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Feminists should speak up about Credlin, and the creeps should close their mouths

The publication this week of claims about Peta Credlin's alleged sexual hold on Tony Abbott has put both feminists and conservatives in a thoroughly confusing position.

 The feminists of Australia have been struck uncharacteristically mute this week.

You could blame the distraction of International Women's Day, except that it would have actually served as a perfect platform from which to denounce the sexist slavering over Tony Abbott's former chief of staff, Peta Credlin.

This is a 'critical part of Australian political history': Savva

Political commentator Niki Savva discusses her new book The Road to Ruin, How Tony Abbott and Peta Credlin destroyed their own government on the ABC's Insiders program. Vision courtesy ABC News 24.

The publication this week of Niki Savva's book The Road to Ruin, about the possibly sexual and certainly over-intimate (she argues) relationship between Abbott and Credlin, has put both feminists and conservatives in a thoroughly confusing position.

Conservatives, unaccustomed to "playing the gender card", as it was put during the Julia Gillard years, have claimed Credlin is the victim of disgracefully sexist attacks from people who cannot countenance women in power.

Illustration: Glen Le Lievre
Illustration: Glen Le Lievre 

We've even had Alan Jones on television declaring himself a feminist (Alan and I have a complex history but I welcome him to our club. I hope he's ready for the hazing rituals).

Feminists, on the other hand, cannot embrace Credlin, nor defend her.

They nurture dark memories from the Julia Gillard years and the attacks Gillard withstood from Credlin's boss, the "Ditch the Witch" signs, the "make an honest woman of herself" quips and the charge that Gillard, in calling out the tide of misogyny that nearly drowned her, was somehow playing the little lady-victim.

Credlin stood right behind Abbott as he led this campaign, and both of them knew exactly what they were doing.

The sexist slavering over Peta Credlin, former chief of staff to Tony Abbott, has left feminists confused.
The sexist slavering over Peta Credlin, former chief of staff to Tony Abbott, has left feminists confused. Photo: Andrew Meares

So it is hard not to raise an eyebrow when Credlin puts in a late bid for femmo-Joan of Arc status by arguing, as she did last year, that "if a guy I wouldn't be bossy, I would be strong … I wouldn't be a micromanager, I would be across my brief".

Ditto when Tony Abbott, whose self-appointment as minister for women caused the nation to snort its tea out its nostrils, claimed Credlin wouldn't attract so much criticism if she was Peter and not Peta.

It's a sort of reverse-Boy Who Cried Wolf scenario.

You don't get to lead sexist attacks against a powerful woman and then declare yourself the victim of sexist attacks because you're a powerful woman.

You don't get to lead sexist attacks against a powerful woman and then declare yourself the victim of sexist attacks because you're a powerful woman.

You don't get to ignore feminism as a conservative only to claim the cause when it suits you.

Underlying this uneasy sense of hypocrisy is the unspoken but heavily implied suspicion that Credlin is not the kind of woman other women like very much.

And yet, isn't there something more than a little mouth-breathingly creepy about all the Credlin conjecture?

The wondering over the exact nature of the relationship she and her prime minister enjoyed?

All that talk of her imposing figure, her leonine mane?

As Savva explores in her book, Canberra had long gossiped about an Abbott/Credlin affair, and here, finally, we were able to talk about it openly rather than making schoolboy-snickering jokes about behind our hands.

Both Credlin and Abbott deny they ever had an affair, but that hardly matters now.

As Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells reportedly told Abbott, it was the perception, and politics is about perceptions.

Call it a failure of the imagination, but it still seems we can only understand a woman's power over a man in terms of sex.

We no longer make her wear a scarlet "A" on her bodice, but the Other Woman still holds an especially shameful place in the collective unconscious.

She is called a home-wrecker – not a term that is ever applied to a man who has an affair with a married woman.

The spite directed at her is often so great it eclipses the moral culpability of the man in the middle.

What we have seen with the unpicking of the Credlin/Abbott relationship is this dynamic extended to a political context.

The former prime minister, so beholden to his Amazonian chief of staff, the Wallis Simpson over whom he lost his reason, is somehow exculpated from the enormously bad decision-making which characterised his tenure.

It's easy to see why the kinds of women who attended IWD lunches, the same women who admire Hillary Clinton and cheered at Julia Gillard's misogyny speech, did not jump to Credlin's defence this week.

But feminism will ultimately be weakened if its supporters adhere to simple left/right divisions.

It is one of the great progressive movements of history, and it should cross political lines.

***

There is much chatter about the possibility of a July election, which would necessitate the budget being pulled forward by a week or so.

This would be highly inconvenient for many media outlets, for who budget coverage is a grand logistical challenge involving the shipping of many journalists to Canberra, and the feeding and watering of them.

For the rest of the population it is less life-altering.

We make an enormous fuss over budgets, as is proper, because the way a nation spends its money is reflective of how truly it keeps to the values it claims to hold.

But it is easy to forget, in the reams of coverage, that so much of each annual budget ends up getting quietly chucked off the boat as a government takes on water and is refused by the Senate.

Have you heard anything lately about the 2015 budget's changes to higher education? The de-regulation of university fees and the 20 per cent cut to university funding? Me neither, even though both remain official government policy.

What about Joe Hockey's plan to end "double-dipping" of maternity leave, that awful scam whereby new mothers legally claimed their entitlements so they could draw an income while recovering from the extreme physical trauma of labour as they simultaneously nurtured new life?

That seems also to have been quietly strangled, unmourned.

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