How Australia’s winking Tony Abbott became one of the world’s most unpopular prime ministers

Finally, the madness has taken its name: Winkgate. The gate opened when Australia’s prime minister, who has recently bungled his way from one scandal to the next, took a call from a listener on a radio show that was filmed.

The caller was worried about money. She was a grandmother. And a sex hotline worker. “I am a 67-year-old pensioner, three chronic incurable medical conditions — two life-threatening,” the caller, named Gloria, said. “I just survive on about $400 a fortnight after I pay my rent. And I work on an adult sex line to make ends meet.”

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott sparked controversy in the blink of an eye, as he appeared to make light of the plight of a 67-year-old sex hotline worker. (Reuters)

 

Abbott, who took office last September, then smirked for the briefest of moments and winked — unleashing a tidal wave of criticism, tweets and headlines.

This, of course, is nothing new for Tony Abbott, who’s quickly becoming one of the world’s most hated prime ministers. He just unveiled a draconian austerity budget that analysts call the most extreme and least popular of the past four decades in Australia. His approval rating has plunged to 30 percent. And then there’s the irreverent hashtag #MorePopularThanAbbott, which suggests that both toilet paper and flat tires are more popular than the prime minister.

On Wednesday, Abbott was backtracking fast on Winkgate. He said he was only winking at a smiling radio co-host, a parry that veered from his office’s explanation of the controversial eye movement.

“It was a reaction to Jon, really,” Abbott said, referring to the co-host. “Obviously, it was an interesting call from someone who had an interesting story.” He later added: “I shouldn’t have done it. I should have been more focused on the caller and less focused on the interviewer. Mistakes are always regrettable … and I will do my best having made a mistake yesterday to make none today.”

If only that were to happen.

On Wednesday, another scandal exploded. The Guardian dropped a story saying Abbott’s daughter had received a $60,000 “chairman’s scholarship” to a prestigious design school where a big Abbott donor chairs the board of governors.

Team Abbott said she snared the scholarship on merit alone, but classmates question that assertion. “Having studied in the same classes alongside Tony Abbott’s daughter,” one said, “I can assure you that … [there were] some extremely talented people who were more deserving of a $60,000 scholarship.”

Abbott is also taking heat from environmentalists. He once referred to climate change as “crap,” and has since come under criticism for his decision to allow the dredging of the famed Great Barrier Reef. Later, news hit that dredging has had significantly more impact on the Great Barrier than earlier claimed, and that it faced “unprecedented” threats.

Making environmentalists even madder, Abbott wants to allow some logging in national forests. He also abolished Australia’s climate commission and defunded scientific research.

Abbott’s also restored the honorific title of “dame.” But some women, it turns out, don’t much like the guy either. Here’s some classic Abbottisms on women, sex, and gays:

1970s: “I think it would be folly to expect that women will ever dominate or even approach equal representation in a large number of areas simply because their aptitudes, abilities and interests are different for physiological reasons.”

2002: Virginity “is the greatest gift you can give someone.”

2010: “What the housewives of Australia need to understand as they do the ironing is that if they get it done commercially it’s going to go up in price and their own power bills when they switch the iron on are going to go up.”

2010: “I probably feel a bit threatened” by homosexuals.

All of which brings us to Stop Tony Meow. Downloaded more than 50,000 times, it’s a browser extension that automatically replaces online pictures of Abbott with kittens and has flummoxed the prime minister to no end. When its creator submitted a public records request for correspondence mentioning “Stop Tony Meow,” he received 130 pages from Abbott’s office.

“We had the usual political flacks and apparatchiks go on about how it’s disrespectful and blah blah but honestly it’s just replacing a picture of a bloke with a kitten, it’s not offensive, it’s not rude, it’s not stereotyping or demeaning the guy,” Nolan told The Washington Post’s Gail Sullivan last month.

#MorePopularThanAbbott, however, hasn’t been so kind.

Terrence McCoy is a foreign affairs writer at the Washington Post. He served in the U.S. Peace Corps in Cambodia and studied international politics at Columbia University. Follow him on Twitter here.
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