Federal Politics


Bill Shorten wants Frances Abbott, Margie Abbott left out of politics

When Opposition Leader Bill Shorten addressed caucus on Tuesday, he encouraged MPs to keep up their counter-budgetism campaign and try and make some new recruits to the ALP while they were at it. But with the weekend’s papers full of Tim Mathieson’s bizarro rant about Margie Abbott and questions about Frances Abbott’s scholarship to a design college, the Labor leader didn’t restrict his pep talk to the GP co-payment and pensions.

"It goes without saying that families should be off limits [in politics]," he said. "I acknowledge that everyone in this room has already been keeping to this principle."

Shorten was so appalled when news broke last week of Frances’ $60,000 Whitehouse Institute of Design scholarship – and the resulting questions about why she had been awarded the prize – that he rang Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s chief-of-staff Peta Credlin to apprise her of his view (and assure her the story did not come from Labor).

The story doesn't exactly hurt the opposition, but it is in no politician's interest to bring families into the battle. It is the closest thing politics has to mutually assured destruction.  While MPs are rhino skinned by definition, they are understandably hyper-sensitive about what happens to their relations who do not have the honour of being elected and therefore being fair game.

Unfortunately for Frances, it doesn't matter what Labor thinks on this one.

The story of her "discretionary" scholarship neatly comes as higher fees loom for the tertiary education sector. So her super subsidised expensive Whitehouse education provides a powerful rallying point for opposition to reforms. On Wednesday, she could not go to work at the institute’s Melbourne campus (where she is a teacher’s aide) because of a rowdy student protest, complete with police, outside.


Less easy to understand this week was Mathieson’s attack on Margie, in which he said he was "disappointed" she is not doing any charity work.

Firstly, because Margie Abbott does do charity work (as the PM’s office was at pains to point out in response). Secondly, because Mathieson’s good works with Men’s Sheds notwithstanding, it’s not as if he was the most visible of prime ministerial spouses. And thirdly, because there is actually no job description for the role.

Australians have typically been relaxed about this. If someone wants to be very active and involved like Hazel Hawke, that’s great. If they want to be more behind-the-scenes like Janette Howard, that’s also fine. Again, the prime ministerial spouse does not get elected. And candidates do not campaign on a "package deal" basis as they do in the US.

There is also an appreciation that spouses have already given a lot of lot of their lives to politics anyway, on the long run to The Lodge/Kirribilli House. The requirement that they then have to vouch for a heap of charities to justify their existence seems as uncreative as it is unjust.

So Mathieson's comments only made one person look silly (and it wasn't Margie). And provide another excellent argument as to why MPs' families should be kept out of the political fray: they are not the professionals and when they weigh in, it shows.

While we are in business of excising things from the political playing field, I wonder if we could add politicians' university careers as well?

Given many MPs (minus Dio Wang) are interested in politics long before they enter Parliament, it follows that many of them take an active part in the jungle training ground that is student politics. This week, we had hard evidence of this, when a video surfaced of a baby Joe Hockey protesting against a $250 university administration fee in 1987.

As an eerily similar sounding 22-year-old Hockey said in the vintage Channel Nine report: "We will continue to go out onto the streets and to protest, and actively encourage the public to support us in our campaign for free education."

It has of course produced much hilarity because it is hilarious. 

However, as Farirfax columnist Waleed Aly pointed out on Friday, the clip doesn’t make Hockey a hypocrite. It just means his opinions have evolved.  We can hardly ping Hockey the younger for not leaving wiggle room lest he wanted to deregulate university fees as Treasurer three decades later. 

Modern politics has enough to worry about tracking the current inconsistencies in what MPs say without holding them accountable for their comments before they graduated.

More importantly, from a broader karmic viewpoint, it is in everyone’s interest that what we do at university is not legitimately recycled in our later careers.  No one is without vulnerability here – personally, I would be horrified if the review I once wrote of the university toilets ever saw the light of day.

It gets back to the idea of mutually assured destruction. And is better left well alone.

Judith Ireland is a Fairfax Media journalist.