Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott's creepy wink depicted above is being cited in the American media as an example of the kind of crass blundering that's driving his approval ratings down. You can watch the whole incident here. Abbott is doing a radio interview with a woman who's struggling economically and concerned about the cuts to social spending in his budget. To illustrate her plight, she explains that she works on an adult phone sex line to make ends meet. Verbally, he's sympathetic and engaged. But he's winking to the camera. And certainly this is hardly the first time Abbott's been found engaged in some untoward behavior.
Back last year, Australian journalist Amanda Wilson wrote that Abbott was "a throwback to older, safer times when a knockabout Aussie bloke could call a sheila 'a good sort' and no one among those who understood the slang for a good-looking woman would blink."
Except Wilson's point at the time was that this was part of Abbott's political appeal. Her column appeared right after this speech from then-Prime Minister Julia Gillard was going viral:
Wilson's point was that as popular as Gillard's denunciation of Abbott might make her with North American or European feminists, Australians loved Abbott's schtick. And yet now that Abbott, rather than Gillard, is the one in office and unpopular we're supposed to believe it's because people are sick of his schtick.
It's the economy, stupid
So are Abbott's old-school ways a source of weakness or part of his appeal? The reality is that this just isn't how politics works — not in Australia and not in the United States either. Abbott's fortunes rose as an opposition leader for the exact same reason they've sunk as a prime minister — the Australian economy is ailing. Australia exports a lot of natural resources to China, so as Chinese economic growth has slowed down over the past couple of years it's put downward pressure on Australian employment and incomes. The IMF recently came out with a downbeat report saying growth won't pick up enough to reduce unemployment any time soon.
The problem for any sitting prime minister is that it's not obvious that the Australian government can really do much of anything to improve the situation. It'd be nice for China to return to double-digit growth, but that's as much out of Abbott's hands as it was out of Gillard's.
The further irony here is that Australia's economic problems are not especially severe.
The thing is that thanks to the excellent monetary policy management of the Reserve Bank of Australia, they haven't had a recession in well over 20 years. So at this point even slowdowns that we would consider very mild in the USA cause problems for politicians. And when politicians run into problems, suddenly their personal characteristics get labeled liabilities.