O'Brien's aims for the interview were the same as usual; a light tenderising, and promise of brutalities to come.
The new Liberal leader's aims were rather more specialised; to begin the task of discarding the Abbott stereotypes of the past, to lay down some sensible, unexceptionable-sounding policy basics, to avoid getting into strife, and most definitely to not say anything that might annoy or startle female voters.
Oh, she's good. She's good the way Jon Stewart is so often good, nailing her target through ventriloquy, implying that for Abbott and his team it's a matter of 'annoy or startle', as though women were high-strung (oh all right, irritatingly neurotic) brood mares who needed to be tricked and soothed into their proper place and function in the world. O'Brien gave him an opportunity to 'annoy or startle', too:
Kerry tried again.
"One voting demographic where the Liberal Party suffers badly is women, particularly younger women. Coming back to that hardline image of yours, you're not exactly a pin-up boy, are you, as a political leader?"
"That might be the case," grinned the Liberal leader. "Notwithstanding the photos of last weekend."
Cue despair and garment-rending in the Abbott control tower, where all involved thought it had been made perfectly clear that no voluntary mention was to be made of last Sunday's shots of the new Liberal leader wearing a tantalisingly brief swimming costume, a slightly foolish hat and what looked like about ten ferrets' worth of torso hair.
But their man brought matters under control by supplying an important piece of context.
"Speedos are compulsory if you're in the club swim at Queenscliff."
And what a very interesting segue we have right there. First Abbott spins a serious question (and a very serious ballot-box issue) about his unpopularity with women: he fudges on about how he's not going to change his views (the Goddess help us all) before, in response to O'Brien's 'pin-up boy' line, making the stupid crack (I'm sorry, I would have liked to have put that another way) about the Speedo photos.
Got that? Women's attitude to Abbott is suddenly somehow all about Tone's Body, to the unseemly exposure of which he has seen fit to draw further attention. And then we move on to the next topic. As commenter Emmie remarks at that ABC site:
I thought Abbott's reference to the budgie smugglers was quite deliberate, as if making a joke of it was the best way to put the story to bed (it would be awful if it gained the same momentum as Alexander Downer's fishnets, after all). But as a woman, I was insulted by the fact that he pushed that line, when O'Brien had asked a fairly serious question about TA's lack of appeal to women voters - which, you might note, was never answered.
Nor has it, that I can find, been seriously addressed anywhere else. Tony Wright, 'The Goanna', went down the smirk road about 'the sterner women in the political firmament'. The notoriously reactionary Miranda Devine was using the growing volume of muttering about Abbott and women to launch yet another badly argued attack on that perennially unidentified rabble, 'the feminists'.
And post-spill discussion threads at the large left-leaning blog Larvatus Prodeo, if they mentioned the 51% of voters who are women and the implications this might have for Abbott and the Coalition at all, mentioned it only in passing. Most of the readers and commenters there are young and/or progressive and/or educated and/or enlightened men who mostly abominate Abbott, but little awareness appears in those discussions of the concrete, material, immediate nature of women's concerns and only a very few commenters made it clear that women's chief objection to Abbott is the unashamed way he has attempted in the past to enforce his own religious views on their -- our -- reproductive freedom, and no doubt will again. (That remark in the O'Brien interview about how he's not going to pull the wool over women's eyes was a warning shot across the bows, in case any of you didn't recognise it.)
It's not that the men discussing Abbott's electability in the MSM and at the blogs are necessarily opposed to women's rights. Some of them actively support them. They are not deliberately attempting to stifle or ignore. It's that they simply do not see women in conversations like this, when it is so much more fun to talk about tax and carbon credits, and likewise do not see the implications for the women's vote.
And while these things should not be sidelined as 'women's issues', the sad truth is that they are, even by the men one might generally regard as on side. And given the rarefied yet brutal world of federal politics, where Tony Abbott had successfully wielded enormous power at the highest national level within hours of being voted in as leader -- of the Opposition, mind you -- women need to stay focused on the realities of what he might do and how soon he might do it.
Most Australian women are too young to remember what life was like when abortion was illegal, divorce was a protracted and vicious nightmare of compulsory demonisation, you couldn't get a prescription for the Pill unless you were married, and keeping your own surname after marriage was rendered bureaucratically impossible by -- to take a random sample from personal experience -- the taxation department, the university and the pre-Medicare health insurance people, none of whom had the sorts of forms that would allow for it.
Those young-to-youngish women, more than anyone else, need to not drop this ball, because unless you're very careful you might find out what life was like back then. You and your daughters are the ones who would suffer most if a head-kicking conservative Catholic were ever to become Prime Minister.
What Australian women need to understand about the ascent of Abbott is that all this other stuff about Speedos and personalities and icky feminists is, compared to the real thing, smoke. The real thing, the thing that must be recognised and fought every inch of the way, is nothing less than an assault by stealth on your own body. It is not about annoyance or startlement. It is not about the ten-ferret pelt and the displays thereof. It is not about behaving like a bully-boy and standover merchant, which is the main thing that women disliked and distrusted about Mark Latham. It is not about a willingness to do anything that will disrupt or demean any woman standing up to him ... or even any woman standing up with him, as Julie Bishop discovered immediately after he became her new leader when he gave her a cuddle and a pat for the cameras and called her a 'loyal girl'. (And many thanks to the lovely Zoe for that last link.)
No, the real, crucial, immediately dangerous area for Australian women is the place where biology meets the budget or the law. No matter what fluff or snark you read in the Op Ed pages, what coy, snide, smarmy or foam-flecked references to the skittishness of easily-startled women or the hatefulness of not-easily-startled women, it's not about the mysteries of the female vote; it's not about Abbott's personality; it's not about anyone's behaviour; it's not, for the moment, about whether something is or is not perceived to be a 'women's issue'; it's not even -- again for the moment -- about the way this brand of conservatism seeks to diminish and control the place of women in society.
Here and now, in the immediate future, it's about that stick you pee on and what colour it turns. It's about the red dot on the calendar and how worried you are about it. It's about the condoms that have passed their use-by date unnoticed, or the contraceptive drugs that are not quite 100% effective. It's about stuff that every girl and woman of childbearing age has to think about, today and tomorrow and next week and the week and month and year after that. At 56 I am thankfully beyond being personally affected in this daily way, but I had my share, and I fear for women younger than I am, the shiny new fabric of whose post-feminist personal freedom may soon be put under unbearable strain.
It's about bodies, medical procedures, drugs, laws and money: Gardasil, RU486, abortion, IVF, stem cell research, no-fault divorce, access to health services without being nagged by fundies, and whether you, as a woman, want to choose between living a life of celibacy and taking the chance (and if you think this is unlikely, look around you) of various worst-case scenarios: living below the poverty line; looking after at least one unintentionally conceived child by yourself until the kid is 18 and probably much longer than that; forgoing any proper career in work that you love, any decent income, any role in public life, any power at all. It's about your own daily life-in-the-body: its dignity and its freedom.