The Tony Abbott gender gap


'Abbot's gender gap' by Chris JohnstonThe emphasis on the relationship between Tony Abbott and women is fuelled by opinion polls that consistently show that he is less popular with women voters. Newspoll has him trailing Julia Gillard among women as better prime minister by 41–34 per cent. The same poll showed Gillard trailing Abbott among men by 42–36 per cent.

But gender is only one factor. Public opinion polls and academic voting studies reveal many ways in which support for political parties and leaders varies according to demographic categories. Other common newspaper poll categories include age, state and urban-rural location. Academic studies add other categories such as religious denomination and church attendance.

Some of these variations are fairly stable over time and don't vary much according to party leader. For instance rural voters, especially farmers, traditionally support the Coalition parties disproportionately.

The fact that Abbott and Gillard are now the leaders offers voters more variation than ever before with one of the leaders being a woman. In other ways, too, including religious belief, there are differences. Although both are city representatives of similar age, Abbott is from Sydney and Gillard is from Melbourne. All of these differences may produce variations in voter support for the leaders and for the parties they lead.

Abbott's relative unpopularity with women does appear to have a personal component, even though women voters have become increasingly attracted to Labor since 30 years ago when it was Labor not Abbott that suffered from a negative gender gap.

There are plausible reasons for his apparent 'gender trouble'. His personal style has long been characterised as macho and aggressive, a style that many women voters do not find attractive. Well before he became leader his role was that of his party's head-kicker. His personal policy preferences include emphatic opposition to abortion, a position that is not popular with many feminist women, but which has not become his party's policy.

It is plausible that this combination has contributed to his 'gender gap' with women voters. Each of these attributes are popular with some women, it is true, but probably not with a majority of women.

However, undue concentration on the role of gender in shaping voter choice serves to downplay other very interesting variations.

Age is one. Gillard is much more popular than Abbott among younger voters. The same recent Newspoll survey showed Gillard was rated better PM over Abbott among 18–34-year-olds by 41–35 per cent (almost the same as her gender advantage). Similarly Abbott was ahead of Gillard as better PM among those 50 and older by 40–36 per cent. Age is as big a factor as gender.

The same is true of the location of voters. The same Newspoll reported that in the five state capital cities excluding Hobart, Gillard led Abbott by a margin of 41–36 per cent. Similarly among non-capital city voters Abbott leads Gillard by about the same margin, in this case 41–34 per cent.

Finally, in Victoria, her home state, Gillard led Abbott by a huge 45–33 per cent. But in Abbott's home state of NSW, he led Gillard by a much smaller 39–38 per cent.

Some of these variations are no surprise and are part of the accepted wisdom of voter studies. Older voters and rural voters are disproportionately more politically conservative than younger voters.

These statistical differences may be less personal than gender and thus attract less attention. It is the duelling personalities of Abbott and Gillard that contribute especially to the focus on gender. But ultimately these other characteristics will be equally important in determining the outcome of the next federal election.

Gillard and Abbott should do all in their power to increase their popularity in the voting segments in which they are weaker. For Gillard her weakness lies among older, rural, male voters. For Abbott his weakness lies with younger, metropolitan, women voters.

John Warhurst headshotJohn Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University and a columnist with the Canberra Times.

Topic tags: John Warhurst, Tony Abbott, Julia Gillard



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Existing comments

Australia has followed many of the political developments, even fashions, of the United States. Currently, and unfortunately, this now includes over-emphasis on party leaders rather than policies.. The likely performance in government now seem to take second place, if mentioned at all, and parties in both countries are hardly questioned about how they will govern. In particular, the conservative parties in both nations are tight-lipped. If they win, in either country, we can be sure the super-rich will benefit - and ordinary families will suffer. All of us - individuals and groups including the news media - must ask for more information before elections come around. This does not seem to be happening in the United States and here in Australia we are following this dangerous example.
Bob Corcoran | 29 October 2012

While in the main, I agree with the above analysis, the fact is that there are many educated women, and I include myself in that category, who abhore Gillard's behaviour as a woman who had let women down. Her language, her style of living, her falling back on misogyny "poor little me" attitude is less than naive, but is downright hypocrisy - indicative of a woman who is determined to have her own way at the cost of all ethical standards, There is no morality or feminity in Gillard and the only way she can get at Abbott is to attack his personality. He's led a fairly impeccable life, there's not much she can attack him about. Abbott is a masculine man - Gillard is less than feminine, a very unattractive woman to Abbott. She can't cope with that. Abbott will be our salvation.
Shirley McHugh | 29 October 2012

Surprise, surprise - this article was written by a man; it might have had credibility if it had been written by a woman - but that would undermine his argument.
PHILIP NEWMAN | 29 October 2012

"Gillard and Abbott should do all in their power to increase their popularity in the voting segments in which they are weaker".****** Politics is basically variations on the theme, "Whoever promises to tax Pater and reward Paul, will always get the vote of Paul." With Abbott it's tax the poor and reward the rich. With Gillard it's tax the rich and reward the poor. Unfortunately for Gillard, many who were poor, eg. Catholics, have now become more affluent, and begin to lean towards "Liberal" policies. It is harder to identify "the poor" now, as they hsve received so many rewards they tend to be self-satisfied, and no longer bind together to form voter 'blocks'.
Robert Liddy | 29 October 2012

As an educated woman I have virtually nothing in common with Julia Gillard. Her values are truly offensive to me and there is no way in the world I would vote for her. I think there is a Christian - secular liberal divide in pattern of voting. Among Christians as among other religious groups there are those whose worldview veers towards the secular liberal side and others who are at various points on the continuum on the Christian side. As someone who had some Labor sympathy in the past and even voted Labor, in my view this has been the worst government Australia has ever had. Perhaps it reflects the times and the general loss of core values in our society.
Skye | 29 October 2012

It's amazing how quickly the political spin doctors jump in with their comments when they receive their morning google search alert for "Abbott" and "Gillard". But I think one commenter had their search set on "femininity" instead of "feminism". I think some Australian women are threatened by a strong woman, but the majority admire it - because Julia is just a typical Aussie woman and it shows how some people cringe at their own culture.
AURELIUS | 29 October 2012

What an appaling comment Shirley. Gillard can't cope with not being attractive to Abbott. You've been reading too many Mills and Boon books I think. Whether Julia is attractive or not isn't the issue. She's not in a beauty contest. She's the Prime Minister of Australia. And as for Abbott being our must be speaking for the rich and tax resistant.
Bernadette | 29 October 2012 and I are on the same page for once!
Bernadette | 29 October 2012

Tony Abbott as "our salvation"????!!! Oh, please. As an educated woman I have very little in common with Ms Gillard apart from my age, gender and degree. Yet I don't abhor her for her her unmarried childless atheism (in no particular order). I don't regard her as being any more hypocritical than any of the rest of pollies and she's probably no worse in that department than any of us posting here today. However Catholic Tony is ,to me, an abomination and I abhor what he stands for.
JR | 29 October 2012

Women like Skye and McHugh confirm my belief that their 'feminism' is the result of a gender-led Stockholm Syndrome. For years they would have been nurtured in the belief that there are certain things that they (women) can do and some things that only men can. The fact that a woman like the PM (note that they completely disregard the prime-ministerial office and sought to debase it) seeks to restore some balance in the gender-fuelled debate is regarded as hypocritical and morally wanting. When some women protest, they accuse them as playing the victim. I'm surprise that they do not extend those remarks to assault or rape victims.
Alex Njoo | 29 October 2012

One thing that does not get much comment is the fact that Ms Gillard squeezed into office by the thinnest margin, and looked likely to find government impossible. Certainly Mr Abbott thought he could make it so, and was of the belief the Gillard Government would be gone within a year. Mr Abbot now finds himself the modern day equivalent of the besieger of an apparently poorly defended castle, which somehow he cannot bring down. And worse, the natives who, he said, he came to liberate, are getting restless, and likely to change allegiance on the slightest pretext. Some people claim Ms Gillard has been an ineffectual PM. Maybe so. Certainly Mr Abbott has failed to achieve his primary objective as Opposition Leader (cum besieger of castles).
Vincenzo Vittorio | 29 October 2012

Gillard was actually born in Wales and raised in Adelaide. Yes,she now lives in Melbourne.
Mike H | 29 October 2012

Electing the next government is not a beauty contest between the two leaders. We would have been better informed to know what is the position seat by seat(or at least what it appears would be the result of an election if held now). I suppose that is not sexy enough. The polls that are the subject of endless discussion (this article included) are meaningless.
jl trew | 29 October 2012

"...emphatic opposition to abortion, a position that is not popular with many feminist women" Abbott's position on abortion is surely not popular with the great majority of women, so no need for the word 'feminist' there.
Russell | 29 October 2012

A mild and even-handed appraisal. I diverge to say that despite Abbott's "empathic" opposition to abortion,it is this and his unequivocal Catholicism that makes him the object of some bitter sectarianism, which bubbles just below the surface of perceived public opinion. My deep concern is that Abbott may lead our country as the next Prime Minister. Why?... Because he is the strong and ethical leader we will need IF Australia falls into mortal danger from external aggression, and I believe that it is his election which would predicate such a situation.
Claude Rigney | 29 October 2012

I agree with Shirley "Abbott will be our salvation" Many educated men and women want an Election now.
Ron Cini | 29 October 2012

Thank you to Professor Warhurst for his helpful analysis of where our political leaders stand in relation to significant sections of the voters. I wonder, though, how much this will affect an election result. People presumably vote for party of choice to govern, which in turn may be affected by perceptions of party through its leaders and, less likely, local candidates. I suspect that the perception of the leader probably will have a measurable affect on voter choice, but I don't know.
Fr John Fleming | 29 October 2012

Tony Abbott has "led a fairly impeccable life, there's not much she can attack him about." Yeah, sure.
COMIX FOR ADULTS | 29 October 2012

When the last election results produced a draw between the two major parties, victory went to the leader who could come to some sensible and reasonable negotiated agreement with the independants. Rob Oakeshott reported that Mr Abbott said he would offer him anything he wanted. This was the action of a man either desperate to win at any cost or with poor negotiating skills - or both. Ever since then, Mr Abbott has behaved like a bad loser. He has made a travesty of the role of Opposition, which could harm the quality of political debate in Australia for years to come. I write as a female reader.I do find his parliamentary rudeness to female members unpalatable but overall it is less concerning than his other flaws as a leader.
P Russell | 29 October 2012

I agree with Shirley. It's the nasty attacks on Abbot, the 'poor me' attitude, as the class war language and playing the gender card that has finished Gillard for me. What I don't understand is, how a person like Tony Abbot whom I admire for his charity work not only in the city but in the Cape area with Noel Pearson, can generate so much ill-feeling. Is it his stance on abortion? I admire a man who has the courage of his convictions and is courageous enough to articulate this in the face of a sniggering and vilifing public. While I believe as a community, we should be as helpful as possible to any woman contemplating this action and walk the journey with her to assist and care for her, I would still advocate for the rights of the unborn person.
Millie | 29 October 2012

Alex Njoo- I have a right to hold my strongly held views - which simply are polar opposites to those of Gillard. I am not an apron wearing scone cooker, nor any of the caricuatures you may have in mind. I am a woman, am educated, I think and I don't agree with Gillard in her view of the world. It has nothing to do with her being a woman - it has everything to do with her 'mind' and her appalling 'leadership of this country'
Skye | 30 October 2012


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