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Abbott's sex appeal slip-up is a really bad look

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Karen Pickering

For the last year or so, it's been pretty clear that the strategy of Tony Abbott's minders has been a smart one: only let him out on a bicycle and don't let him speak into a microphone.

It's apparently been 1094 days since he was on the national broadcaster's flagship political discussion program, Q&A, and given his form, it's not hard to see why his senior advisers just won't allow it.

On Monday, he told a gathering of the Liberal Party faithful that no one could be the suppository of all knowledge, reinventing the concept of making an arse of yourself. But we all make mistakes, right? Some of us just do it repeatedly and with prejudice.

On Tuesday, he was campaigning for Fiona Scott in her bid to become the next representative for the electorate of Lindsay in Sydney. Comparing her with the last Liberal MP, Jackie Kelly, he said: “They're young, feisty, I think I can probably say have a bit of sex appeal, and they're just very connected with the local area.”

So let me get this straight. Two female, Liberal candidates are to be judged on their "sex appeal" by the party leader (who feels he can "probably" say so), and patronised with the "feisty" label usually reserved for women, children and the elderly. But it's OK, because they're "very connected with the local area"?

Well, thank goodness. I'm sure their sex appeal and feistiness is just what the seat of Lindsay needs to get schools funded properly, the health care system reformed and the needs of the electorate represented in Parliament.

What we see here, depressingly, is that sexism persists as a feature of our political landscape, and whether it's well-meaning, careless or an attempt to flatter, it still limits and undermines women in much the same way as misogynistic abuse.

Reducing women to their gender is the problem here, and it diminishes us all.

I feel sorry for Fiona Scott and Jackie Kelly, because even their own party doesn't respect their skills and talents, and just as Julia Gillard discovered, their achievements will always be measured differently, and references to their appearance will be a constant reminder to them that they don't fully “belong” in power.

Recently, I hosted a forum on leadership that invited a few hundred young women to meet other, powerful women in public life, including Penny Williams, Australia's Global Ambassador for Women and Girls and Mary Burce Warlick, US Consul-General to Australia, politicians Kelly O'Dwyer and Sarah Hanson-Young, as well as cultural leaders like Stella Young, Samah Hadid, Jamila Rizvi and Susan Carland.

I asked the panel whether they thought our then prime minister Julia Gillard was disparaged because of her gender. All except O'Dwyer agreed that she was subjected to a special kind of gendered abuse. More interestingly, I asked the audience if they felt Gillard had been victimised for being a woman. Nodding. Then I asked them if Gillard's treatment would deter them from running for public office. Furious nodding.

So hundreds of young women and girls, interested in leadership, were emphatic about the lesson they learned from the Gillard prime ministership. They had got the message loud and clear – you will be attacked (or valued) on the basis of your looks, not on your performance.

I'm sure these future leaders will improve and enrich our society in other ways, but if they won't go into Parliament, that's a price we all pay in terms of lost opportunities to change our political sphere for the better.

And with all that has taken place since, is it any wonder they don't want to take the risk?

Karen Pickering is a freelance writer.

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