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Macho, yes, but Abbott's not mincing nor misogynist

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BRISBANE -- More macho man than misogynist, Australia's Opposition leader, Tony Abbott, has a problem but it's not because he "hates women.''

Shots in the gender wars have been cracking across the Australian political landscape in the past few weeks.

The background to the latest skirmish is too tedious to relate, but it culminated with Prime Minister Julia Gillard delivering an impressive shot at Abbott's alleged misogyny, which went global.

The 15-minute tirade early last week blasted Abbott's comments on abortion, women's roles in the home and their ability to wield authority. Amid the rich pickings of quotes was one that made it into the Winnipeg Free Press.

"If he wants to know what misogyny looks like in modern Australia, he doesn't need a motion in the House of Representatives, he needs a mirror."

The American website for women, Jezebel, lauded Gillard as "one badass mother...'' and labelled her anti-sexism speech "epic.''

To cap it off, former world champion boxer Mike Tyson, who is visiting Down Under, lent his not inconsiderable weight to Gillard's attack. One might accuse the apparently rehabilitated Tyson of misogyny in his past, but no reasonable person could accuse Abbott of harbouring a "hatred of women'' -- the Collins English Dictionary definition.

Journalists covering the 2010 election noted the way his daughters doted on their father, while his wife recently spoke of Abbott's loving nature.

One could, however, charge Abbott with exuding a powerful machismo, which Collins defines as "strong or exaggerated male pride or masculinity.''

Abbott has said insulting things about women, but put the same words in the mouth of a Woody Allen and they'd pass as whimsical observations about the gulf between the sexes.

It's his machismo, not his misogyny, that's so confronting. To watch Abbott walk into a room is to witness a man anticipating an outbreak of physical violence.

His body language is still seen in thousands of mainly middle-aged corporate executives determined to create a perception of dominance.

The rolling, wide-legged gait, elbows jutting out from the torso, the strong handshake are all used by men attempting to create the illusion of power, knowing full well they'll never have to prove their strength in physical combat.

But machismo is not all counterfeit currency -- it's been underwritten for thousands of years by a gold standard of violence.

A demonstrated ability to engage in or confront violence has served male politicians well long before Henry VII and his band of wise guys whacked Richard III on Bosworth Field. Teddy Roosevelt bringing in the outlaws from the badlands of Dakota, Jack Kennedy's bravery in the Second World War, Winston Churchill's insistence on serving on the Western Front all added polish to their popular appeal.

When studying at Oxford, Abbott chose not badminton but boxing as his preferred recreation and clearly enjoyed the sport. Listen to his description of a bout as told to Channel Nine a few years ago:

"So I got into the ring, determined to hit my opponent harder and more often than he could possibly hit me. I went out like a whirling dervish, kept hitting him again and again and again with just a left-right succession. And then I got him this magnificent left uppercut and he seemed to go up in the air, across the ring and almost through the ropes.''

Abbott is no thug, but knowing he can knock a man to the ground in the disciplined confines of the ring no doubt informs his supremely self-assured view of his place in the world.

Gillard acknowledged his super-jock credentials once in parliament, ridiculing an opposition MP as a "mincing poodle'' while referring to Abbott as a Doberman.

"In a choice between macho and mincing, I would have gone for macho myself,'' she said.

Unfortunately for Abbott, the modern macho man is rapidly becoming good for little more than Village People satire. The impact of two generations of feminism have sidelined the tough guys as younger males, many accustomed to female bosses, learn a more co-operative style of leadership.

And the polls clearly show women are turned off by Abbott's aggressive leadership style. If he doesn't moderate it, he may well lose his chance at the prime ministership.

Michael Madigan is the Free Press correspondent in Australia. He writes mostly about politics for the Brisbane-based Courier Mail.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 19, 2012 A13

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