It's no secret that Australian politics is overwhelmingly masculine. Yet conceptions of political masculine identity have differed based on party lines. Labor prime minister Bob Hawke portrayed himself as an Aussie larrikin, while his predecessor Paul Keating presented a particularly aggressive persona in parliament to establish his authority as a leader. Liberal prime ministers John Howard and Tony Abbott capitalised on the prevailing mood of the post-9/11 era by channeling a strong fatherly protector role that promised to keep Australians safe while tacitly reinforcing feelings of fear and uncertainty.
In recent years, leaders are expected to balance masculine hardness with compassion and empathy or, like Abbott, risk being seen as too aggressive and hyper-masculine. We are now in the fourth week of the election campaign and we can already see the differences in the masculine performances of Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese.
Since his ascension to the prime ministerial role in 2018, Morrison has carefully cultivated his image as the suburban "daggy dad" - the likable but ordinary, blokey neighbour. Like Abbott and Howard, Morrison displays a form of protective masculinity, that is, a leadership style based on a traditional view of the nuclear family in which it was the male head of household's responsibility to both provide for and protect the family from harm.
Patriarchs like Morrison claim to provide financial and physical protection to citizens, albeit in exchange for their subordination to the leaders' masculine authority, further upholding patriarchal norms. Using staged photographs that show him building a chicken coop and a cubby house for his daughters or wearing boardshorts and thongs while working from home, while also making casual mention of "Jenny and the girls" during press conferences, he has polished an "everyman" character balancing blokiness with compassion (at least for his family). This caricature is a perfect fusion of blue-collar larrikinism, suburban conservativism, and a traditional paterfamilias.
This seems a sound strategy and it played a key role in his 2019 election victory, but this persona brings certain responsibilities that Morrison has failed to meet. As a daggy dad prime minister, he is supposed to protect Australians from harm and keep us safe, yet he bounced off to Hawaii for a family holiday while Australia burned during the worst bushfires on record and, when he finally returned, he made it clear that he "did not hold a hose".
Likewise, he failed to protect Australians during the 2022 eastern Australia floods - the worst in half a millennium - by taking almost two weeks to declare a state of emergency or send relief. Though he managed to keep Australia safe during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic (largely resting on the hard work of the state premiers), he dropped the ball with the vaccine "strollout" and advocated to let it rip when Omicron hit, resulting in over 7000 deaths to date and millions more infections.
In line with the patriarchal foundations of this persona, the daggy dad must also keep women safe. Yet Morrison's handling of the numerous sexual assault and harassment allegations that spilled forth from Parliament House last year revealed his general indifference regarding women's safety. This all makes sense, however, when you consider Katharine Murphy's enlightening point that Morrison "speaks almost exclusively to one cohort of voters: men at risk of voting Labor." Likewise, his masculine performance is not one aimed at women, but the swinging male voter.
Albanese's masculinity directly contrasts with Morrison's daggy dad image - it's a softer, more caring image that appeals to the female rather than male gaze. I identify this masculine persona, embodied by Albanese as well as some current Labor premiers, as that of the "State Daddy". This label first arose on social media during the 2021 lockdowns, primarily directed at Victorian Premier Dan Andrews and Western Australian Premier Mark McGowan, who were both affectionately referred to as "daddies" for keeping their states safe during the COVID-19 pandemic.
So, what is a "State Daddy"? The term "daddy" has long been used by some in the LGBTQIA+ and kink communities, but has now entered the mainstream as a term of endearment for usually older, sexually attractive men who are nurturing and provide guidance. In my current research, I define a State Daddy as a semi-attractive, caring and progressive male political leader who directly contrasts the daggy dad persona adopted by those who are conservative, cringey, definitely not sexy, and uphold traditional gender and family norms.
Though the State Daddy label is partly tongue-in-cheek, it perfectly captures the caring style of masculinity that has emerged over the past year among male ALP leaders. There are also many comparable examples outside Australia, such as Canada's Justin Trudeau, former-US president Barack Obama, and France's Emmanuel Macron (who recently bared his chest for an official photo on the campaign trail).
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As a State Daddy, Albanese integrates values of care and interdependence. "Care" even prominently features in the ALP's election campaign platform with a focus on aged care, healthcare, and childcare, all of which are primarily women-dominated industries that Morrison has repeatedly failed to support and engage. As such, Albanese successfully mobilises his caring form of masculinity against Morrison's increasingly faltering protective masculinity, highlighting weaknesses such as his so-called "women problem".
This can even be seen in Albanese's makeover, referred to as a "glow up", in the months prior to the election campaign. He lost 18kg, adopted a stylish wardrobe, and even picked up a suave new pair of glasses, all of which starkly contrasts with the disheveled look preferred by Morrison and other right-wing leaders, such as the UK's Boris Johnson or former-US president Donald Trump.
Seeking to appeal to the female gaze, Albanese posed for a Women's Weekly photoshoot and an "at home" interview for the March 2022 edition, looking fit, well-dressed, and modern. Once the magazine hit the stands, many took to social media to profess their attraction to his new look. This is what the youth call a "thirst trap", broadly defined as a sexy photograph or video posted on social media with the intent of inspiring ("trapping") attraction ("thirst"). It's not the first time a Labor leader has set such a trap. In the lead-up to the South Australian election, then-Opposition Leader Peter Malinauskas was photographed at the Adelaide aquatic centre, posing shirtless to show off his impressive physique, which received significant media and social media attention. While thirst traps might not necessarily win elections, they can be a useful tool for State Daddies to differentiate themselves from the daggy dads. It's important to note, however, that such a strategy is not available to women politicians, who would risk objectification and attacks on their credibility and legitimacy.
Albanese clearly wants to win the election and, unlike Morrison, to appeal to women voters - and the female gaze. Looking at recent polls, it appears this is working. Roy Morgan's April poll on federal voting intention found that, on a two-party preferred basis, 60.5 percent of women preferred the ALP while the gap was smaller for men, with a 53 percent preference. Morrison's tactic to target men also seems to be working, as The Guardian Essential poll found a significant gender split in his approval rates, with men at a plus 6-point approval and women at a net 13-point disapproval. Morrison's "women problem" has not gone away, which is not surprising considering he hasn't put in any effort to attract women voters either before or during the campaign.
While Morrison focuses on swinging male voters, women are twice as likely to be undecided in the lead-up to the election. This should firmly place their issues - like childcare, aged care, healthcare and female-dominated industries - at the centre of the campaign, yet the Coalition continues to prioritise men with an overall blokey platform. It is wise, then, for Albanese to counter Morrison's daggy dad persona with one that appeals to women and emphasises care at a time of pandemic, when it's sorely needed. And it might even win him the election.
- Dr Blair Williams is a research fellow and lecturer in Australian politics and gender-specific studies at the Australian National University.