What can the US learn from Abbott’s win?

By Heather Long
The Guardian

America’s conservative press has been salivating over Tony Abbott’s win as the new prime minister of Australia.

At first glance, he seems like a right-wing dream.

Here is a leader who campaigned for an end to the “faddish politics of climate change” (to quote the Wall Street Journal’s editorial) by ending the carbon tax.

Here is a man who “refused to apologize” for his pro-life and anti-gay marriage beliefs.

Here is a man who turned Australia back to its rightful place after six years of progressive government.

It’s exactly what America’s Republican party hopes to do in the next election.

But the GOP is making a big mistake by focusing only on the parts of Abbott’s platform it likes.

There are many factors that go into any election victory, but the one that American conservatives should be paying attention to is how Tony Abbott won over Australian women.

Abbott was hardly an ideal candidate for women.

He’s a former Catholic seminarian who has been dubbed a “misogynist” numerous times by the press and even on the floor of the Australian parliament by former Prime Minister Julia Gillard.

In August, he was caught praising a female candidate’s “sex appeal”.

His problems weren’t too far off from the “war on women” branding of the American GOP that cost it heavily in the last election.

President Obama easily won every group of female voters except married women.

So how did Abbott get women to give him a second look? He promised to support a large extension of paid maternity leave.

For many years, Australia and America were the only industrialized economies that didn’t have any mandatory paid maternity leave for women (or men).

Then Australia passed the Paid Paternal Leave Act in 2010, giving up to 18 weeks of paid leave.

Abbott has vowed to extend that to six months.

It’s an issue that comes up frequently in the US media.

Nothing has changed here: Americans get up to 12 weeks off for births, adoptions or other family related issues, but it’s unpaid and only guaranteed if you work for a company with more than 50 employees.

You would have to have your head in the proverbial sand not to have read at least one news story or commentary in the past year about how women (and men) struggle with “work-life balance”.

There’s a reason even Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In book includes passages about trying to secretly use a breast pump at work.

This is a big issue for women. It’s one that goes right to the heart of supporting workers and better families.

Research for years has stressed the importance of parental bonding with newborns and how a parent at home, even for a short while, leads to better baby health.

When Tony Abbott went against his party on this one – or at least certain business lobbies – it sent a powerful message to women.

They knew he “got it” on some level, and they gave him a second chance. Ultimately, it lifted his party to a 53% victory.

That’s the kind of margin American Republicans would be lucky to have again, especially considering Mitt Romney only garnered 44% and John McCain in 2008 only 43% of the overall female vote.

When you ask members of the GOP about this issue, they are often dismissive.

I interviewed Pennsylvania Senator Pat Toomey, a rising Republican star, when he was running for office in 2010 and asked if he would support paid maternity leave, especially given his pro-life views.

He said no because he didn’t want to saddle businesses with any more regulations.

It’s a stock answer that misses the reality of business today.

While some companies, most notably the usual offenders of poor labor practices, are against paid maternity or paternity leave, many of the top companies in America already offer it.

They know it’s cheaper to keep good workers on board, even if they’re out for a few weeks, than to go through a lengthy hiring and training process.

It wouldn’t be that far of a stretch for the GOP to back paid maternity leave, at least for a few weeks.

In fact, it goes along pretty well with the notion of supporting babies – in the womb or outside of it.

Immigration reform is often held up as a chance for the Republican party to reach out to Latino voters, but support for paid maternity leave could be a similar bridge issue for women.

Tony Abbott understood those dynamics, and his party is back in power.

America’s conservatives might want to take note.


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