Until last weekend, most Australians knew little about Peta Credlin, Tony Abbott's 1.8m (6ft) tall, fiercely loyal and formidably bright chief of staff.

Now, thanks to an interview in News Ltd's Sunday tabloids, millions are aware of her agonising attempts to conceive via IVF - and of the role played by her boss, who gave her pep talks and even stored her fertility drugs in his parliamentary bar fridge.

The Abbott glowingly described by Credlin in her lengthy interview - more will follow in Marie Claire magazine this week - was very different from the popular image, one which Labor politicians are keen to reinforce, of a boorish, bullying and deeply conservative man with an inability to connect with women and take them seriously.

On the contrary, according to Credlin, a veteran political staffer, the Opposition Leader and staunch Catholic is sensitive and compassionate, with liberal views on reproductive issues. He supports contraception, has no wish to ban or limit abortion and - contrary to some of his public remarks - is "passionate for IVF". He once wept with Credlin following yet another failed round of fertility treatment.


While few could have failed to be moved by her story, some voiced cynicism about her decision to tell it, and tell it now. For, as Credlin herself declared: "I've got one job this year, and that's to change the government." With an election due before October, party strategists are worried about Abbott's unpopularity with women. So the battle to reassure them has begun.

On the Labor side, there is equal determination to exploit Julia Gillard's notorious "misogyny speech" to Parliament last October, which transformed her into an unlikely feminist icon and international YouTube star. The next federal poll, the Age's veteran political editor, Michelle Grattan, wrote recently, will be "the first serious gender election in our history".

In her blistering speech - sparked by Abbott's condemnation of her for defending the then Speaker, Peter Slipper, following revelations that he and his former parliamentary staffer, James Ashby, had exchanged text messages deeply offensive to women - Gillard declared: "I will not be lectured about sexism and misogyny by this man ... Not now, not ever."

She went on to list multiple instances of the former Catholic seminarian offending her by, for example, calling on her to "make an honest woman of herself", describing abortion as "the easy way out", characterising Australian women as "housewives ... [who] do the ironing" and standing beside anti-carbon tax placards stating: "Ditch the witch".

The speech had such a powerful effect on women in Australia and beyond, according to Anne Summers, a journalist and author, because "here was a female leader for the first time in our history, and one of the few anywhere apart from Hillary Clinton, standing up for women and championing women's rights, and ... doing it in a very passionate way".

Since then, Gillard has courted female voters in a way she never has before - inviting influential female bloggers to drinks parties at her Sydney residence, Kirribilli House, and vowing to rid Australia of the practice of female genital mutilation.

Whether such tactics will help win her a second term is uncertain.

Although she leads Abbott by nine or 10 points as preferred prime minister, according to two opinion polls late last year, Labor is still languishing behind the Coalition and will have to achieve a dramatic turnaround to avoid a trouncing at the election.

"The next six months will be a make or break time, as to whether she can connect with Australian voters and really lift the party vote," says John Wanna, a politics professor at the Australian National University. "Only she can do that, but just attacking Abbott isn't the way to achieve it."

Nick Economou, a Monash University political scientist, said: "[Labor] will try to capitalise on her [misogyny] speech and her enhanced standing among women. But Labor are going to lose ... and they know it, and they're trying all sorts of stunts to get around the key problem that they've broken faith with the electorate."

Even if his predictions are fulfilled, Gillard's speech will be remembered as a spellbinding piece of oratory and for the way it stirred debate about lingering inequalities in Australian society, such as a 17.5 per cent pay gap between men and women and the fact women make up less than 10 per cent of directors of the country's top 500 companies.

Summers - who in a lecture to the University of Newcastle last August delivered a devastating critique of the way Gillard has been "vilified" and "demeaned" by opposition politicians, commentators, cartoonists and bloggers because of being a woman - says the speech was "one of a number of things [last year] which became rallying points for women, particularly younger women, in a way that we've just not seen in decades".

Others included the creation of an online group called Destroy the Joint, inspired by the right-wing shock jock Alan Jones, who complained that women such as Gillard, Sydney's Lord Mayor Clover Moore, and the former Victorian Police Commissioner, Christine Nixon, were "destroying the joint".

Jenna Price, a journalist and academic who helped set up the group, says: "I think people are quite shocked that the progress for women has not been as good or as fast as we had imagined." She says a reason for the dearth of women in politics - they make up 30 per cent of Labor politicians and 7 per cent of Liberals - is "the constant comments on the size of their arse and whether or not they've got children".

Both Labor and the Coalition will highlight "women's issues" such as paid parental leave.

Abbott, no doubt, will enlist his wife, Margie, and three daughters to boost his female-friendly credentials.

The impact of Credlin's foray into battle on the former health minister's behalf remains to be seen.

Headlines such as "Abbott, My IV Confidant" may help to counter his past remarks, such as branding Australia's abortion rate "a legacy of unutterable shame" and describing protests at a plan to to limit IVF cycles for women over 42 as emanating from "the 'I'm over 40 and I need my baby' brigade".

Nicola Roxon, the Attorney-General, said these were "the sorts of comments that people will judge Mr Abbott on. If he's changed his view, well then, that's obviously a matter for him to ... see if he can convince the public."