses the two twice, the first time on page 3. This is frankly an unforgivable error in a book that is all about a major threat to women’s reproductive rights. There are a number of other errors outlined in Henderson’s list, such as the dates of Gillard’s swearing in as PM, and the claim that Don Randall is a Queenslander (sadly, we Western Australians get to claim him). These small errors are frustrating because none of them have any impact on the main argument of the book, but they allow Abbott’s supporters to call into question the most important information, which is accurate.
Factual errors aside, the most disappointing aspect of the book is the tone it’s written in, which is snarky, but not very funny. I love snark, but I like it when it adds to the point, rather than just repeating it. For instance, on page 45, Mitchell tells how Abbott missed most of* the birth of his daughter because he chose to play football instead – he sent his mother to be with his wife. This is an appalling story, and nothing is added to that with asides such as: “Eventually, at 3:00am, Louise Abbott was born – without much help from her father.” It’s a small complaint, but the book is full of such asides – they add little to the story, and if they annoyed me, a committed Abbott-hater, then I can’t see how they would be helpful in convincing the undecided.
The tone only gets worse in Mitchell’s conclusion. On page 172 she writes: “Even though he is married with three daughters, he freely admits he has been mostly absent from the housework and childrearing. Is it any wonder that he has no understanding of what Australian women, who are more than 50 per cent of the current population, expect or need from a wannabe prime minister of their country?” Julia Gillard has probably also been mostly absent from housework and childrearing. So have I! Does that mean we are not prime minister material? Abbott has been an MP since 1994, and a government minister for much of that time. Despite a popular conception of MPs as lazy, it is a job that requires long, long hours. Of course he hasn’t pulled his weight around the home. What’s relevant is his view that women are less suited to leadership, not how much housework he happens to do. I’m sure, too, that most women wouldn’t put “knows how to vaccuum” at the top of their list of desirable prime ministerial skills.
I really wanted to write a good review of this book. I’m really glad that it came out now, as a hook to remind people of the kind of nation Abbott would like to mould us into. But this was not the book to do it, sadly. As someone who already sympathises with her thesis, I should have found a polemic against him an enjoyable read. More importantly, for it to achieve its stated aims of warning Australian women who don’t follow politics as closely as I do, it shouldn’t induce sympathy for the subject it seeks to attack. Abbott is a conviction politician, no matter how angry certain commenters may be when I say that. He wants power, yes, and he is ruthless in his pursuit of it. But he wants power for a reason, not just for its own sake. I just hope that the debate this book sparked gets people talking about what those reasons are.